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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”?