High Park

High Park, Toronto, May 2021

IF YOU’VE FOLLOWED MY WORK (AND THANK YOU IF YOU HAVE) YOU’LL KNOW I KEEP RETURNING TO HIGH PARK. Which is why it took me all summer to shoot a post about the place for my travel photography blog; telling people about a place you know very, very well in words and pictures is probably the opposite of a travel story, since there’s no sense of discovery. I guess I have the continued lockdowns and the difficulty traveling to thank for forcing me to look hard at a place like High Park.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t gone to the park – for family outings, for a place to relax, for a place to work and find inspiration. Some of my earliest memories involve High Park – it’s in the west end of Toronto, no further away than a bus ride from my childhood home near the Kodak plant, and families like mine have been going there for generations. The photos below – shot in the park when I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old, probably by my cousin Terry, the family photographer – constitute the only evidence I have of my earliest, most nebulous memories.

High Park, Toronto, approx 1966-67

I knew I couldn’t get what I wanted in one trip, so I decided to divide the park into four sectors and concentrate on just one or two with each visit. Starting in the spring I did some scouting trips with just my Fuji X30, taking “snapshots” of potential locations to return to later. I only came back with my full bag of lenses and gear near the end of the summer, after nearly a half dozen visits to the park, and even then I wasn’t sure that I’d really got everything I wanted; in the end, the post just captures High Park in its prime, trees in full leaf, green and sun-dappled.

The photos in this post are the ones adjacent to those snapshots – the sorts of odd views that I love to bring back from places when I travel. The logs on the ground in a clearing – evidence of the sort of work that has to be done by crews maintaining a public park – made me think about the park as a flat pack kit, the sort of thing you buy from Ikea: Førest. The pull-up bars in a wooden frame got me imagining how a modern architect would design and build a park, as a kind of formal deconstruction.

High Park, Toronto, May 2021

The old tree with its bark stripped away looked faintly obscene to me. As someone whose specialty is portraiture – not that I’ve done much of that lately – I can’t help but anthropomorphize something like a tree, imagining in my mind that I’ve caught this once-dignified old character in a compromising position. Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to let the nature lead you to where it looks most beguiling, where water and trees meet in a kind of collision of texture and reflections.

High Park, Toronto, May 2021
High Park, Toronto, June 2021

Ever since last summer, when I began my “Hometown Lockdown” series for the travel photo blog, my eye has been drawn even more to little details in the landscape. It’s not quite macro photography, but definitely shots taken at the closest possible focus with the lenses I’ve been using. Last year I added a Pentacon 50mm/1.8 lens to my kit (bought during a brief lens-buying frenzy during lockdown) and this year I traveled around the park with that and a Kern Switar 25mm lens that I found on an old Bolex 16mm camera I’ve owned since the ’90s but never really used.

They’re pretty pictures, which is both the nicest and worst thing I can say about them. I love taking pretty pictures, even if I fought against the impulse to do so for years – and still do today, in fits and starts. But I take them all the time when I’m out in a forest or a park because it helps give a tactile sense of that place that isn’t just vistas or panoramas – at least for me, as someone whose eye tends to wander to small details as much as I look for landscapes.

My last trips to the park with a full bag of gear meant bringing along my pinhole lenses – now up to three from the one I bought last year, just before the first lockdowns started. I haven’t used them as much as I wanted to at the beginning of the summer, so it was nice to be able to have them there whenever a pinhole-friendly shot presented itself. That said, there was something abstract I was finding in the pinhole series, both last summer and during my recent trip to Niagara Falls, that I didn’t get in the park this summer. I have to keep pushing to get there again.

High Park, Toronto, July 2021
High Park, Toronto, Sept. 2021

Finally, I have a need to come back from almost anywhere I shoot with a portrait, and I suppose the closest I got in High Park was with one of the pair of emus that live in the park’s zoo. Like most large birds, they’re more than a little threatening, probably because you’re basically dealing with a dinosaur. This particular bird had no fear of the camera, and spent much of the time I was in front of its enclosure right against the fence, fixing me with its unblinking reddish orange eyes and letting out a low, clicking growl. It was the best sort of portrait sitting – suitably intense, with a palpable hint of menace.

Emu, High Park Zoo, Sept. 2021
High Park, Toronto, June 2021
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