Buffalo NY

Botanical Gardens, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

GROWING UP IN TORONTO IN THE ’70S, Buffalo felt closer to my hometown than any other Canadian city. That’s because, geographically, it was – just across the border from Niagara Falls, its big American network affiliate TV stations were easy to pick up over the air, so we’d listen to their evening news programs while waiting for the latest episodes of Happy Days or All In The Family. We didn’t travel much in my family, but I remember one trip with my sister, mom and cousin Terry to Buffalo for some shopping, and an overnight stay in an old hotel downtown. My sister tells me there was a lot of clothes shopping – I can’t recall any details of that – but I do remember the hotel, an old building with iron bedsteads and transoms over the doors.

I didn’t get back to Buffalo again until my old travel gig at the Toronto Star sent me there to write about the city’s urban revival and architecture two years ago. I had such a good time that, when I launched my own travel photo blog I contacted Brian Hayden of Visit Buffalo Niagara, who graciously agreed to invite me to visit and shoot some new stories about parts of the city I missed on my first visit. As usual, I had a lot of photos left over from the trip, and here they are.

Silo City, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
“Swannie” Jim Watkins, Silo City, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

My first priority on the trip was Silo City, a complex of once-abandoned grain silos on the Buffalo River, a relic of the city’s industrial past and its key position at the mouth of the Erie Canal. It was my first stop on the trip after I arrived at the train station and dropped my bag off at my B&B. “Swannie” Jim Watkins met me at the gate and gave me a brief tour of what was accessible on the site, then said that since most photographers he’d met tended not to want company, said he’d leave me along to shoot. I could have spent a whole day there.

Central Terminal, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

Second priority on my list of Buffalo must-sees was the Central Terminal, a huge Art Deco train station that hasn’t picked up a passenger in nearly four decades. I’d passed it on the train to Rochester that summer and knew I had to get in and take a look. I was given a tour by Mark Lewandowski, the director of the non-profit that’s stabilizing the building after years of abandonment and running it as an event space while the city decides how to reincorporate this beautiful old station into its ongoing revival.

Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
Buffalo City Museum, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

On my first night in the city I had dinner with Brian and Mike Shriver from BuffaloPhotoBlog.com, who presented me with an unofficial challenge to try and shoot as much as I could in the next two days. I’d passed Kleinhans Music Hall while driving through town on my last trip and knew that I had to get shots of what has to be one of the best examples of midcentury modernism I’ve ever seen. I’d also glimpsed Buffalo’s city museum – a neoclassical temple nestled in an Olmsted-designed park – the previous year, and put that on my list.

Brian took me to Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna on that trip, but I wasn’t totally satisfied with my photos so I made it a point to visit it again after I’d visited the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens just across the street. I walked in just as noon mass was starting, so I sat down in a pew for the service before I took my photos.

A lot of my second day in town was spent on foot despite the rainy weather, checking out the latest additions to Larkin Square by the Zemsky family, who’ve led the revival of that neighbourhood, before I wandered down through the First Ward, an old working class area that’s also being revived, on my way to get a few more shots of Silo City. There’s no better way of really exploring a city except on foot – a rule that you can square if you’re a photographer, and I was left with the realization that there’s a whole lot more of Buffalo I need to see – and shoot.

Our Lady of Victory Basilica, Lackawanna NY, Oct. 2018
First Ward, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
Towards Larkin Square, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

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Vivian Maier

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BEGAN THE NEW YEAR WITH PHOTOS – specifically, the photos of Vivian Maier, in a show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. It was a daddy-daughter date; my oldest is a huge fan of Maier, and has watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier on Netflix multiple times. I’d never seen Maier’s work outside of books or TV, so it seemed like a good reason for us to take the GO train west to the end of the line.

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The AGH show is subtitled Street Photographer – which seems a bit redundant since street photography was pretty much all that Maier did. It was basically most of the photos shot on her Rolleiflex that appeared in the 2011 book of Maier’s work – also called Vivian Maier: Street Photographer – plus a selection of the 35mm colour work she did in the ’60s and ’70s, and a room where eight of her rolls of 8mm film were projected in a loop.

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If you know or care about photography, Maier’s story is well-known by now. She worked most of her life as a nanny in New York City and Chicago, taking photos in her spare time and amassing a body of thousands of negatives that went unseen until they were discovered by John Maloof, a Chicago filmmaker and photographer, at an auction of the contents of one of Maier’s storage lockers in 2007.

Maloof knew the value of what he found, and managed to collect together most of Maier’s negatives and photos; he posted them online on a photo blog and on Flickr, and the reception to Maier’s work was overwhelming. It was obvious that these weren’t just snapshots by an eager amateur. Unfortunately Maloof’s Google searches for Maier only found a reference to her in 2009, just a few days after her obituary had been posted.

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“Had she made herself known she would have become a famous photographer,” said Mary Ellen Mark, while going through Maier’s work with Maloof in Finding Vivian Maier. But she didn’t. For some reason, Maier kept her work to herself for decades while working as a nanny and housekeeper for various families (including Phil Donahue’s) and hoarding tons of things besides film negatives – newspaper clippings, clothes, political memorabilia, bus transfers, mail, uncashed cheques, trash – as she moved from place to place.

The story of Maier’s rediscovery happened around the time I began my old blog. It resonated for me, much the way that the story of Charles Jones did fifteen years earlier – a British gardener whose masterful still life prints of fruit and vegetables were discovered in a trunk at an auction. (Jones’ glass negatives had been destroyed years earlier; his granddaughter recalls him using them to make cloches for young plants.) Even more than with Jones, I identified with Maier; I could imagine my own work languishing in storage boxes somewhere after I was gone, and it probably ended up spurring me to post my photos online.

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But the question of posterity is only something that becomes important to an artist after their death, when they can’t do anything about it. Reputation, on the other hand, is something only a living person would care about. Most of the people who knew her say that she wouldn’t have enjoyed the fame she has today when she was alive. She might have resented John Maloof and his efforts immensely. But she hoarded the raw material for a biography, including films and audio tapes and countless self-portraits, which gives the impression of someone fighting against time to preserve a record of themselves.

Apart from the obvious quality of Maier’s photography, that might be one of the things that’s made her story so fascinating – that someone who worked so hard at her art, who obviously understood the value and skill that it showed, would have hoarded it so zealously and shunned the pursuit of reputation. (The shot below, one of my favorites, is an example of how Maier transcends the comparisons that have been made with photographers like Robert Frank, Lisette Model or Diane Arbus.)

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There might not be any way of discovering more about Maier – a truly obscure person who has only accidentally been gifted with posterity – but there are still thousands of images that remain unseen by anyone but Maloof and the people who do his scanning and printing. There might be a Vivian Maier working today, but while Maier’s unwillingness to seek reputation when she was alive kept her from presenting her work to the gatekeepers of the analog world – dealers, agents, curators, editors, gallery owners and patrons – today’s Maier would probably find themselves lost amidst the hosepipe of images flooding every minute from Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, DeviantArt, 500px, VSCO and Smugmug.

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Cemetery

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Lambton Jewish Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2018

I THOUGHT I KNEW THE WEST END PRETTY WELL BUT I DIDN’T KNOW THIS CEMETERY WAS THERE. A job had taken me out to a decidedly wealthy area on the “good” side of the Humber (I grew up on the “bad” side) and I saw the gates to the Lambton Jewish Cemetery from the bus stop. I’m a sucker for cemeteries (I live next to one) so I had to go inside and, even better, I had my camera bag with me.

The Lambton Cemetery is a conglomerate of several burial grounds. There are the cemeteries for synagogues – Junction Synagogue, Beth Jacob, Ostrovster Synagogue, Beth Aaron – and various burial societies like the Grand Order of Israel, Kol Yankov, the Ostrovster Young Mens Society, the Sons of Abraham and (my favorite) Hebrew Men of England. There are recent graves, so the cemetery is still active and well maintained.

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Every cemetery is full of stories, though reading them is like trying to figure out a book with just its last page. I probably wouldn’t have noticed all of the Fishmans grouped together if I hadn’t been drawn to the arresting sculpture of an infant on one of their stones. It’s hard not to be moved by the graves of children. And then there are the Holocaust memorials – long lists of names of relatives whose names are all that could be recovered. A cemetery is a quiet place until you notice all the remembrances around you, gently pleading for your attention.

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Humber River, Summer 2018

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Humber River south of Weston, Aug. 19, 2018

THERE’S SNOW ON THE GROUND SO WINTER’S EARLY which seems like a nice time to remember the summer. With my wife and kids out of town, I took a day off to try out the watercolour paint set I’d been given for Christmas. With the paints and my camera in my bag, I set off on a walk along the Humber River from the old town of Weston at Lawrence Avenue down to the Dundas Street bridge. As I say to myself whenever I head out with a camera and no particular agenda, “Let’s see what we can see.”

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Remembrance Day

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Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2018

THE CEMETERY BEHIND OUR HOUSE has held a dawn Remembrance Day ceremony at the Lutyens cenotaph for nearly a century. We try to make it there if we can every year. It seemed particularly imperative this weekend, with the centenary of the end of World War One. There are no more veterans of that war, and veterans of the one that followed seem fewer every year.

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