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
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Mississauga, ON, May 2019

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.

Neon pop-up museum, Toronto, April 2019
Mississauga, ON, May 2019
St. Michael’s Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2019
Humber River, Toronto, Nov. 2019
Thornhill, ON, Sept. 2019
Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019
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Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2019

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.

– Wilfred Owen, “Exposure
Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2019
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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.


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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Remembrance Day

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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