Plague Walks

Lavender Creek Trail, Toronto, March 2020

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.

Plague Walk, Toronto, March 2020

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.

Plague Walk, Toronto, March 2020

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.

Plague Walk (Transmission corridor), Toronto, Spring 2020

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.

Plague Walks, Toronto, Spring 2020
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Art Gallery

Art Gallery of Ontario, March 2019

I DIDN’T SPEND AS MUCH TIME AT THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO THIS YEAR as I have in previous years. The many hours I’ve spent with my camera wandering around the AGO (and other art galleries) have been a big part of reviving my love of shooting. But without youngest offspring attending art classes at the gallery, however, there have only been two visits there with my Fuji X30.

Art Gallery of Ontario, March 2019

This is an ongoing project that I probably wouldn’t have pushed this far without digital camera technology. Between the nearly silent shutter on the X30 and its waist-level LCD viewfinder, stalking random gallery goers has never been easier. I suppose I could be doing this out on the street, but shooting inside art galleries has the effect of eliminating variables like weather and light.

Art Gallery of Ontario, March 2019
Art Gallery of Ontario, Dec. 2019

If there’s anything notable about this year’s photos it’s that I’ve started cropping tighter and moving in closer to my subjects. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten more confident with this project or that I’m more of a psycho about my “street photography” and how much I’m happy to take from the passersby who stray in front of my camera.

Art Gallery of Ontario, March 2019
Art Gallery of Ontario, Dec. 2019
Art Gallery of Ontario, March 2019

Still not sure about where this is all going. There’s a few years worth of these shots now, all loosely grouped under the title “Right Behind You.” I don’t think I’m quite there yet with the project as a cohesive whole; maybe I need to shoot in a bunch of other museums, or maybe I need to take this back out onto the streets. This next year seems like the time to make a decision about the future of my lurking.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Dec. 2019
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Snapshots

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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Cenotaph

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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Art Gallery

Art Gallery of Ontario, April 21, 2018

AROUND FOUR YEARS AGO MY YOUNGEST DAUGHTER started taking classes at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I volunteered to take her on weekend mornings, which usually meant I had a couple of hours to kill just when the gallery opened. At first I used it as an excuse to wander around the neighbourhood with my camera, but after a while I began sticking to the galleries, taking pictures of the rooms and the gallery goers – making photos of people looking at art. I would start the morning with a coffee in the Galleria Italia and then slip into the adjacent rooms of Canadian art to start my furtive shooting.

At least a year ago my daughter was definitely too old for me to be taking her to class, but it had become our ritual, and frankly I had had come to enjoy those two hours every week, lurking around the AGO with my camera, stalking my subjects. But with her last class just before Christmas she was officially too old for the kids’ art programs. She’ll likely be back to take portfolio classes in high school, but my excuse to spend every weekend sneaking my photos was over.

These photos are a selection of the best shots I took in the gallery last year. At some point in the last four years a random challenge turned into a bit of an obsession, and I realized that I was creating a series – an ongoing project I’ve christened “Right Behind You.”

I also took photos at other art galleries, and when I was on travel junkets – any place where people went about the business of looking at things, individually or in groups. I suppose the whole project actually began over thirty years ago, with some photos I’d taken in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, before I had any idea that I’d make photography my career.

As someone who’s specialized in portrait photography, this was a challenge – anti-portraits, of people who didn’t know their picture was being taken, most of them shots with their faces turned away from the camera. If I was shooting this on film, I might have used a Rolleiflex or a Leica rangefinder; cameras with nearly inaudible shutters. In the digital era I’m even luckier – my beloved Fuji X-30 has a virtually silent electronic shutter, and an LCD screen that folds out for waist-level shooting. It’s basically a street photography challenge, confined to a single venue, with most of the variables of shooting on the street – crowds, the clutter of buildings in the background, changing conditions of light and weather – removed.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from heading back to the AGO on my own. But perhaps it’s time to take my little project to some new venues, maybe back out into the streets. What I do know is that setting myself this challenge regularly has helped keep my reflexes sharp and my eye in practice. But the melancholy part is that this particular series of photos marks the end of a discrete period of my time as a father.

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Buffalo NY

Botanical Gardens, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

GROWING UP IN TORONTO IN THE ’70S, Buffalo felt closer to my hometown than any other Canadian city. That’s because, geographically, it was – just across the border from Niagara Falls, its big American network affiliate TV stations were easy to pick up over the air, so we’d listen to their evening news programs while waiting for the latest episodes of Happy Days or All In The Family. We didn’t travel much in my family, but I remember one trip with my sister, mom and cousin Terry to Buffalo for some shopping, and an overnight stay in an old hotel downtown. My sister tells me there was a lot of clothes shopping – I can’t recall any details of that – but I do remember the hotel, an old building with iron bedsteads and transoms over the doors.

I didn’t get back to Buffalo again until my old travel gig at the Toronto Star sent me there to write about the city’s urban revival and architecture two years ago. I had such a good time that, when I launched my own travel photo blog I contacted Brian Hayden of Visit Buffalo Niagara, who graciously agreed to invite me to visit and shoot some new stories about parts of the city I missed on my first visit. As usual, I had a lot of photos left over from the trip, and here they are.

Silo City, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
“Swannie” Jim Watkins, Silo City, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

My first priority on the trip was Silo City, a complex of once-abandoned grain silos on the Buffalo River, a relic of the city’s industrial past and its key position at the mouth of the Erie Canal. It was my first stop on the trip after I arrived at the train station and dropped my bag off at my B&B. “Swannie” Jim Watkins met me at the gate and gave me a brief tour of what was accessible on the site, then said that since most photographers he’d met tended not to want company, said he’d leave me alone to shoot. I could have spent a whole day there.

Central Terminal, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

Second priority on my list of Buffalo must-sees was the Central Terminal, a huge Art Deco train station that hasn’t picked up a passenger in nearly four decades. I’d passed it on the train to Rochester that summer and knew I had to get in and take a look. I was given a tour by Mark Lewandowski, the director of the non-profit that’s stabilizing the building after years of abandonment and running it as an event space while the city decides how to reincorporate this beautiful old station into its ongoing revival.

Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
Buffalo City Museum, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018

On my first night in the city I had dinner with Brian and Mike Shriver from BuffaloPhotoBlog.com, who presented me with an unofficial challenge to try and shoot as much as I could in the next two days. I’d passed Kleinhans Music Hall while driving through town on my last trip and knew that I had to get shots of what has to be one of the best examples of midcentury modernism I’ve ever seen. I’d also glimpsed Buffalo’s city museum – a neoclassical temple nestled in an Olmsted-designed park – the previous year, and put that on my list.

Brian took me to Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna on that trip, but I wasn’t totally satisfied with my photos so I made it a point to visit it again after I’d visited the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens just across the street. I walked in just as noon mass was starting, so I sat down in a pew for the service before I took my photos.

A lot of my second day in town was spent on foot despite the rainy weather, checking out the latest additions to Larkin Square by the Zemsky family, who’ve led the revival of that neighbourhood, before I wandered down through the First Ward, an old working class area that’s also being revived, on my way to get a few more shots of Silo City. There’s no better way of really exploring a city except on foot – a rule that you can square if you’re a photographer, and I was left with the realization that there’s a whole lot more of Buffalo I need to see – and shoot.

Our Lady of Victory Basilica, Lackawanna NY, Oct. 2018
First Ward, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
Towards Larkin Square, Buffalo NY, Oct. 2018
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