High Park

High Park, Toronto, May 2021

IF YOU’VE FOLLOWED MY WORK (AND THANK YOU IF YOU HAVE) YOU’LL KNOW I KEEP RETURNING TO HIGH PARK. Which is why it took me all summer to shoot a post about the place for my travel photography blog; telling people about a place you know very, very well in words and pictures is probably the opposite of a travel story, since there’s no sense of discovery. I guess I have the continued lockdowns and the difficulty traveling to thank for forcing me to look hard at a place like High Park.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t gone to the park – for family outings, for a place to relax, for a place to work and find inspiration. Some of my earliest memories involve High Park – it’s in the west end of Toronto, no further away than a bus ride from my childhood home near the Kodak plant, and families like mine have been going there for generations. The photos below – shot in the park when I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old, probably by my cousin Terry, the family photographer – constitute the only evidence I have of my earliest, most nebulous memories.

High Park, Toronto, approx 1966-67

I knew I couldn’t get what I wanted in one trip, so I decided to divide the park into four sectors and concentrate on just one or two with each visit. Starting in the spring I did some scouting trips with just my Fuji X30, taking “snapshots” of potential locations to return to later. I only came back with my full bag of lenses and gear near the end of the summer, after nearly a half dozen visits to the park, and even then I wasn’t sure that I’d really got everything I wanted; in the end, the post just captures High Park in its prime, trees in full leaf, green and sun-dappled.

The photos in this post are the ones adjacent to those snapshots – the sorts of odd views that I love to bring back from places when I travel. The logs on the ground in a clearing – evidence of the sort of work that has to be done by crews maintaining a public park – made me think about the park as a flat pack kit, the sort of thing you buy from Ikea: Førest. The pull-up bars in a wooden frame got me imagining how a modern architect would design and build a park, as a kind of formal deconstruction.

High Park, Toronto, May 2021

The old tree with its bark stripped away looked faintly obscene to me. As someone whose specialty is portraiture – not that I’ve done much of that lately – I can’t help but anthropomorphize something like a tree, imagining in my mind that I’ve caught this once-dignified old character in a compromising position. Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to let the nature lead you to where it looks most beguiling, where water and trees meet in a kind of collision of texture and reflections.

High Park, Toronto, May 2021
High Park, Toronto, June 2021

Ever since last summer, when I began my “Hometown Lockdown” series for the travel photo blog, my eye has been drawn even more to little details in the landscape. It’s not quite macro photography, but definitely shots taken at the closest possible focus with the lenses I’ve been using. Last year I added a Pentacon 50mm/1.8 lens to my kit (bought during a brief lens-buying frenzy during lockdown) and this year I traveled around the park with that and a Kern Switar 25mm lens that I found on an old Bolex 16mm camera I’ve owned since the ’90s but never really used.

They’re pretty pictures, which is both the nicest and worst thing I can say about them. I love taking pretty pictures, even if I fought against the impulse to do so for years – and still do today, in fits and starts. But I take them all the time when I’m out in a forest or a park because it helps give a tactile sense of that place that isn’t just vistas or panoramas – at least for me, as someone whose eye tends to wander to small details as much as I look for landscapes.

My last trips to the park with a full bag of gear meant bringing along my pinhole lenses – now up to three from the one I bought last year, just before the first lockdowns started. I haven’t used them as much as I wanted to at the beginning of the summer, so it was nice to be able to have them there whenever a pinhole-friendly shot presented itself. That said, there was something abstract I was finding in the pinhole series, both last summer and during my recent trip to Niagara Falls, that I didn’t get in the park this summer. I have to keep pushing to get there again.

High Park, Toronto, July 2021
High Park, Toronto, Sept. 2021

Finally, I have a need to come back from almost anywhere I shoot with a portrait, and I suppose the closest I got in High Park was with one of the pair of emus that live in the park’s zoo. Like most large birds, they’re more than a little threatening, probably because you’re basically dealing with a dinosaur. This particular bird had no fear of the camera, and spent much of the time I was in front of its enclosure right against the fence, fixing me with its unblinking reddish orange eyes and letting out a low, clicking growl. It was the best sort of portrait sitting – suitably intense, with a palpable hint of menace.

Emu, High Park Zoo, Sept. 2021
High Park, Toronto, June 2021
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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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