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.
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.
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.
IT USED TO BE SO HARD TO GET YOUR PHOTOS OUT INTO THE WORLD. I’ve told the story many times in the last year or two – back when cameras still shot film and there was no internet, you had three options for putting your work in front of people: You had to get paid to take photos for a magazine or a newspaper, you had to get them hung on the wall of a gallery or museum, or you had to publish a book. Instagram, of course, has made all of this irrelevant, but so has the rise of online shopping and digital publishing.
Which is why I was excited the other day when this arrived:
One of my old compatriots from the Toronto hardcore punk scene – and an author of the TOHC book published last year – has a printing business, and a few months ago he told me that they were launching a new venture called 5050. It’s a custom printing business with an online storefront, where photographers and artists can upload poster-sized images for sale, with the profits split down the middle between artist and publisher. He asked if I’d like to submit some images for sale, so I did, after asking for some test prints to check the quality (which is excellent, BTW.)
I chose three images shot over a twenty year period – a still life taken in the last year I had my Parkdale studio, a photo from a trip to England on a press junket back when I worked at the free daily, and my homage to Berenice Abbott, taken last year in New York City. Each poster is printed on 22″ x 28″ matte stock, and retails for $50 Canadian. They’re unsigned (unless you can put one in front of me with a pen in my hand) but the quality is superb, and they cost much, much less than a signed, archival print.
They are, of course, suitable for framing, so I’ve mocked up a few ways for you to imagine them hanging on the wall of your Mad Men midcentury modern apartment, your swinging ’70s crash pad, or your cozy city condo. If they sell well, I might put up a few more images for sale, but mostly they’re a way to get my photos out of the virtual world and onto walls without the cost or frustration of dealing with an art gallery – which has never been a rewarding venue for me.
I hope my confidence in the existence of a market for my photos isn’t misplaced. And while I’m at it, my trio of photozines – STARS, MUSIC and SQUARE – are still for sale at the link below, but only for five more months, so pick them up while you can.
WHEN I WAS INVITED TO DO THE B&H PODCAST LAST NOVEMBER, I always knew that I wanted to do it in person and not by phone or Skype. It was too great an opportunity to take part in long distance, which meant a trip to New York City – hardly a hardship as far as I was concerned.
Planning ahead for the trip, it seemed like a great opportunity to do something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years – trying to duplicate a few of the great photos that have been taken in NYC, photos that have contributed to the city’s iconography. This meant staying overnight, and a bit of homework. I’ve already posted the results on my travel photography blog, but I thought I’d like to go into detail with the planning I had to do for the trip, and also post some of the leftover shots that I took during that busy, productive day.
I booked a room at Leo House, which has been my lodging of choice in Manhattan for the last couple of years. A modest Catholic-run hostel on 23rd Street, just a block west from the (legendary but still under renovation) Chelsea Hotel, it’s clean and old-fashioned and (relatively) cheap, and I splurged on a room with a bath.
I’d flown into Newark early on Porter that morning, but I didn’t want to waste a minute so I dropped off my bag and headed out to do a location scout on one of my main photo targets. Leo House was extra convenient in that it’s just a few blocks away from the Flatiron Building, which was made famous not long after it was built in photos taken by Edward Steichen.
I took a quick Instagram shot of the building, which looked striking even in the midday light. I knew that the weather and light had to line up perfectly if I hoped to get anything close to Steichen’s shot, which needed to be taken in dim morning light, and preferably when the pavement was wet. The Instagram pic looked good enough that I began worrying whether that would end up being my best Flatiron shot of the trip.
Just recently I returned to making notes for important shots – something I used to do all the time in the 1990s, when I was still doing a lot of studio shooting. There were a lot of logistics in play if I hoped to pull off everything I had planned for this trip, so I began planning weeks before, making notes of subway stops and routes, sunset and sunrise, and the approximate guesses of where I needed to be with my cameras, picked out with Google Maps and Google Street View.
I’d also researched my locations as much as possible, and I knew that Steichen wasn’t the only New York photographer captivated by the Flatiron Building when it was still new. His friend and mentor Alfred Stieglitz had taken a photo that likely spurred on the competitive Steichen to produce his own take, and their peer, the pictorialist Alvin Langdon Coburn, took his own famous shot of the building a few years later.
I had all of these images in my head as I walked around the edge of Madison Square Park with my camera. I knew that getting my homage to the Steichen photo was the focus of my efforts, but while I was there I couldn’t resist making a few tentative efforts at something in the spirit of Stieglitz and Coburn’s shots.
I don’t know why I love the New York subway but I do. It’s grimy and confusing but I never feel like I’m in the city until I take a ride on the subway. Every station looks unique, and the amateur historian in me is always looking out for the traces of closed entrances and tunnels to adjacent lines. It’s also a fantastic place to take photos.
Even when I used to spend a lot of time in NYC back at the turn of the ’90s, I didn’t get out to the other boroughs very much, and I never crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Back then the neighbourhood around the Brooklyn side of the bridge didn’t even have a name. The famous view down Washington Street toward the Manhattan Bridge is overrun with selfie-takers now, but I was fascinated by the adjacent streets where the massive piers of the bridge dominate the landscape.
I’m sure there are a thousand ways to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge. I ended up making a few attempts at the view of the bridge arcing its way across the East River into Manhattan, but when I was on the pedestrian walkway I ended up shooting up most of the time. I’ve been told that you didn’t used to see that much foot traffic on the bridge; I imagine you’d have to get out there pretty early, or in some pretty harsh weather, to have the whole impressive sculptural spectacle of it to yourself. Perhaps that’s a project for another trip.
As I approached the Manhattan side of the bridge, I could see my next destination in the distance. The Empire State Building still dominates the midtown skyline, and hopefully it always will.
I didn’t want to waste any time with lineups going up to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, so I had spent a bit extra and bought the VIP Express Pass online. I’d done my research – it was known that Berenice Abbott had shot her famous photo of Midtown Manhattan in 1934 from a window near the northwest corner of the building, but the first thing I saw as soon as I walked out onto the observation deck was my quarry for the following morning, cleaving through the thickets of buildings to the south.
After getting my bearings, I headed right for the corner closest to where Abbott took her photo. Consulting my notebook, I saw that there had been very little change over the decades to the scene below, and that I would probably be able to shoot a pretty close approximation of her original photo. I only had to kill a bit of time while the sun began to set.
I wandered through the crowds on the observation deck, slipping into an empty spot by the railing whenever I saw one to shoot whatever looked interesting. It was, as they say, a target-rich environment – Manhattan at dusk looks magical, and I came away wondering why, with so many opportunities for a picture in front of her, Abbott had chosen that one, specific view?
I had more time to kill before I had to meet a friend in the city for dinner, so I plotted out a route that would take me past the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and Grand Central Station on my way to P.J. Clark’s. The library was closed so I had to focus on the famous stone lions out front and the skyscrapers behind them – a view I’m sure hasn’t changed in at least seventy or eighty years.
The day ended at the Village Vanguard, a world-famous jazz club that’s miraculously still in business. No photographs allowed during the show, so I had to settle for a shot of the neon sign outside.
The rain started falling when I walked back to Leo House, and it was still falling the next morning when I got up before dawn to take the Steichen shot of the flatiron. I was wet and cold but at least I was lucky enough to match the circumstances in which Steichen took his photo. Once I was satisfied that I couldn’t shoot any more, I headed back to my room to dry off and get ready for the B&H interview.
I was hoping there’d be time after lunch with my friend Chris Buck to walk down the High Line with my cameras to 23rd before I had to get back to Newark, but the weather and an accident by the New Jersey Railroad line into Penn Station meant I had to recalculate my route out of the city via the PATH. Leaving at least one more iconic New York City location to shoot the next time I was back in the city.
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.”
I LOVE TO TRAVEL. It was a revelation to learn that I could travel and take pictures and sometimes even get paid to do it. After my gig doing travel writing for the Toronto Star ended last year I went into withdrawal for a few months before biting the bullet and starting my own travel photography blog. There might not be money in it, but it gets me back out on the road with my cameras, and that’s really the point.
My first trip for the blog was a pilgrimage to Rochester, New York; it seemed like a suitable destination to start with for a travel photo blog, and for a Kodak kid like myself, it was even more perfect. Everyone at the city’s tourism bureau were helpful and enthusiastic and I came back with three stories for the blog.
But I’m always shooting when I’m on a trip, and there are always leftover shots that don’t quite fit with the stories I produce. If I’m honest, these leftovers – “my own arty weird shit” as I used to call them when talking to my editor at the Star – are the reason I got into travel journalism. I could try and make these images without leaving Toronto, I suppose, but potentially having access to anywhere in the world to make them just increases the number of potential targets, so to speak.
It’s a travel photographer’s prerogative to ask if you can pull the car or bus over on your way between destinations to get a shot, and I’ve had to learn to find the best way to do that, whether I’m alone or on a group travel junket. Because there’s always something catching your eye, and I don’t know a photographer who doesn’t die a little when a potential shot recedes in the rear view mirror, unphotographed.
Travel photography is a recent addition to my portfolio, but I am always – and will probably always be – a portraitist. Opportunities to do portraits don’t always present themselves on trips, but when they do you have to grab them, as I did at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford NY. (A great family destination, by the way, if you’re in the area.)