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
Check out my books

Behind the Scenes at Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls at sunset, July 2021

THERE WAS A LOT OF TIME TO THINK ABOUT SHOOTING NIAGARA FALLS. At least a year, probably, since I began planning a trip to the Falls during the brief opening up between lockdowns last summer. When it finally looked like there’d be places to go and things to see the planning started again; I knew I wanted to try and shoot the Falls from every angle possible, in every kind of light, which meant an overnight stay.

Which meant a hotel room. It’s been almost two years now since I stayed in a hotel, and just the thought of it was exciting, never mind actually showing up, getting my keys and experiencing that perpetual thrill – it never goes away, i don’t know why – of seeing your room for the first time. I made sure I booked into the hotel closest to the Falls, on the highest floor possible. I ended up in the Marriott Fallsview, on the 22nd floor, just below the penthouse suites, with a view that I paid dearly for.

I did as much research as possible beforehand; the late Pierre Berton’s Niagara: A History of the Falls is still the best book about the Falls after nearly three decades. I also began collecting a folder of images and created six whole pages of reference sketches and notes in my notebook. Train departures and arrivals, contacts, bookings, weather, sunset and sunrise times – it all went into my notes. I don’t know how I worked for so many years without doing this much pre-visualization, but maybe it’s just that every shoot and opportunity has become more precious now.

It’s becoming useful to set myself at least one goal when appropriate to the trip – an iconic image to try and duplicate to the extent that it’s possible. For this trip it wasn’t a photo but a painting that I wanted to copy – Frederic Unwin Church’s The Great Fall, Niagara, an 1857 panoramic canvas that contributed greatly to Church’s (now vanished) fame back when it was exhibited and reproduced all over the world.

The Great Fall, Niagara, 1857 by Frederic Unwin Church

Erosion has moved the Horseshoe Falls back many feet since Church painted his canvas, and in any case the finished work was a composite, meant to convey the power of the Falls more than precise appearance. I ended up shooting from a spot just near the Table Rock Visitors Centre – a view that took in more of the river behind the Falls than Church did, using my 7.5mm fisheye lens. Copying a painting is, of course, an even more quixotic task than doing the same thing with a photo, so I knew that whatever I did in the end would be more a matter of interpretation than mimicry.

White Water Walk, Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

I began my shooting at the Whirlpool Aero Car and then walked upriver along Niagara Parkway to the White Water Walk – both attractions owned and managed by Niagara Parks, with admission arranged by the nice people at Niagara Falls Tourism Canada. Liaising with the tourism people was part of my preparation for the trip – I didn’t want to worry about access and lineups, especially when capacity numbers were being limited due to COVID. In any case my decision to make my trip early in the week meant crowds were much thinner than on the weekends, a choice that I’d made not because of crowds but because the week only promised a brief window of good weather.

Patting myself on my back, I planned my schedule well for the day, allotting more than enough time at each spot to shoot at my leisure. I’d made the schedule so loose, in fact, that I had plenty of time after finishing shooting the Whirlpool Rapids to walk all the way down to the Falls – a hike that takes you past the old downtown of Niagara Falls, ON, much of which has been abandoned, though there’s an ongoing effort to revive Queen Street as an arts, shopping and dining destination for locals.
Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

It was definitely a walk mostly off the beaten tourist track, taking in the Ten Thousand Buddhas Sarira Stupa, two closed tourist information booths (one a lovely Art Deco building across from the American Falls), and the view down the railway crossing at Bridge Street to the US side. (Stupidly, I’d let my passport lapse during lockdown, otherwise I’d have found time to cross over the river and get some shots from the American side.)

My next destination was Journey Behind The Falls – an attraction nearly as old as tourism to the Falls, though it’s much safer and well-managed than it was in the 19th century, when visitors would walk along a narrow ledge behind the roaring curtain of water at the Horseshoe Falls, fearing for their lives. It was a vantage point I knew I needed to get – my only chance to shoot up at the Falls instead of across or down.

Journey Behind the Falls

Anticipating the shooting conditions at the bottom of the Falls, I invested in a bit of kit ahead of time – a waterproof cover for my mirrorless Fuji. It was worth the money – the spray from the Falls will soak you out on the viewing platform, and with the camera cover the only thing I had to worry about was wiping water off the front of my lens. There was even time to get a shot of me at work, looking less than dignified.

Besides the candid shots above, the trip was also an opportunity to shoot some pinhole work, and try out a couple of new pinhole “lenses” I’d acquired since last summer. I was worried that last year’s pinhole shooting was an anomaly – novelty being as much of the thrill as any creative breakthroughs. Happily, though, it was just as exciting and rewarding as last year, perhaps even more so with familiarity with the very specific limitations of pinhole, and the resulting creative challenges, and a conscious move to try and make the images even more abstract.

Whirlpool Rapids, Niagara River, July 2021
Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

As much as I managed to accomplish at the Falls, I was still missing some pieces when I came home from this trip. A major new attraction – the restored 1905 Power Plant – wouldn’t be open for another week, and I didn’t have time to take a stroll around Clifton Hill and its exuberantly garish, reliably fun tourist attractions – our Atlantic City, the closest thing Canada has to a year-round carnival midway. Luckily we’d planned a family day trip a couple of weeks later, which gave me a chance to fill in these blanks.

Niagara Falls, ON, August 2021

It was fantastic being on the road again, if only for a night, and the trips to the Falls only underlined how much I miss travel work. I hope I’ll be able to get back to it as soon as possible, despite warnings of tightening travel restrictions and potential returns to lockdown. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like I’ve lost a lot of time and opportunity in the last year and a half; fully vaccinated and with a renewed passport, I’m desperate to make up for it all.

View from Room 2222, Marriott Fallsview, July 2021

Art Deco Toronto 2

170 Strathearn Road, Toronto, Dec. 2020

THE PANDEMIC HAS KEPT US LOCKED DOWN FOR LONGER THAN EXPECTED. Canada – and Ontario in particular – has set a worldwide trend for length and severity of lockdown (an achievement of dubious distinction.) The end is in sight, however, which will hopefully mean more new work to talk about. In the meantime, here’s more of one of my lockdown projects, the first installment of which I posted late last year.

Once again I have to acknowledge the work Tim Morawetz has done documenting Art Deco architecture both in my hometown and across the country. (Please pick up his book Art Deco Architecture Across Canada or look for Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A guide to the buildings from the Roaring Twenties and the Depression in your library.) I had a lot to choose from when putting this post together. Toronto is not the most spectacular city for Deco or Streamline Moderne buildings in the world; it was/is a very conservative town, perhaps less so socially and politically, but still very much culturally and aesthetically. There are far more office towers and public buildings in the style than residences, but there are enough for a single post devoted to Deco dwellings.

There are no districts full of Deco homes and apartment buildings in Toronto, just pockets – a few streets where developers decided it was a style that might appeal to prospective residents, who would respond to its futuristic message of efficiency and modernity. To find them you need to wander through Midtown and areas that were being developed/redeveloped between the wars. You’ll know you’re warm when you come across buildings with names that evoke luxury, high society, or more glamourous climates.

The Fleetwood, 64 St. Clair Ave. W., June 2020
Maplewood Apartments, 172 Vaughan Rd. Toronto, Dec. 2020
The Crofton, 717 Eglinton Ave. W., Toronto, June 2020
The Everglades, 110 Tyndall Ave., Toronto, June 2021

Toronto is a city of Victorian red brick, but yellow brick became the material of choice for Deco and early Midcentury Modern apartments. In Toronto Deco announces itself with bands of brickwork underneath or running parallel with windows that are often set into the corners of buildings.

Roycroft Apartments, 707 Eglinton Ave. W., June 2020
Apartment detail, Bathurst St., Toronto, June 2020
790 Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto June 2020
Apartment detail, Bathurst St., Toronto, June 2020

As ever, look out for curves – in balconies and awnings and deep turrets. The curve was Deco’s shape of choice – evocative of machines and streamlined ships and railway engines, but a testament to the skills of bricklayers who will charge a premium for a curved wall today, if they’ll even be able to rise to the challenge.

The Crofton, 717 Eglinton Ave. W., Toronto, June 2020
790 Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto June 2020
Apartment entrances, Avenue Road, Toronto June 2020
2559 Bloor St. West, Toronto, July 2020

Finally there’s the octagonal window – usually set into a bathroom or a hallway in the efficiency apartments that are usually contained within most Deco apartment buildings in this city. The octagon is rational and symmetrical while breaking up the right angles of a building – and another shape that challenges the unskilled craftsman.

Du Maurier Apartments, Du Maurier Blvd., Toronto, June 2020
Apartment detail, Eglinton Ave. W., Dec. 2020

Deco in Toronto features many variations, from sedate facades full of classical devices from the early ’20s to courtyards with porthole windows in places like The Dorchester, a Moderne luxury building from 1940. The nearby Mayfair apartment complex is full of sinuous stone details that call back to Art Nouveau, while a pair of apartment buildings in Parkdale present themselves like twin engine houses with porthole windows.

779 Eglinton Ave. West, June 2020
The Dorchester, 150 Farnham Ave., Dec. 2020
Mayfair apartments, 394-398 Avenue Road, Dec. 2020
115 Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto, Dec. 2020
Apartment buildings, Spencer Avenue, Parkdale, Toronto, June 2021

The most perfect Art Deco apartments in the city, however, are in the Garden Court complex on Bayview, with their landscaped courtyards and corner windows and flats that become more modest the further you get from the entrance to the grounds. During the worst summer months of the pandemic the residents were especially vigilant about outsiders in their courtyards, even if they were just appreciative photographers.

Garden Court Apartments, 1477 Bayview Ave., Toronto, June 2020

There are not a lot of private homes in the Deco, Streamline or Moderne style in Toronto. I can count the ones I know on one hand, though there might be a dozen hiding on side streets all over the city. Some are restrained and unassuming, with just a flat roof, a curved wall and an octagonal window; my wife calls this “Methodist Deco.” Others just feature a Deco detail or two, in custom stonework over a door or around a chimney. Rarest of all is a house like 170 Strathearn, with portholes and octagons, a flat roof, curved balconies and decorative stainless steel railings, finished in gleaming white stucco that looks more suitable to Miami or Melbourne than Midtown Toronto.

1707 Bathurst Street, Toronto June 2020
24 College View Ave., Toronto, June 2020
170 Strathearn Road, Toronto, Dec. 2020
Check out my books

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.

Check out my books

Art Deco Toronto

Concourse Building, Toronto, July 2020

THE PANDEMIC HAS MADE ME THINK MORE ABOUT MY HOMETOWN THAN I HAVE IN YEARS. Toronto is not a pretty town; I’ve said before that growing up here has made me really look for worthwhile subjects, and probably nudged (deformed?) my particular aesthetic toward the pursuit of “ugly beauty.” One thing I can say with certainty, however, is that the closest this city got to lovely was probably in the waning years of the 1940s, before the tidal wave of postwar demolition and subsequent skyscraper construction began, and just after the high tide of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture had receded, leaving choice deposits on the streetscape.

The story of Art Deco Toronto has pretty much been captured by writer and Deco enthusiast Tim Morawetz, and his lavisly illustrated books Art Deco Architecture Across Canada and especially Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A guide to the buildings from the Roaring Twenties and the Depression (sadly out of print, but available though the Toronto Public Library) have been priceless guides in my own hunt for the remains of the Deco/Moderne city that has caught my eye since I was a boy. I’ve wanted to try to document this place – the Toronto of my fantasies – for years, but travel bans and forced idleness were ultimately the inspiration I needed. This is just the first in a series of posts I’ll be putting up as I take more photos and organize the results into (somewhat) coherent essays on the architecture, the city where it was built, and the fleeting vision it provides – for me, at least – of a much more elegant place to live.

Horse Palace, CNE, July 2020
Roycroft Apartments, 707 Eglinton Ave. W., June 2020
2487 Bloor St. W., July 2020
2780 Yonge St., Sept. 2020
Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Sept. 2020

I’m not an architectural photographer, so pristine, perspective-corrected documents of whole buildings aren’t really in my wheelhouse. What I wanted to capture, however, were the street-level flashes of Deco style that inevitably catch my eye wherever I wander, either here or in towns and cities with their own (sometimes far superior) examples of Deco and Streamline architecture. Because Art Deco left vivid traces wherever it found favour, from the bands of bricks wrapping around the corners of apartment buildings to the pyramidical massing on skyscrapers and public buildings, to the ziggurat shapes – upright and inverted – that show up on shopfronts and unlikely places, like the copper lamps by the entrance to a Roman Catholic church in uptown Toronto.

Fleetwood Apartments, 64 St. Clair Ave. W., June 2020
Park Lane Apartments, 110 St. Clair Ave. W., June 2020
Anne Johnston Health Station (formerly Police Station #12), 2398 Yonge St., Sept. 2020
Roycroft Apartments, 707 Eglinton Ave. W., June 2020

The greatest motif of Streamline Moderne is the curve – a shape that was understood at the time to be the sign of modernity, evocative of aerodynamic design and ever-increasing speed, borrowed from ocean liners and automobiles and used to shape balconies, eaves and overhangs on much more static apartment buildings and police stations. The sight of one curved balcony alerts me to the likely presence of an Art Deco district – a neighbourhood of developments from the mid-20s to the late-30s, likely to share the same vernacular style up and down a few adjacent streets.

Toronto isn’t a city of Deco masterpieces – that title probably goes to Montreal here in Canada, and places like New York, Shanghai, Paris, Mumbai, Melbourne and Miami. We do (or too often, did) have some little gems, like the old Stock Exchange building on Bay Street south of King. It became the home of the Design Exchange a few years ago, is currently reconsidering its direction after closing its design museum, and was shrouded in scaffolding this summer. So I was only able to get close to its doors with my camera, with their sequence of stainless steel medallions depicting industry and trade in high-Deco stylization, all heroic workers, technicians and capitalists thrusting forward into a better future.

These motifs are a recurring theme on Deco and Streamline office towers and public buildings. In Canada they often depict workers in the resource sector – miners and lumberjacks, surveyors, floatplane pilots and fishermen. A set of carved stone panels can be found at Queen Street subway station – they were installed when the People’s Optical Building was demolished to make way for the Maritime Life Tower, and these panels were installed in a new stairwell. I’m not sure if they’re from the People’s Optical building – of which no photographic trace exists, apparently – or a Maritime Life building, but they’re a pretty great example of Deco/Moderne decorative style, Canadian division. (UPDATE – they are, in fact, from the exterior of the People’s Optical Building, and there are photos.)

Another fine example of Canadian Deco style are the stylized totem poles at the entrance to the Runnymede Public Library building. Doorways are actually great indicators of a Deco district, though sometimes they’re the only obviously Deco/Moderne element on a more basic, humble building. I make a point of trying to capture them wherever I am, from the Hollywood glamorous entrance to an apartment building by the Humber River to a utilitarian service entrance on the side of the Horse Palace at the CNE – an undersung Art Deco Toronto gem that I’ll be returning to in future posts.

Runnymede Public Library, July 2020
2559 Bloor St. West, Toronto, July 2020
Horse Palace, CNE, July 2020
2010 Bloor St. West, Toronto, July 2020
315 Albany Ave., August 2020
1592 Bathurst St., June 2020
Anne Johnston Health Station (formerly Police Station #12), 2398 Yonge St., Sept. 2020
1205-1211 Bathurst St. August 2020
Pall Mall Apartments, 3110-3112 Yonge. St. August 2020
Check out my books

Autumn Snapshots

Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

THIS IS A YEAR I WILL TRY HARD TO FORGET. It’s not that 2020 was the worst year of my life – trust me, there have been worse. Much worse. And it’s not like lockdown was unendurable; as I’ve said before, as a lifelong misanthrope, the first few months of “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” were a cakewalk, and barely made an impact on the routine of my “normal” life. But the year has reminded me that, much as I’ve strived to be a living refutation of this maxim, no man is an island, and the obvious suffering – economic, social, emotional and otherwise – that so many people around me have experienced has been impossible to ignore.

Etobicoke Creek, Sept. 2020
Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Marie Curtis Park, Toronto, Sept. 2020

I don’t want to talk too much about lost work. Paying assignments basically vanished in March, and I have no way of knowing when they’ll be back. I have a box of books and envelopes waiting to send to art directors and photo editors, but I have no idea if they’re back in their offices, will be soon, or perhaps ever. So it was obvious early on that work in 2020 was either going to be self-assigned or non-existent. I started out with still life work, tentatively ventured out for a few walks in my eerily deserted city, did a portrait series with my neighbours, and then turned my attention to my dormant travel photography blog, spending much of late summer and fall hiking around my hometown with my cameras.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Pearson International Airport, Sept. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Sept. 2020

Everything in this post is an outtake or by-product of those hikes. They’re misleadingly called “snapshots,” even though, if I’m honest, I’m many years away from being able to take a purely spontaneous snap of anything – three-plus decades of professional shooting has made that nearly impossible. I used to say that pictures like this were what I really looked forward to making when I was on assignment as a travel photographer/writer, so it’s not a stretch to say that hiking around greenspaces and trails all over the city was an excuse to take these pictures.

Etobicoke, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Sept. 2020
Middle Road Bridge, Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020

What strikes me now, seeing them all in one place, is how lonely they look. Early on my hometown travel hikes, I sent emails to Toronto and Ontario tourism departments, letting them know that I was trying to help them out in a difficult year. The response was the usual, rote indifference, though in an email from someone from Ontario Tourism I was admonished to make sure my posts adhered to appropriate standards of social distancing. In retrospect, I can honestly respond – mission accomplished.

Sherman Falls, Ancaster, Nov. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

Around this time in previous years I’d have been sifting through photos that make up what I call my “Right Behind You” series – shots of people, alone in groups, taken from behind, looking at art or spectating at some public event or tourist landmark. But public events in 2020 have either been cancelled, banned, or taken the form of some kind of public protest.

I am not a social documentarian, and I have taken as many photos as I can stomach of people in masks; as a portrait photographer, first, foremost and always, this has no appeal at all to me. And so this is my record of 2020, as I’ll remember it – empty places, some picturesque, some stark, all glimpsed while doing the only work permitted to me by the year’s peculiar rules.

Guild Park, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Don River, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

Winter is coming, and it’s supposed to be a cold one. My wife is encouraging me to keep exploring the city with hikes; the parks department just announced they’ll be opening trails on public golf courses to get us out and exercising and prevent cabin fever. Maybe she just wants to get me out of the house for a few hours every week or two. I can’t say that I blame her. It might happen, it might not. I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of still life work in the kitchen. Anything, really, to keep my mind off the nagging question that’s been on my mind since two weeks turned into months: What, if anything, will be left for me to do when they sound the “all clear”?

Old Mill Bridge, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Taylor-Massey Creek, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Etobicoke Creek at Lake Ontario, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Check out my books

Pinhole Toronto

Don River, Oct. 2020

TWO WEEKS TO FLATTEN THE CURVE HAS TURNED INTO NINE MONTHS AND COUNTING. When I realized that we’d be drifting in and out of various phases of lockdown and that travel was off the table at least until the end of the year, I decided I had to do something – anything – to salvage a year that was probably an economic write-off, and prevent it from being a creative one. The spring and a touch of cabin fever had inspired a frenzy of activity, shooting in the kitchen, around the house and on the street, but my travel photography blog had been dormant since the end of last year, and that needed to change.

Since I couldn’t go anywhere, the obvious thing was to treat my hometown as a destination – to find a way to answer a question I was often asked when I was on a travel junket somewhere: “So what’s worth seeing in Toronto?” A question for which I’ve never had an answer. So I made a list of places I could visit in Toronto, places that I thought would be worth a few photos, some places I’d never been before, and most importantly places I could go that were actually open under our constantly changing guidelines for social distancing.

Guild Park, Scarborough, Sept. 2020
Scarborough Bluffs, Sept. 2020
Old Mill Bridge, Humber River, Sept. 2020
St. James Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020

Each outing was an excursion: I packed a tripod, water, snacks and a backpack full of gear, including the pinhole “lens” I’d bought on Kickstarter last year and received just as lockdown began. I’d spent the spring playing around with some park photos and a bunch of still lifes, but this was my opportunity to really test out just what was possible with this very basic, challenging piece of rudimentary, yet very engineered optics that had puzzled, frustrated and even angered other photographers who’d tested it out.

Even in bright sunlight I had to shoot with a cable release, locked off on a tripod, if I wanted to use the lowest possible ISO speed and mine as much detail as I could from the RAW files. Since focus wasn’t an issue – at a fixed aperture of around f165, everything is in focus from the horizon to the surface of the camera’s sensor – I had to worry about light and composition most of all. What I quickly learned was that most of the real work would end up happening later, during editing, in Photoshop.

Prince Edward Viaduct, Don Valley, Oct. 2020
Sherman Falls, Ancaster, Nov. 2020
Old Mill Bridge, Humber River, Sept. 2020
St. James Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Taylor-Massey Creek, Toronto, Oct. 2020

I can see why other photographers would hate pinholes in general, and the Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X in particular: while technically in focus, sharpness is impossible, lens flare a constant threat, and true colour rendition absolutely out of the question. Every image file taken straight off of a memory card is raw material, but the pinhole images I worked with after each hike down some river or creek were daunting uphill battles, even after I’d spent twenty or thirty minutes retouching the spots and rings left behind by dust on my camera sensor.

Middle Road Bridge, Etobicoke Creek, Oct. 2020
Rouge Park, Scarborough, Nov. 2020
Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Guild Park, Scarborough, Sept. 2020
Trail, Don River, Oct. 2020
Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto, Sept. 2020

Making any image work revolved around identifying the feature or shape or texture that would attract the eye, then going about a series of actions in Photoshop that isolated those features, sharpening their edges and shadows digitally, then subtly burying that sharpening in the soft, gauzy layers of the image. There was actual detail hidden each image; it just had to be carved out, then blended with the rest of the composition to maintain the dreamy feel of a pinhole image. It was a formula it took me weeks to refine, and I’m not sure I’ve gone nearly as far as I can with it yet.

The Oculus, Etobicoke, Sept. 2020
Rouge Park, Scarborough, Nov. 2020
Wilket Creek, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Taylor-Massey Creek, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020

Each image required at least an hour or two of work. I usually chose frames that had stark silhouettes or bright, highlighted areas against deep shadow. Even before the sharpening and blending, the best candidates had obvious graphic appeal that quickly made me realize that I was working toward a finished shot that had as much – if not more – in common with illustration or painting than photography.

Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Scarborough Bluffs, Sept. 2020
Tiffany Falls, Ancaster, Nov. 2020
Toronto Necropolis, Sept. 2020

There was a painterly quality to all of the pinholes, but the best images- to my eyes, at least – were ones that looked like they were engravings or rotogravures taken from an old storybook or magazine. I’ve made no secret about ending up in photography only after failing as an art student; I was a merely OK draftsman, but a very poor painter. And I’ve complained for years that modern lenses are often simply too sharp for my uses. So this ongoing pinhole experiment has been wildly satisfying, as it’s allowed me to become both the early 20th century illustrator and pictorialist photographer I have always longed to be.

Scarborough Bluffs, Sept. 2020
Rouge Park, Scarborough, Nov. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Scarborough Bluffs, Sept. 2020
Humber River, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020

Like most of my experiments, I’m still not sure where this one is leading me. The process has been a learning curve – always a gratifying experience – and while the results have been very different from what I was expecting when I pledged the price of this lens on Kickstarter over a year ago, they’ve been more than merely interesting, and at their best rewarding. There are some potential new directions for future work, and that’s never bad news.

Trail, Humber River, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Don River, Oct. 2020

Winter’s in sight, and more lockdown with it, apparently. I doubt if I’ll be out in the wilderness with my cameras for a few months, and I don’t want to stop experimenting with the pinhole. The burning question that I’ve been asking since I got it – “Will it portrait?” – has already been answered, with one quick but encouraging session during a recent shoot. Which is great news, especially during a year like this one. But more on that later.

Scarborough Bluffs, Sept. 2020
Wilket Creek, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Bruce Trail, Ancaster, Nov. 2020
Wilket Creek, Toronto, Oct. 2020
St. James Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Check out my books

Summer snapshots

Toronto Islands, August 2020

SUMMER ISN’T OFFICIALLY OVER YET, BUT WHO ARE WE KIDDING? Temperatures are dropping and the kids are going back to school and we’re bracing for another corona spike before the leaves start turning. We’re still not back to normal – whatever that might be any more – and the time for parks and patios is running out. God but I hate 2020.

After the self-quarantining of the spring, I’ve tried to spend the summer outside, working on projects like my moribund travel blog. It doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere for a while, so I’ve taken up the challenge of finding what’s worth seeing and talking about in my hometown – a place I tend to take for granted, and hardly one of the world’s more picturesque cities.

Eastern Beaches, Toronto, Aug. 2020
Lake Ontario, Toronto, Aug. 2020
Boardwalk, Toronto Islands, Aug. 2020
York Mills, Toronto, Sept. 2020

In addition to an as-yet-unnamed project, I’ve made my way out to the Toronto Islands and the Leslie Street Spit with my new camera backpack, a tripod and a bag full of lenses. I’ll keep exploring destinations reachable by public transit until the weather finally forces me and everyone else back inside. Until now, though, the biggest challenge has been shooting under relentless blue skies.

Leslie Street Spit, Toronto, Aug. 2020
Toronto Islands, Aug. 2020
Toronto Islands, Aug. 2020
Toronto Islands, Aug. 2020
Snake Island, Toronto, Aug. 2020
Centre Island, Toronto, Aug. 2020
Leslie Street Spit, Toronto, Aug. 2020

As I’ve said many times, since Toronto isn’t the prettiest town, I’ve had to find my joy here finding “ugly beauty” – accidental grandeur and intriguing juxtapositions. And, of course, lurking behind my fellow citizens looking for a good shot – an old activity that’s been made immensely easier thanks to the politely antisocial protocols of “social distancing.”

Eastern Beaches, Toronto, Aug. 2020
Snake Island, Toronto, Aug. 2020
Centre Island, Toronto, Aug. 2020

You could argue that it’s not really a snapshot if you need a camera bag and a tripod, but I’m not going to bother addressing that. It’s my blog and I’ll call it what I want to call it. And as any professional photographer will tell you, any time off where you still have a camera in your hand is really just a busman’s holiday.

My excursions have given me another chance to play with my new pinhole “lens”, outside in the sorts of conditions in which I think it’s meant to be used. I am, frame by frame, slowly getting the hang of this thing. With just another couple of months left to use it outside under sun and sky, I think I might break through to something that’s still forming in my imagination. Let’s see where we are in another three months.

Leslie Street Spit, Toronto, Aug. 2020 pinhole
Leslie Street Spit, Toronto, Aug. 2020 pinhole
Boardwalk, Toronto Islands, Aug. 2020 pinhole
Centre Island, Toronto, Aug. 2020 pinhole
Toronto from the Islands, Aug. 2020 pinhole
Check out my books

Summer still life

Peony, June 2020

LOCKDOWN IS ENDING, GRADUALLY, BUT I’M NOT SURE WHAT’S LEFT ON THE OTHER SIDE. I’m hoping there’s work – assignments, maybe some travel – but it’s still too early to know. I have a box of books and another of envelopes, ready to send out to art directors and photo editors, but I have no idea if they’re in their offices, or if they’ll ever return to them. This would be a great time to be anxious, but I’m not sure what that would accomplish.

And so I return to still life work – the great discovery and consolation of the past five months. With summer came flowers, the first real blooms, lush and vibrant. The poppy came from a plant that persists in the most inhospitable spot in our front yard. Most years it never blooms, but this year it gifted us with two brief, beautiful blossoms, one of which I sacrificed to the lights in my kitchen studio.

Poppy, June 2020
Poppy, June 2020
Peony, June 2020

The peony came courtesy my colleague and neighbour Steve Stober, who gifted it to me just after I took delivery of a new set of lights – a pair of LumeCubes that I’d had my eye on for months. Shooting up close in the kitchen studio had made me long for very small point source lights I could modify and shape easily, so I took the plunge and invested in a kit that came with a bunch of tiny gels, diffusers, grids, snoots and barn doors.

And as usual, the flowers looked just as interesting after their blooms had dried out or died. At least to me.

Peony, June 2020
Poppy, June 2020

Food and cooking remain a preoccupation as long as dining out in a restaurant is either inconvenient or a risk some people are unwilling to take, so our regular deliveries – products of a system that seems to have created itself and matured in what seemed like weeks – are a constant source of subject matter.

Mushrooms, June 2020
Lemons, June 2020
Savoy Cabbage, June 2020
Blood oranges, June 2020
Savoy cabbage, June 2020

We were once worried about shortages. Now there’s sometimes so much that regrettable spoilage happens. No matter – more subjects for the kitchen studio.

Rotten apples, June 2020
Rotten citrus, June 2020

With July came my birthday, and a bouquet of flowers from my wife. Like any flowers that come into the house, they end up in front of the camera at some point, either while fresh or (preferably) while their bloom begins to wane. A gift of birthday money from my in-laws turned into another new toy: my first real macro lens, a 7Artisans 60mm that provided a new luxury – being able to change framing without swapping out macro extension tubes, and the ability to come in really, really close.

Rose, July 2020
Dahlia, July 2020
Rose, July 2020
Delphinium, July 2020

This year has been full of surprises, most of them unexpected and unwelcome. I think most of us would agree on that. But when I put on my (mostly unused) optimist’s hat, I have to admit that it’s given me the opportunity to explore and refine still life work more than ever before in the nearly 35 years I’ve been taking pictures.

And since it would be a shame to waste the brief, fine summer weather, I went out into the back garden with my camera, backdrop and stands to find subjects among the flowers, veggies and weeds. 2020 has been a year that few of us will forget; I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that, when it ends, the round of musical chairs we’re playing with the economy will still have a place for me.

Allium, June 2020
Thistle, August 2020
Walking onion, June 2020
Thistle, August 2020
Coneflower, August 2020
Check out my books

Neighbours

Shira, Calla, Chris & Gigi, Earlscourt, June 2020

THESE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WE HAVE SEEN MORE OF (BESIDES OUR FAMILY) THAN ANYONE ELSE IN THE LAST THREE AND A HALF MONTHS. More than friends and extended kin, co-workers or schoolmates. As Covid shrunk our world down to a couple of blocks in any direction from our home, our neighbours became the people we came to know with unexpected and offhanded intimacy. Not that we’re complaining; perhaps some people might, but I can’t speak for them. Maybe we just have really nice neighbours.

When lockdown hit all of my work, actual or potential, pretty much dried up. A portrait series I’d only just begun had to be put on hold, and while there was always still life work and street photography to fill the weeks, I missed doing portraits. Frankly, I’m amazed it took me as long as it did to realize that the most appropriate subjects of all were within walking distance, waiting out the lockdown as eagerly as we were.

________________________________

Using email, the neighbourhood Facebook page or just stopping people as they walked by the house, I began making appointments for quick portrait sessions. The rules were simple: I’d take the photos at either the front or back door of the homes where they’d been sheltering in place. They could choose how they wanted to dress and present themselves.

My camera and tripod would be set up a minimum of the acceptable socially distancing standard of six feet, if only to respect one of lockdown’s most sacred rituals. My oldest child acted as (paid) assistant, and bookings were made around when the sun wouldn’t be in the eyes of my subjects.

Juvan, Norah & Ginette, Earlscourt, June 2020
Joanne, Earlscourt, June 2020
Dan, Dora, Lea & Toby, Earlscourt, June 2020
Maria, Sandra, Sonia, Nicole, Emma & Linkin, Earlscourt, June 2020
Nick, Diana, Scarlet & Owen, Earlscourt, June 2020

These are portraits of people near the end of lockdown. They have pushed past the uncertainty and improvisation of the first weeks and settled into a conditionally comfortable but decidedly ad hoc lifestyle that all of them, I’m certain, can’t wait to leave behind. Some of them have become better cooks. Many of them have watched far more television than they imagined. Their dogs have been living in a paradise of attention and exercise since winter ended, bonded more tightly than ever with a pack that never seemed to leave them.

We are Torontonians. We are polite people who don’t like to intrude, and will politely discourage intrusion. And yet we’ve become familiar with everybody’s regular habits, enthusiasms and preferences, mostly by simply observing our comings and goings, and those of our delivery people. I have, quite against lifelong habit, developed a real fondness and fellow-feeling for my neighbours, the result of living through what we were meant to understand was a lethal threat, in the comfort of our homes. We have bonded by experiencing what I can only understand now as a combination of a horror movie and a vacation.

Heather, Nyiah, Isaya, Koa Béo & Mischa, June 2020
Peter, Sarah & Karen, Earlscourt, June 2020
Steve, Earlscourt, June 2020
Flavia & Mike, Earlscourt, June 2020
Durvalina, Antonio & Rex, Earlscourt, June 2020
See my published books