2021: Less, but More of it

Rose, September 2021

LAST YEAR AROUND THIS TIME I WROTE THAT “IT’S ALMOST OVER”. I could not have been more wrong. Right now we’re in the middle of the latest provincial lockdown; I’ve lost track of how many there have been. It’s been a hell of a year. And I’d like to add that I’m never angrier at myself than when I’ve been unnecessarily optimistic about anything.

2021 was supposed to be the year we got our lives back – the “return to normal” just over the horizon. At this point I think we can agree that whatever we’ll end up returning to, it won’t be “normal,” which is to say a reset to the world as we (unreliably, by now) remember it in the early winter of 2020. That world, I fear, is gone, and whatever replaces it will mostly involve figuring out what disappeared forever, what rules have been quietly rewritten, and just how much real damage we’ve sustained to our livelihoods, our institutions, and ourselves.

Port Lands, Toronto, May 2021

Back in the spring things seemed tentatively hopeful. To that end my friend and colleague Jonathan Castellino came to town and suggested we go for a walk with our cameras. We ended up in the Port Lands, a post-industrial neighbourhood on the verge of massive redevelopment where we’d both spent a lot of time in the past taking photos and finding the weird inspiration moribund parts of cities have in abundance.

I always have a good time with Jonathan – our work is different enough that there’s no sense of competition even as we contemplate the same subjects, but more of a curiosity about what we’re seeing and how we process it. I sat on these shots for months, and was surprised when I revisited them again at how they seemed to sum up the arid, uneasy feeling that 2021 left me with – summed up best of all with the shot of the massive concrete block (roughly the size of a refrigerator) in the middle of a small ravine between huge mounds of earth being moved to create a whole new landscape at the mouth of the Don River.

As the year started I realized that my travel photography blog would likely be moribund for most of the year unless I did my best to fill it with content. So I dug into my files and began posting stories of trips I’d taken back when I was doing travel for the Toronto Star – to places like Ireland (north and south), Montana, Alabama, Algoma, Los Angeles, and through the Rockies on a luxury train. It was nice to get a second shot at these trips and the pictures, which I think I managed to improve on second time around.

I had an ambitious agenda for a return to hometown travel with the warmer weather, but in the end I spent most of the summer in High Park – my city’s biggest and oldest public park, and a place I’ve been visiting since I was a child. I’d made a point to avoid it the previous locked-down summer, knowing how much work it would require to do a decent job with the place, and it took at least a half dozen trips, with and without cameras, to create a portrait of the park that did it justice.

By the summer things looked like they were loosening up, so I finally made good on a trip to Niagara Falls I’d been planning since the previous summer. The town had finally opened up after a year of lockdowns, so I was able to book a hotel room for the first time in over a year and a half, and hit the ground with a tight schedule of locations to hit, aiming for maybe a couple of posts for the travel photo blog. I ended up with four, if you include the behind the scenes post I published here. It was nice to get away with my cameras, if only for a day and a night.

Skull, Toronto, Sept. 2021

Unfortunately, all the energy I’d put into shooting still lifes during the first year of lockdown pretty much dissipated in the second year. It wasn’t until September that I made the time to sit down over a couple of nights and shoot a variety of subjects – fresh flowers and dried roses, and the human skull on my desk. It was mostly a chance to try out a new lens combination – an old Lensbaby Composer I’d bought for my Olympus body, with an adapter and a macro tube. I’ve held off on posting the results – maybe soon.

My optimism reached its height in the late summer, when I booked a trip to New Orleans. With help from a friend down there, I’d planned out a packed itinerary in the hope of capturing as many images of the city as possible, planning for three posts on the travel photo blog. I had a great time on the ground, a horrible time getting there and back, mostly due to the airlines getting flakey thanks to personnel shortages caused by vaccine mandates, and the need to get tested going both ways. I’m dying to go somewhere again, but might have to wait until travel is less of a hassle.

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2021

My friend Chris Buck made his way to town in the fall, after releasing Gentlemen’s Club, his new book, earlier in the year. Keeping with my custom, I sat him down for a portrait and interview – still to be posted, since it’s taken me so long to transcribe our interview. For the portraits I sat him in the middle of a setup I’ve been using for still life work during lockdown, and pulled out a trio of oddball lenses – my fast 50mm, a pinhole, and a 25mm lens from a Bolex 16mm cine camera that I’ve had sitting around for years. A result from the last lens is posted above – I think there’s something worth exploring there. To my great regret, this is the only portrait session I did last year.

2021 was the year I (finally) realized Instagram has become nearly useless as a promotional tool. I wasn’t alone – changes in the focus of the company and their promotional algorithms has left a lot of the photographers who once relied on the app to create buzz and attention feeling abandoned. Thankfully I’d never relied on the app for my living – too old, really, and unable to do what it took to ascend to the rank of “influencer” – but I had signed on nearly seven years ago to try and get my work in front of younger people who were using Instagram, which included the photo editors and art directors who didn’t read blogs by old photographers, for instance.

Even at the start of lockdown I’d noticed engagement diminishing – followers were harder to acquire, and posts were getting liked (and seen, I assume) much less than a year previous. This might have had something to do with not posting portraits of celebrities on a regular basis, but when the company themselves admit that they were putting more priority on Stories, and then videos, I’m not so sure. I don’t feel betrayed, as many other photographers did – I knew that I was mutton dressed as lamb on the app – and by this point posting to my account has become more like keeping a diary, or a way to exercise my eye when I’m not on a job. And weirdly enough, my Tumblr account has been experiencing a surge in traffic as Instagram has declined, which needs to be explained somehow.

Once they’d absorbed the new direction Instagram had taken, many photographers began wondering if and when a new social media platform would take its place. This implies that other photo-sharing apps and sites – Tumblr, Flickr, EyeEm, 500px, Smugmug, Viewbug, VSCO, ImageShack, Behance, Photobucket – don’t provide the reach or functionality or simple elegance that Instagram promised in its prime. There was even crazy talk that Twitter could take Instagram’s place. (Wholly unlikely; Twitter is and will remain the home of hot takes; it’s not designed for much else.) The fact is that as long as photographers rely on third-party apps and sites to build audiences they’ll be at the mercy of the management of those apps and their changing goals. Looking back on it – even from the fringe – the Instagram Moment was fun, but I’m not sure it’ll be repeated.

Ontario Place, Toronto, Oct. 2021

Not everyone I know is an enthusiastic as I am, but I remain fascinated with the results I’m getting from pinhole focals. I’ve taken them with me on every trip, and have even liked the results in portrait sessions. The shots above are from an outing on the city’s western waterfront – part of a hometown post for the travel photo blog that was interrupted by winter. Hopefully I’ll get back to this story when the weather is nice again – and hopefully we’ll all get back to a lot of things by then. Just don’t ask me what they are.

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