2020: A Year to Forget?

Skull, Toronto, April 2020

IT’S ALMOST OVER – I HAVE TO KEEP REMINDING MYSELF OF THAT. But I know, of course, that I’m lying to myself. Yes – the calendar year 2020 is almost over, but the conditions that have given it such a baleful character are not. The Covid-19 pandemic crisis – however you want to define it – isn’t over, however, and as I write this I couldn’t tell you when it will. Perhaps it’s when we’re we’re all vaccinated, or when cases diminish to a certain level, or when the patience of the public shades from resignation to resentment to real anger. Whenever it ends – and I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to see the end of lockdowns and masks and social distancing – the calendar year 2020 will be its emblematic number.

Much as I want to forget 2020, I know I won’t, and neither will you. The downsides of this year – a nearly complete loss of income, the ebb and flow of a lingering funk that I only hesitate to call depression because I don’t want to give it that much significance – are undeniable. But did anything good come out of 2020? I can’t speak for my family life (since that, ultimately, is the only real life I’ve had since March) or personal growth – this isn’t the forum for that. But what about the work? What did 2020 produce, and what does it mean?

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2019
John Borra, Toronto, January 2020
High Park, Toronto, January 2020
Motorama, Toronto, March 2020

The year began normally enough, with promise of new projects to come. I began on this blog with a selection from my ongoing “Right Behind You” series – pictures of people in public places, usually art galleries, which I’ve been working on for years now. There was no reason to imagine that I wouldn’t be able to take lots of photos of people – alone, in groups or crowds – in 2020. I also posted my session with John Borra – the beginning of a new portrait series featuring musicians I’ve known or admired here in town for many years. It was the work I was most excited about pursuing in the new year.

I was also working with a camera club hosted by my friend Dave at his Shacklands Brewery, shooting a bit of film and doing some actual mentoring with younger photographers. Finally, as I do every year, I brought my camera along to the annual auto show and, a short time later, the Motorama car show, which would turn out to be the last event open to the public I’d attend in 2020, just before the organizers were forced to shut their doors. Last I heard, the auto show is toying with some sort of virtual event, while Motorama has been canceled for 2021. Obviously, 2020 is not going down without a fight.

Rose, Toronto, March 2020
Scrapbook, Toronto, April 2020
Skull still life, Toronto, April 2020
Tulip, Toronto, April 2020
Spring buds, Toronto, May 2020
Alleyway trash, Toronto, May 2020
At work in the kitchen studio, Toronto, May 2020 (photo by CJ)

Confronted with the insecurity and confusion of the first lockdown, I did what most people did – went to ground. It was, after all, just “two weeks to flatten the curve,” so I figured I’d wait things out at home – or rather, in our kitchen, where I began a weekly series of still life shoots, starting with a vase of dried-out flowers I’d given my wife for her birthday a few months previous. From there I moved on to one of the old scrapbooks I’d been collecting for their striking collages of chance images, and then to the skull I’d kept on my desk for nearly thirty years.

A friend dropped off several bouquets of flowers for me to shoot after I made an appeal for new subjects on Facebook, and when the first warm days came, I collected spring buds to photograph, hoping that the images of new life would send out a hopeful message. Finally, I spent a couple of days with the trash I’d collected in the alleyway behind our house, much of it covered in snow for most of what had seemed like a long winter.

Toronto, March 2020
Yonge St. looking south from Dundas, Toronto, May 2020
Yonge & Dundas, Toronto, May 2020

After two months where I barely left our neighbourhood, it seemed time to venture out and see what had happened to the city since lockdown began. I’d been managing regular walks along the rail and hydroelectric corridors near our home – easy to manage in a mostly snowless winter, and probably essential to mental health. It was shocking to see the empty downtown, with streets free of traffic and boarded-up storefronts. It was also sobering – and more than a bit depressing – to see all the masks. While it seemed obligatory to capture at least a few images of my fellow citizens wearing the disposable blue PPE masks that will evoke 2020 the way a safety pin evokes punk rock, I knew by the time I made it back home that I would find no joy in documenting masked people.

Pears (Gossip), Toronto, May 2020
Lettuce, Toronto, May 2020
Poppy, Toronto, June 2020
Thistle, Toronto, August 2020

So I returned to the kitchen studio. During the first weeks of lockdown, a great shift took place; we brought our offices home, and tried to figure out how to get things delivered to those homes, from essentials like food and medicine to the non-essentials that were still crucial to surviving without social or public lives – entertainment and distractions. New delivery services and distribution networks sprung up, and I started shooting our groceries as they were dropped off on the porch. With the first blooms of spring and early summer, I collected cuttings from the garden, or simply took my studio gear and cameras out there to shoot the colour and growth that, this year more than ever, we eagerly noticed.

Heather, Nyiah, Isaya, Koa Béo & Mischa, Earlscourt, June 2020
Peter, Sarah & Karen, Earlscourt, June 2020
Steve, Earlscourt, June 2020
At work on “Neighbours” with my assistant, Agnes (photo by CJ)

By summer it had been months since I’d taken a portrait, so I turned to the closest subjects at hand – the people I’d been seeing almost as much as my family: my neighbours. We’d become more tuned into each other’s lives than ever before, aware of the delivery trucks that were our only visitors, and the routines of our sanity-preserving strolls and dog walks. I reached out to the neighbours we knew best and scheduled socially-distanced sessions in their backyards or on front porches, with my oldest acting as assistant and my youngest documenting the work. Doing portraits again was morale-boosting; the logistic and creative challenge jarred me out of a low-level funk, and inspired another new project.

Leslie Street Spit, Toronto, August. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Don River, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Mount Hope Cemetery, Oct. 2020
Tiffany Falls, Ancaster, ON, Nov. 2020
Rouge National Urban Park, Toronto, Nov. 2020

It was obvious by the spring that two weeks were going to turn into months, and that travel work wasn’t happening until at least next year. My travel photography blog had been dormant since the end of 2019, and with each month I worried that it would never revive itself. Wherever I went as a travel journalist, I was always asked what the best things to see and do were in Toronto, and I could never come up with an answer. With most of the usual tourist hotspots closed, answering that question was going to be hard, so I had to find places that were worth visiting, mostly for locals in need of open air escape from our suddenly circumscribed lives. I came up with a dozen stories – green spaces by water, mostly, with scenery and history that explained and enhanced the best of Toronto as a place. Every new hike was full of technical and creative challenges, and I became more than ever the nature photographer I never imagined.

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020
High Park, Toronto, April 2020
Apples, Toronto, May 2020
Toronto Islands, August 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Don River, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto, Sept. 2020

The most unexpected creative inspiration of 2020 came in the mail just before lockdown started. I ordered a Pinhole Pro X “lens” on Kickstarter last year – a relatively inexpensive toy that I bought on impulse. Since I didn’t go to school for photography, I never built a pinhole camera from a shoebox or a tin can. Maybe if I had, that experiment would have associated itself with rote classroom assignments and the frustrations of a steep learning curve at the start of a career.

Arriving in the middle of my fourth decade as a photographer, the pinhole ended up unlocking access to a look I’d been pursuing in my work for almost as long – a gauzy, ethereal aesthetic I associated with Victorian photographers and the pictorialists, and which I’d tried to explain for years by complaining that modern lenses were simply too sharp. I started playing with my new toy in the kitchen, shooting still life, then brought it along on a hike through High Park with the first days of spring. It had a place in my new backpack when I started the “Hometown Lockdown” series for the travel photography blog, along with a tripod, and I made a point of shooting with it whenever the particular circumstances necessary for a decent pinhole presented themselves.

If 2020 had been anything like a normal year, I wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to make scaling the learning curve with the pinhole anything like a priority. When lockdown started, I assumed that I’d concentrate on still lifes more than ever before, so any creative breakthroughs I made with that work was expected. The rewards of my pinhole journey were mostly unexpected, and exciting because I know that it’s early on, with so much more to come. And that, I suppose, is the best and most hopeful thing I can expect from 2020 – the top of a short list, to be sure, but when a year has been so stingy with rewards, you have to cherish what little you get from it at the end.

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