Behind the Scenes at Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls at sunset, July 2021

THERE WAS A LOT OF TIME TO THINK ABOUT SHOOTING NIAGARA FALLS. At least a year, probably, since I began planning a trip to the Falls during the brief opening up between lockdowns last summer. When it finally looked like there’d be places to go and things to see the planning started again; I knew I wanted to try and shoot the Falls from every angle possible, in every kind of light, which meant an overnight stay.

Which meant a hotel room. It’s been almost two years now since I stayed in a hotel, and just the thought of it was exciting, never mind actually showing up, getting my keys and experiencing that perpetual thrill – it never goes away, i don’t know why – of seeing your room for the first time. I made sure I booked into the hotel closest to the Falls, on the highest floor possible. I ended up in the Marriott Fallsview, on the 22nd floor, just below the penthouse suites, with a view that I paid dearly for.

I did as much research as possible beforehand; the late Pierre Berton’s Niagara: A History of the Falls is still the best book about the Falls after nearly three decades. I also began collecting a folder of images and created six whole pages of reference sketches and notes in my notebook. Train departures and arrivals, contacts, bookings, weather, sunset and sunrise times – it all went into my notes. I don’t know how I worked for so many years without doing this much pre-visualization, but maybe it’s just that every shoot and opportunity has become more precious now.

It’s becoming useful to set myself at least one goal when appropriate to the trip – an iconic image to try and duplicate to the extent that it’s possible. For this trip it wasn’t a photo but a painting that I wanted to copy – Frederic Unwin Church’s The Great Fall, Niagara, an 1857 panoramic canvas that contributed greatly to Church’s (now vanished) fame back when it was exhibited and reproduced all over the world.

The Great Fall, Niagara, 1857 by Frederic Unwin Church

Erosion has moved the Horseshoe Falls back many feet since Church painted his canvas, and in any case the finished work was a composite, meant to convey the power of the Falls more than precise appearance. I ended up shooting from a spot just near the Table Rock Visitors Centre – a view that took in more of the river behind the Falls than Church did, using my 7.5mm fisheye lens. Copying a painting is, of course, an even more quixotic task than doing the same thing with a photo, so I knew that whatever I did in the end would be more a matter of interpretation than mimicry.

White Water Walk, Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

I began my shooting at the Whirlpool Aero Car and then walked upriver along Niagara Parkway to the White Water Walk – both attractions owned and managed by Niagara Parks, with admission arranged by the nice people at Niagara Falls Tourism Canada. Liaising with the tourism people was part of my preparation for the trip – I didn’t want to worry about access and lineups, especially when capacity numbers were being limited due to COVID. In any case my decision to make my trip early in the week meant crowds were much thinner than on the weekends, a choice that I’d made not because of crowds but because the week only promised a brief window of good weather.

Patting myself on my back, I planned my schedule well for the day, allotting more than enough time at each spot to shoot at my leisure. I’d made the schedule so loose, in fact, that I had plenty of time after finishing shooting the Whirlpool Rapids to walk all the way down to the Falls – a hike that takes you past the old downtown of Niagara Falls, ON, much of which has been abandoned, though there’s an ongoing effort to revive Queen Street as an arts, shopping and dining destination for locals.
Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

It was definitely a walk mostly off the beaten tourist track, taking in the Ten Thousand Buddhas Sarira Stupa, two closed tourist information booths (one a lovely Art Deco building across from the American Falls), and the view down the railway crossing at Bridge Street to the US side. (Stupidly, I’d let my passport lapse during lockdown, otherwise I’d have found time to cross over the river and get some shots from the American side.)

My next destination was Journey Behind The Falls – an attraction nearly as old as tourism to the Falls, though it’s much safer and well-managed than it was in the 19th century, when visitors would walk along a narrow ledge behind the roaring curtain of water at the Horseshoe Falls, fearing for their lives. It was a vantage point I knew I needed to get – my only chance to shoot up at the Falls instead of across or down.

Journey Behind the Falls

Anticipating the shooting conditions at the bottom of the Falls, I invested in a bit of kit ahead of time – a waterproof cover for my mirrorless Fuji. It was worth the money – the spray from the Falls will soak you out on the viewing platform, and with the camera cover the only thing I had to worry about was wiping water off the front of my lens. There was even time to get a shot of me at work, looking less than dignified.

Besides the candid shots above, the trip was also an opportunity to shoot some pinhole work, and try out a couple of new pinhole “lenses” I’d acquired since last summer. I was worried that last year’s pinhole shooting was an anomaly – novelty being as much of the thrill as any creative breakthroughs. Happily, though, it was just as exciting and rewarding as last year, perhaps even more so with familiarity with the very specific limitations of pinhole, and the resulting creative challenges, and a conscious move to try and make the images even more abstract.

Whirlpool Rapids, Niagara River, July 2021
Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

As much as I managed to accomplish at the Falls, I was still missing some pieces when I came home from this trip. A major new attraction – the restored 1905 Power Plant – wouldn’t be open for another week, and I didn’t have time to take a stroll around Clifton Hill and its exuberantly garish, reliably fun tourist attractions – our Atlantic City, the closest thing Canada has to a year-round carnival midway. Luckily we’d planned a family day trip a couple of weeks later, which gave me a chance to fill in these blanks.

Niagara Falls, ON, August 2021

It was fantastic being on the road again, if only for a night, and the trips to the Falls only underlined how much I miss travel work. I hope I’ll be able to get back to it as soon as possible, despite warnings of tightening travel restrictions and potential returns to lockdown. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like I’ve lost a lot of time and opportunity in the last year and a half; fully vaccinated and with a renewed passport, I’m desperate to make up for it all.

View from Room 2222, Marriott Fallsview, July 2021