THE FIRST COUPLE OF WEEKS OF LOCKDOWN WERE THE MOST ANXIOUS, at least around here. There wasn’t much information, and what we did get was bad – rising death tolls, overwhelmed hospitals, panicked announcements from public officials who changed their stories daily. This was the period of toilet paper hoarding, and constant news reports of empty shelves in whatever stores were still open. It would be another week or so before delivery services rose to the new challenge – if you could afford them.
It was when we didn’t know if we could leave our houses, or what to do if we did. A new phrase – “social distancing” – was everywhere, but masks only seemed available for hospital workers. We watched videos on how to disinfect our groceries, if we could get a delivery slot. It certainly was a funny sort of apocalypse.
I wanted to go for a walk, but I had to stay away from people. (This wasn’t really a challenge – I try to avoid people at the best of times.) Luckily we live next to where rail and hydroelectric corridors meet, in Toronto’s old west end. Over several hikes, I ended up walking along the hydro corridor from just where “The Junction” is on the first map, due west to just past “Runnymede”, where they cross the CP Rail tracks by the Humber River. For most of these walks, I was almost completely alone.
For most of its length, the hydro corridor is bordered by the backyards of neighbourhoods like St. Clair Gardens, Silverthorne, Syme, Harwood, Rockcliffe-Smythe and Lambton. This is my city – the old west end where I grew up and where, ten years ago, we bought our house. These scrubby backyards, with their piles of apparent trash, beat-up bikes, slanted sheds, garden tools and patchwork DIY renovations, are a comforting sight to me most of the time, but they looked forlorn and abandoned on my walks, even though I was certain that homeowners were sheltering in place inside the adjacent homes.
I’ve always been fascinated by hydro corridors – common infrastructure in this city, and usually more accessible for walking than the rail corridors that are just as ubiquitous. I’ve never lived very far from one or the other, and now I live within sight of both. There’s something very H.G. Wells about the skeletal pylons striding, alone or in pairs, across the landscape.
It was inevitable that a bit of an end times feel made their way into these photos. The last major public health scares were the polio epidemics that peaked in the early ’50s. There was apparently a major measles outbreak in the ’80s, but I guess I was probably either too drunk or stoned to notice, and AIDS was sold as a kind of subscription epidemic – you were either in that exclusive club or you weren’t. The big comparison was the Spanish Flu, over a hundred years ago, and almost no one alive today could remember that. Like everyone else, I was trying to process just what this could all mean, and thanks to decades of films and TV shows set in the aftermath of nuclear wars, alien invasions, plague decimations or zombie outbreaks, I suppose my eye was drawn to the sorts of things you see below.
THIS SUNDAY IS WORLDWIDE PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPH DAY. It’s not an event I would have noticed or taken part in until this year, mostly because I didn’t even own a pinhole camera of any kind until about a month and a half ago. I didn’t go to school for photography, or even have any interest in taking photos until around the time I dropped out of college, so I never built a shoebox pinhole camera for fun or learned about basic optical theory – camera obscuras and near- and far-field diffraction – as part of a foundation course.
In the days of film, building a pinhole camera seemed like a lot of bother, and perhaps (shudder) a bit of math. Even when simple pinhole “lenses” (and yes, I know, a pinhole doesn’t have any glass in it so it’s not really a lens) became available for digital cameras I barely noticed. I suppose it was only in the last year or so, when my interest in getting something more (or, really, less) than a technically correct, “sharp” image returned again after twenty years, did I start shopping around for options to create “technically incorrect” photos.
Late last summer I saw a Facebook ad for a pinhole zoom “lens” on Kickstarter. Made by Thingyfy in China, it seemed novel and a bit more flexible than other pinholes – basically just body caps with holes – so I pledged my money and waited. And waited. It finally arrived after spending months in transit and just in time for the coronavirus lockdown. I sat and stared at it for a week or so and finally pressed it into service while shooting several still lifes in my ad hoc kitchen studio.
The raw images were a bit daunting – very, very soft and marked with many small concentric circles: marks from dust on either the UV filter you have to use with pinholes or on the camera’s image sensor. (I had been warned about this – nobody’s camera is perfectly dust-free, and with an aperture of roughly f165 the technical focus extends from infinity to the film plane.) After some work put into spotting the images in Photoshop – nothing I wasn’t used to doing with old scanned film negatives for years – I had to contend with the peculiar nature of pinhole images: While not technically out of focus, they’re nowhere near what you could call “sharp.” A friend and fellow photographer compared them to certain old, uncoated film lenses. But worse.
Now, the look of old, uncoated lenses is something that interests me, but a lot of work had to be done both during and after pressing the shutter to get these images close to what I had in my mind. The first thing that was obvious was that contrast – often harsh, close to blown-out contrast – was going to be my friend, as the lack of glass to focus light on any spectrum meant an extremely diffused image. I needed a way to get deep blacks to take hold somewhere in the frame, since they were the only thing that was going to give the illusion of detail.
It took three or four still life sessions to start producing frames like the one above – still holding detail in the middle of the tone spectrum, enough to create a sense of something sharp floating amidst all the ethereal softness native to the pinhole image. This also demanded a lot of work in Photoshop, using layers and the Unsharp mask to pull that detail out of the clouds and mud. I’d panicked a bit when I saw those first raw images, but after a couple of weeks of solid work – a gift that came with all the time and lack of distraction in lockdown – I began to find a formula that edged close to the peculiar “technically incorrect” goal that inspired all this effort.
This milestone reached, I decided to take my digital pinhole out into nature – the place where most pinhole photographers seem to use theirs, as bright daylight is pretty much the only place you might be able to take a shot at less than half a second exposure – perhaps even handheld if you push the ISO high enough. My original goal was Mount Pleasant, the city’s most picturesque cemetery within hiking distance of home. But complaints about violations of social distancing saw management padlock the gates, as well as those of Prospect Cemetery, conveniently right next to our house.
My fallback was Mount Hope, the midtown Catholic cemetery where my grandparents are buried, but that also got shut down, so I was obliged to return to High Park again, just a few months after I’d hiked it with my Holga plastic camera shooting an assignment for the Shacklands Camera Club. The park was also supposed to be closed to the public, but with 400 unfenced acres, that’s not really possible, and when I arrived there on a bright Saturday it was hardly empty, though the hikers, bikers and dog walkers were largely masked and responsibly apart from each other.
By this point I realized that hoping for shadow detail with the pinhole was mostly wishful thinking, especially when rich, black shadows were the only way to make sure you created any defining image detail at all. So I arrived at High Park (a 14km hike there and back from our house) with my tripod and camera prepared to look for striking silhouettes; another lesson you learn quickly with a pinhole is that composition matters more than ever.
I know the park pretty well; I’ve been going there since I was a child, and it’s a reliable source of inspiration. But even on this bright spring day most of the best images I got (apart from the one at the top of this post) were decidedly crepuscular; almost “day for night” in look, the afternoon sunlight transformed into moonlight, and surprisingly like the old storybook illustrations I’d been trying to take in the park for literally decades.
This was enormously satisfying. I’ve said for years that I’m basically a graphic artist hiding behind a photographer. (The sad part, of course, is that I’m actually a late 19th century graphic artist hiding behind a 1950s photographer. Try living with that identity crisis.) Finally, after several false starts when the sun and clouds refused to cooperate, I returned to a spot I’d noted on a hike a few weeks ago where I suspected there’d be a nice sunset.
So far the experiment with the pinhole – pushed along by an unexpected gift of time and motivation – has been pretty successful. I’m not sure if this “lens” will become a permanent fixture in my camera bag, but it certainly expanded the palette of potential pictures I might take in either personal or commercial situations. I still need to see how useful it is for portraits, and that’s an experiment that’s going to have to wait until “normal” – whatever that might be – returns.
JUST A DAY BEFORE THE CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN STARTED TO TAKE EFFECT, I went with my friend Alex on our annual pilgrimage to Motorama, the big local custom car and hot rod show. It’s a good thing we went on the first day, because the organizers decided to close the doors on the third day under pressure from the authorities. It was a big hit for them, and for the vendors and exhibitors – I hope they can all recover from it. So if you wanted to go but couldn’t make it, here’s my little digest of what were, to me, the highlights, as seen through my camera.
I’ve come to enjoy Motorama more than the big, established auto show just a month beforehand every year. I certainly ended up with more shots worth sharing this year – the usual little details and near-abstract shots that I’ve been drilling down on since I started shooting cars a bunch of years ago. This is where my eye is always being drawn – to the angles and surfaces and colours that I’ve found captivating since I was a kid checking out the rides parked in my neighbours’ driveways in Mount Dennis.
A family trip we planned to NYC this week was postponed, naturally, and school has been canceled for a further two weeks after March Break as governments act with what you might consider either panic or prudence. In any case, it doesn’t look like like we’re leaving the house much for the next few weeks, which means a whole bunch of still life work in the kitchen for me. Stay tuned – and if you’re stuck at home, too, now’s a good time to buy some of my photo books. Links in the sidebar and below.
I DO NOT MISS SHOOTING FILM. Which is why joining a camera club to shoot and develop film would seem like a strange thing to do, right? Yet that’s exactly what I’ve done, for reasons that it’s going to take a whole blog post to explain. It’s a good thing I have a lot of photos to share to try and make a point that, if I’m honest, I’m not completely sure if I understand myself yet.
I suppose it all begins at the beginning, with Kodak. I grew up a few blocks away from the Kodak Canada plant in Mount Dennis, a working class neighbourhood of Toronto, where my family began working back in the ’20s, when my mother got a job there. Which meant it was inevitable that someone, some day, would give me a camera, like this one:
This isn’t that first camera – a Christmas gift back when I was about ten years old – but an identical Instamatic I bought at a junk shop a few years ago. (That original camera is long gone, left behind when the house I grew up in was sold.) I’ve told this story a couple of times now when I’ve given talks about my work, but I loaded it up with a couple of rolls of 126 cartridge film and headed out into the snow in pursuit of some idea I had in my head.
Once I was done I took the film to mom to ask if she could have it developed. She asked what I’d shot; I told her it was just things I’d seen – snowbanks and bushes and trees and road – whatever was within walking distance of the house that looked like the images I had in my head. She seemed puzzled – why take photos of anything that isn’t family or trips or parties or special occasions? That was, after all, what was in nearly every photo in our house. In any case those rolls got shuffled into a drawer and were never, as far as I can recall, sent to be developed.
Fast forward thirty years or so. Work was getting scarce and my creative confidence was taking a hit and I needed something to help me clear my head and reconnect with whatever inspiration I once had, and for some reason I decided that the best way was to find a camera as close to that long-lost Instamatic as possible. Which meant a Holga – a cheap plastic camera made originally for the Chinese market that had become a staple of what became known as Lomography.
This isn’t that camera. My first Holga 120S fell out of a bag while while trying to get our kids off of a plane after a summer trip to Nova Scotia. I ended up falling hard for the serendipitous process of shooting with a camera with a fixed aperture and only notional control over focus. Even after I (gratefully) gave up my darkroom and switched to digital, I kept a Holga around and would occasionally run a roll or two of film through it.
But I’d send the film out for developing – no more messing around with chemicals. And then last year Dave Watts at Shacklands – the west end brewery where I had my book launch party late last year – told me he was starting up a camera club for anyone interested in shooting and developing film, which began meeting on the first Wednesday of each month last December.
I showed up at that first meeting with two boxes full of my old film tanks and reels, which included a tank loaded up with two rolls of 120 I’d shot on that original Holga two decades ago that, for whatever reason, I’d never developed. They ended up being the first rolls of film I’d develop since I packed up my last darkroom in the dusty basement of the house on Macdonell, where we moved after I gave up my studio. Until I’d finished souping these rolls in the sink at Shacklands I didn’t even know what was on those rolls.
They turned out to be shots taken in Georgian Bay, while visiting a friend’s cottage, and out on Cherry Beach in the Port Lands, during one of the walks I’d taken out there looking for inspiration. Light leaks had fogged the edges of some frames, but otherwise they were still more than usable- not that I went all the way and printed them with an enlarger.
Those undeveloped rolls were an unfinished bit of business that had haunted me since I stopped developing film, so finally running chemistry through them felt cathartic. But part of the camera club’s mission was to shoot film. And since all of this was happening at Christmas, the memory of that first Instamatic came to mind and I decided to wait until a suitably snowy day, like the one during that long ago holiday break where I headed out with my present.
My destination was another place of hometown inspiration – High Park, where I’ve been going since I was a child. The cold and a recent snowfall had emptied most of the park except for dog walkers, so I had the place mostly to myself as I looked for compositions strong enough to work with the strong technical limitations of the Holga – the indistinct focus, the blur and vignetting at the edges of the frame, the uncertain sense of precise composition in the very primitive viewfinder.
As an experiment, I tried to duplicate compositions I’d shot on the Holga with my cell phone. The frames above and below are fairly decent examples of the unique qualities available when you shoot with the most basic camera this side of a pinhole and a marvel of miniaturization and photo software.
I also brought along a “real” camera – my much-loved Fujifilm X30. The frames below are the sorts of photos I could take all day, every day, and while I’m hardly complaining, there’s something that makes me try to work harder, and avoid the easy path. The Shacklands camera club is an opportunity to force myself to think outside the digital realm, with all of its many conveniences. So the Holga will be taken off the shelf again, as I try to get the confidence to haul out my 4×5 view camera again for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. Stay tuned.
ANOTHER PRESS DAY AT THE CANADIAN INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW. I was supposed to be covering this for a newspaper, but there were layoffs and nobody got back to me but I was accredited on my own in any case so I was able to enjoy press day as a free agent. I put a fisheye lens on my X-T2 and did the usual thing with my X30 and let my eye get drawn to where it normally goes – to the details.
This year’s show was much smaller than it once was, certainly when I began covering the auto show over fifteen years ago and it sprawled over the whole of the convention centre and into the Skydome, er, Rogers Centre. One manufacturer (Volvo) was a no-show, but had skipped auto shows before, while another (Mercedes-Benz) was conspicuous by their absence. Concept cars made themselves conspicuous with their usual improbability, and the stunning new mid-engined Corvette finally made an appearance.
I DIDN’T SPEND AS MUCH TIME AT THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO THIS YEAR as I have in previous years. The many hours I’ve spent with my camera wandering around the AGO (and other art galleries) have been a big part of reviving my love of shooting. But without youngest offspring attending art classes at the gallery, however, there have only been two visits there with my Fuji X30.
This is an ongoing project that I probably wouldn’t have pushed this far without digital camera technology. Between the nearly silent shutter on the X30 and its waist-level LCD viewfinder, stalking random gallery goers has never been easier. I suppose I could be doing this out on the street, but shooting inside art galleries has the effect of eliminating variables like weather and light.
If there’s anything notable about this year’s photos it’s that I’ve started cropping tighter and moving in closer to my subjects. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten more confident with this project or that I’m more of a psycho about my “street photography” and how much I’m happy to take from the passersby who stray in front of my camera.
Still not sure about where this is all going. There’s a few years worth of these shots now, all loosely grouped under the title “Right Behind You.” I don’t think I’m quite there yet with the project as a cohesive whole; maybe I need to shoot in a bunch of other museums, or maybe I need to take this back out onto the streets. This next year seems like the time to make a decision about the future of my lurking.
SOMEONE ONCE ASKED ME IF I HAVE TO “PRACTICE” AS A PHOTOGRAPHER. I said that I did, which is why I carry a camera with me almost everywhere I go. (And I’m not including my cellphone in this.) I don’t shoot as much as I’d like to, so I try to take pictures whenever it’s possible. So I end up with folders full of shots that need a home. With the end of the year in sight, this is their home.
IT WAS COLD BY THE CENOTAPH THIS MORNING so there weren’t as many people as usual. We woke up early and made our way to the sunrise remembrance ceremony at the cemetery next door, as we have pretty near every year since we moved to this house.
I brought my camera, as I always do. The crowd was suitably stoic in the chill of an apparently early winter, but then I’m sure most of them know that they’re standing there in remembrance of soldiers who suffered much worse than a chilly morning just before the snow started falling.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us, Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp. The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp, Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice, But nothing happens.
SOME PEOPLE TRAVEL TO RELAX. That’s something I’d love to do one day, but at the moment traveling is an exercise in constant motion and military-style logistics. Take my recent trip to Atlantic City – I won a two-night stay at Resorts AC at a travel press event, which I decided to turn into some stories for my travel photography blog.
When it became obvious that there was no direct flight from Toronto to Atlantic City, it was time to get serious with my timetable. The best option was a Porter flight that took me from Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island to Philadelphia – via Boston. From there I had to get a SEPTA train to 30th Street Station in downtown Philly, and on to a New Jersey Rail train to Atlantic City. All told about twelve solid hours of traveling, which had to be meticulously plotted in my notebook, alongside weather, sunrise and sunset times and lists of potential subjects to be shot when I finally got there.
The trip got off to a promising start while waiting for the train to Atlantic City in Philadelphia. I was sitting on a bench in the very lovely art deco 30th Street Station when I noticed a man sitting across from me, looking up and down as he drew in a notebook. He told me to look up and we made a joke about smiling before he came across and sat next to me, introducing himself as Irving Fields.
He was an artist, formerly homeless, with quite a story – only one part of which was losing his leg after being hit by a car. After he showed me his work, I said that it was only fair that I take a portrait of him in exchange. I looked around the vast hall and spotted the rows of columns on either end of the room, where I asked him to pose. He took to being a subject quite enthusiastically, and I thought to myself that the trip was getting off to a good start with a portrait before I even arrived at my destination.
My main subject for the trip was the Boardwalk and the Steel Pier – two icons of Atlantic City that any traveler would feel obliged to capture with their camera. I put quite a lot of effort into taking shots of them both, and the Steel Pier in particular, which I made sure I caught at both sunset and sunrise while I was there.
I was in Atlantic City just after the season ended, so despite the summer-like weather on the only full day I had for shooting, I was dealing with a much emptier town than I would have just a few weeks earlier. Which was fine by me – there’s something poignant about a seaside town off-season, not to mention the convenience of being able to capture unpeopled views.
At the top of my Boardwalk destinations was Boardwalk Hall and its pipe organ – the largest in the world. Shooting in among the pipes in the rafters of the building I was glad I’d brought along my new fisheye lens, which I hit pretty hard while I was there. But I was also lucky enough to get another quick portrait during my tour, of Chuck Gibson, Professional assistant to the Boardwalk Hall organ’s curator, one of several people tasked with the non-stop maintenance of the instrument.
I also made my way out to Margate to photograph Lucy the Elephant, America’s oldest roadside attraction and an artifact of Atlantic City’s early history. Unfortunately my time in Margate was brief, but this district of lovely big beach houses, empty of the summer people and vacation renters who’d filled them until just a few weeks previous fascinated me. If I ever get back to Atlantic City, it’s an area I’d love to explore a bit more.
I walked up and down the Boardwalk looking for shots, but my eye kept getting drawn to the streets parallel to the wooden promenade – streets named after states that cut across avenues like Baltic, Pacific and Oriental, made famous by the Monopoly board game. This ended up drawing me away from the casino hotels and the beach into the Atlantic City that people call home.
This led to my third portrait session of the trip, with Robert Ruffolo, proprietor of Princeton Antiques, a bookshop that specializes in the history of Atlantic City. He told me about buying and collecting photos taken by generations of photographers who made documenting Boardwalk tourists and Atlantic City nightlife and events their business.
I find places like Atlantic City fascinating – towns with unique origins and unprecedented histories. There’s the town for visitors and the town for locals, with changes of fortune up and down the decades, peopled with colorful characters. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of those characters whenever I passed the empty shell of Trump Plaza, one of three properties that made up Donald Trump’s real estate empire at different times. The massive gilded Trump escutcheon still looms over the parking lots at the back of the Plaza, the “T” conspicuously missing. It’s tempting to snicker at this monument to failure, but as I keep pointing out to people prone to this sort of thing, he did move on to an even higher profile gig.
As much as I love the challenge of taking iconic travel photos for my other blog, I truly love making photos like these along the way, while I wander from sunrise to sunset. These are the kinds of photos that made me love traveling – the sort of thing I’d shoot at home, no doubt, but with the benefit and inspiration of being taken in places utterly unlike my hometown – places like Atlantic City, which I’d travel back to in a heartbeat.
I HAVE BEEN A WRITER LONGER THAN I HAVE BEEN A PHOTOGRAPHER. I don’t talk about writing much – after over 35 years, it’s become something I can do as opposed to something I want to do – but occasionally writing lets me take photos. This is how I get to do a lot of travel work, and this is what sent me to the end of the Lakeshore East GO line to the GM plant in Oshawa.
They were going to close the GM plant completely this Christmas, but a deal was worked out to retain a stamping and sub-assembly line and build an autonomous vehicle test track. This will save around a tenth of the 3,000 jobs at the plant today. At its zenith in the early ’80s, GM Oshawa employed 23,000 people. Looking at those numbers, it was hard not to write an elegy for car-building in Canada’s motor city.
Much of GM Oshawa is empty shop space. Whole buildings are mothballed, but maintenance has been ongoing so it’s hard to tell from the outside, walking the perimeter of the plant along Park Road, Phillip Murray Avenue, Stevenson Road and Bloor Street West. If you drive by the new Silverado trucks and Chevy Impalas parked in the logistics yards along Stevenson, you’d assume it was all business as usual at GM.
But most of the gates are locked and unmanned and down by Park and Phillip Murray where the test track will go the tanks are rusting. It was hard not to look at GM Oshawa as a ruin in the making, and I imagine in about a year it will look very different. If I know my ruins, it’ll be a magnet for other photographers.