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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE PANDEMIC HAS KEPT US LOCKED DOWN FOR LONGER THAN EXPECTED. Canada – and Ontario in particular – has set a worldwide trend for length and severity of lockdown (an achievement of dubious distinction.) The end is in sight, however, which will hopefully mean more new work to talk about. In the meantime, here’s more of one of my lockdown projects, the first installment of which I posted late last year.
Once again I have to acknowledge the work Tim Morawetz has done documenting Art Deco architecture both in my hometown and across the country. (Please pick up his book Art Deco Architecture Across Canada or look for Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A guide to the buildings from the Roaring Twenties and the Depression in your library.) I had a lot to choose from when putting this post together. Toronto is not the most spectacular city for Deco or Streamline Moderne buildings in the world; it was/is a very conservative town, perhaps less so socially and politically, but still very much culturally and aesthetically. There are far more office towers and public buildings in the style than residences, but there are enough for a single post devoted to Deco dwellings.
There are no districts full of Deco homes and apartment buildings in Toronto, just pockets – a few streets where developers decided it was a style that might appeal to prospective residents, who would respond to its futuristic message of efficiency and modernity. To find them you need to wander through Midtown and areas that were being developed/redeveloped between the wars. You’ll know you’re warm when you come across buildings with names that evoke luxury, high society, or more glamourous climates.
Toronto is a city of Victorian red brick, but yellow brick became the material of choice for Deco and early Midcentury Modern apartments. In Toronto Deco announces itself with bands of brickwork underneath or running parallel with windows that are often set into the corners of buildings.
As ever, look out for curves – in balconies and awnings and deep turrets. The curve was Deco’s shape of choice – evocative of machines and streamlined ships and railway engines, but a testament to the skills of bricklayers who will charge a premium for a curved wall today, if they’ll even be able to rise to the challenge.
Finally there’s the octagonal window – usually set into a bathroom or a hallway in the efficiency apartments that are usually contained within most Deco apartment buildings in this city. The octagon is rational and symmetrical while breaking up the right angles of a building – and another shape that challenges the unskilled craftsman.
Deco in Toronto features many variations, from sedate facades full of classical devices from the early ’20s to courtyards with porthole windows in places like The Dorchester, a Moderne luxury building from 1940. The nearby Mayfair apartment complex is full of sinuous stone details that call back to Art Nouveau, while a pair of apartment buildings in Parkdale present themselves like twin engine houses with porthole windows.
The most perfect Art Deco apartments in the city, however, are in the Garden Court complex on Bayview, with their landscaped courtyards and corner windows and flats that become more modest the further you get from the entrance to the grounds. During the worst summer months of the pandemic the residents were especially vigilant about outsiders in their courtyards, even if they were just appreciative photographers.
There are not a lot of private homes in the Deco, Streamline or Moderne style in Toronto. I can count the ones I know on one hand, though there might be a dozen hiding on side streets all over the city. Some are restrained and unassuming, with just a flat roof, a curved wall and an octagonal window; my wife calls this “Methodist Deco.” Others just feature a Deco detail or two, in custom stonework over a door or around a chimney. Rarest of all is a house like 170 Strathearn, with portholes and octagons, a flat roof, curved balconies and decorative stainless steel railings, finished in gleaming white stucco that looks more suitable to Miami or Melbourne than Midtown Toronto.
IT’S ALMOST OVER – I HAVE TO KEEP REMINDING MYSELF OF THAT. But I know, of course, that I’m lying to myself. Yes – the calendar year 2020 is almost over, but the conditions that have given it such a baleful character are not. The Covid-19 pandemic crisis – however you want to define it – isn’t over, however, and as I write this I couldn’t tell you when it will. Perhaps it’s when we’re we’re all vaccinated, or when cases diminish to a certain level, or when the patience of the public shades from resignation to resentment to real anger. Whenever it ends – and I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to see the end of lockdowns and masks and social distancing – the calendar year 2020 will be its emblematic number.
Much as I want to forget 2020, I know I won’t, and neither will you. The downsides of this year – a nearly complete loss of income, the ebb and flow of a lingering funk that I only hesitate to call depression because I don’t want to give it that much significance – are undeniable. But did anything good come out of 2020? I can’t speak for my family life (since that, ultimately, is the only real life I’ve had since March) or personal growth – this isn’t the forum for that. But what about the work? What did 2020 produce, and what does it mean?
The year began normally enough, with promise of new projects to come. I began on this blog with a selection from my ongoing “Right Behind You” series – pictures of people in public places, usually art galleries, which I’ve been working on for years now. There was no reason to imagine that I wouldn’t be able to take lots of photos of people – alone, in groups or crowds – in 2020. I also posted my session with John Borra – the beginning of a new portrait series featuring musicians I’ve known or admired here in town for many years. It was the work I was most excited about pursuing in the new year.
I was also working with a camera club hosted by my friend Dave at his Shacklands Brewery, shooting a bit of film and doing some actual mentoring with younger photographers. Finally, as I do every year, I brought my camera along to the annual auto show and, a short time later, the Motorama car show, which would turn out to be the last event open to the public I’d attend in 2020, just before the organizers were forced to shut their doors. Last I heard, the auto show is toying with some sort of virtual event, while Motorama has been canceled for 2021. Obviously, 2020 is not going down without a fight.
Confronted with the insecurity and confusion of the first lockdown, I did what most people did – went to ground. It was, after all, just “two weeks to flatten the curve,” so I figured I’d wait things out at home – or rather, in our kitchen, where I began a weekly series of still life shoots, starting with a vase of dried-out flowers I’d given my wife for her birthday a few months previous. From there I moved on to one of the old scrapbooks I’d been collecting for their striking collages of chance images, and then to the skull I’d kept on my desk for nearly thirty years.
A friend dropped off several bouquets of flowers for me to shoot after I made an appeal for new subjects on Facebook, and when the first warm days came, I collected spring buds to photograph, hoping that the images of new life would send out a hopeful message. Finally, I spent a couple of days with the trash I’d collected in the alleyway behind our house, much of it covered in snow for most of what had seemed like a long winter.
After two months where I barely left our neighbourhood, it seemed time to venture out and see what had happened to the city since lockdown began. I’d been managing regular walks along the rail and hydroelectric corridors near our home – easy to manage in a mostly snowless winter, and probably essential to mental health. It was shocking to see the empty downtown, with streets free of traffic and boarded-up storefronts. It was also sobering – and more than a bit depressing – to see all the masks. While it seemed obligatory to capture at least a few images of my fellow citizens wearing the disposable blue PPE masks that will evoke 2020 the way a safety pin evokes punk rock, I knew by the time I made it back home that I would find no joy in documenting masked people.
So I returned to the kitchen studio. During the first weeks of lockdown, a great shift took place; we brought our offices home, and tried to figure out how to get things delivered to those homes, from essentials like food and medicine to the non-essentials that were still crucial to surviving without social or public lives – entertainment and distractions. New delivery services and distribution networks sprung up, and I started shooting our groceries as they were dropped off on the porch. With the first blooms of spring and early summer, I collected cuttings from the garden, or simply took my studio gear and cameras out there to shoot the colour and growth that, this year more than ever, we eagerly noticed.
By summer it had been months since I’d taken a portrait, so I turned to the closest subjects at hand – the people I’d been seeing almost as much as my family: my neighbours. We’d become more tuned into each other’s lives than ever before, aware of the delivery trucks that were our only visitors, and the routines of our sanity-preserving strolls and dog walks. I reached out to the neighbours we knew best and scheduled socially-distanced sessions in their backyards or on front porches, with my oldest acting as assistant and my youngest documenting the work. Doing portraits again was morale-boosting; the logistic and creative challenge jarred me out of a low-level funk, and inspired another new project.
It was obvious by the spring that two weeks were going to turn into months, and that travel work wasn’t happening until at least next year. My travel photography blog had been dormant since the end of 2019, and with each month I worried that it would never revive itself. Wherever I went as a travel journalist, I was always asked what the best things to see and do were in Toronto, and I could never come up with an answer. With most of the usual tourist hotspots closed, answering that question was going to be hard, so I had to find places that were worth visiting, mostly for locals in need of open air escape from our suddenly circumscribed lives. I came up with a dozen stories – green spaces by water, mostly, with scenery and history that explained and enhanced the best of Toronto as a place. Every new hike was full of technical and creative challenges, and I became more than ever the nature photographer I never imagined.
The most unexpected creative inspiration of 2020 came in the mail just before lockdown started. I ordered a Pinhole Pro X “lens” on Kickstarter last year – a relatively inexpensive toy that I bought on impulse. Since I didn’t go to school for photography, I never built a pinhole camera from a shoebox or a tin can. Maybe if I had, that experiment would have associated itself with rote classroom assignments and the frustrations of a steep learning curve at the start of a career.
Arriving in the middle of my fourth decade as a photographer, the pinhole ended up unlocking access to a look I’d been pursuing in my work for almost as long – a gauzy, ethereal aesthetic I associated with Victorian photographers and the pictorialists, and which I’d tried to explain for years by complaining that modern lenses were simply too sharp. I started playing with my new toy in the kitchen, shooting still life, then brought it along on a hike through High Park with the first days of spring. It had a place in my new backpack when I started the “Hometown Lockdown” series for the travel photography blog, along with a tripod, and I made a point of shooting with it whenever the particular circumstances necessary for a decent pinhole presented themselves.
If 2020 had been anything like a normal year, I wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to make scaling the learning curve with the pinhole anything like a priority. When lockdown started, I assumed that I’d concentrate on still lifes more than ever before, so any creative breakthroughs I made with that work was expected. The rewards of my pinhole journey were mostly unexpected, and exciting because I know that it’s early on, with so much more to come. And that, I suppose, is the best and most hopeful thing I can expect from 2020 – the top of a short list, to be sure, but when a year has been so stingy with rewards, you have to cherish what little you get from it at the end.
THE PANDEMIC HAS MADE ME THINK MORE ABOUT MY HOMETOWN THAN I HAVE IN YEARS. Toronto is not a pretty town; I’ve said before that growing up here has made me really look for worthwhile subjects, and probably nudged (deformed?) my particular aesthetic toward the pursuit of “ugly beauty.” One thing I can say with certainty, however, is that the closest this city got to lovely was probably in the waning years of the 1940s, before the tidal wave of postwar demolition and subsequent skyscraper construction began, and just after the high tide of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture had receded, leaving choice deposits on the streetscape.
The story of Art Deco Toronto has pretty much been captured by writer and Deco enthusiast Tim Morawetz, and his lavisly illustrated books Art Deco Architecture Across Canada and especially Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A guide to the buildings from the Roaring Twenties and the Depression(sadly out of print, but available though the Toronto Public Library) have been priceless guides in my own hunt for the remains of the Deco/Moderne city that has caught my eye since I was a boy. I’ve wanted to try to document this place – the Toronto of my fantasies – for years, but travel bans and forced idleness were ultimately the inspiration I needed. This is just the first in a series of posts I’ll be putting up as I take more photos and organize the results into (somewhat) coherent essays on the architecture, the city where it was built, and the fleeting vision it provides – for me, at least – of a much more elegant place to live.
I’m not an architectural photographer, so pristine, perspective-corrected documents of whole buildings aren’t really in my wheelhouse. What I wanted to capture, however, were the street-level flashes of Deco style that inevitably catch my eye wherever I wander, either here or in towns and cities with their own (sometimes far superior) examples of Deco and Streamline architecture. Because Art Deco left vivid traces wherever it found favour, from the bands of bricks wrapping around the corners of apartment buildings to the pyramidical massing on skyscrapers and public buildings, to the ziggurat shapes – upright and inverted – that show up on shopfronts and unlikely places, like the copper lamps by the entrance to a Roman Catholic church in uptown Toronto.
The greatest motif of Streamline Moderne is the curve – a shape that was understood at the time to be the sign of modernity, evocative of aerodynamic design and ever-increasing speed, borrowed from ocean liners and automobiles and used to shape balconies, eaves and overhangs on much more static apartment buildings and police stations. The sight of one curved balcony alerts me to the likely presence of an Art Deco district – a neighbourhood of developments from the mid-20s to the late-30s, likely to share the same vernacular style up and down a few adjacent streets.
Toronto isn’t a city of Deco masterpieces – that title probably goes to Montreal here in Canada, and places like New York, Shanghai, Paris, Mumbai, Melbourne and Miami. We do (or too often, did) have some little gems, like the old Stock Exchange building on Bay Street south of King. It became the home of the Design Exchange a few years ago, is currently reconsidering its direction after closing its design museum, and was shrouded in scaffolding this summer. So I was only able to get close to its doors with my camera, with their sequence of stainless steel medallions depicting industry and trade in high-Deco stylization, all heroic workers, technicians and capitalists thrusting forward into a better future.
These motifs are a recurring theme on Deco and Streamline office towers and public buildings. In Canada they often depict workers in the resource sector – miners and lumberjacks, surveyors, floatplane pilots and fishermen. A set of carved stone panels can be found at Queen Street subway station – they were installed when the People’s Optical Building was demolished to make way for the Maritime Life Tower, and these panels were installed in a new stairwell. I’m not sure if they’re from the People’s Optical building – of which no photographic trace exists, apparently – or a Maritime Life building, but they’re a pretty great example of Deco/Moderne decorative style, Canadian division. (UPDATE – they are, in fact, from the exterior of the People’s Optical Building, and there are photos.)
Another fine example of Canadian Deco style are the stylized totem poles at the entrance to the Runnymede Public Library building. Doorways are actually great indicators of a Deco district, though sometimes they’re the only obviously Deco/Moderne element on a more basic, humble building. I make a point of trying to capture them wherever I am, from the Hollywood glamorous entrance to an apartment building by the Humber River to a utilitarian service entrance on the side of the Horse Palace at the CNE – an undersung Art Deco Toronto gem that I’ll be returning to in future posts.
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 stilllifework, 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”?
TWO WEEKS TO FLATTEN THE CURVE HAS TURNED INTO NINE MONTHS AND COUNTING. When I realized that we’d be drifting in and out of various phases of lockdown and that travel was off the table at least until the end of the year, I decided I had to do something – anything – to salvage a year that was probably an economic write-off, and prevent it from being a creative one. The spring and a touch of cabin fever had inspired a frenzy of activity, shooting in the kitchen, around the house and on the street, but my travel photography blog had been dormant since the end of last year, and that needed to change.
Since I couldn’t go anywhere, the obvious thing was to treat my hometown as a destination – to find a way to answer a question I was often asked when I was on a travel junket somewhere: “So what’s worth seeing in Toronto?” A question for which I’ve never had an answer. So I made a list of places I could visit in Toronto, places that I thought would be worth a few photos, some places I’d never been before, and most importantly places I could go that were actually open under our constantly changing guidelines for social distancing.
Each outing was an excursion: I packed a tripod, water, snacks and a backpack full of gear, including the pinhole “lens” I’d bought on Kickstarter last year and received just as lockdown began. I’d spent the spring playing around with some park photos and a bunch of still lifes, but this was my opportunity to really test out just what was possible with this very basic, challenging piece of rudimentary, yet very engineered optics that had puzzled, frustrated and even angered other photographers who’d tested it out.
Even in bright sunlight I had to shoot with a cable release, locked off on a tripod, if I wanted to use the lowest possible ISO speed and mine as much detail as I could from the RAW files. Since focus wasn’t an issue – at a fixed aperture of around f165, everything is in focus from the horizon to the surface of the camera’s sensor – I had to worry about light and composition most of all. What I quickly learned was that most of the real work would end up happening later, during editing, in Photoshop.
I can see why other photographers would hate pinholes in general, and the Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X in particular: while technically in focus, sharpness is impossible, lens flare a constant threat, and true colour rendition absolutely out of the question. Every image file taken straight off of a memory card is raw material, but the pinhole images I worked with after each hike down some river or creek were daunting uphill battles, even after I’d spent twenty or thirty minutes retouching the spots and rings left behind by dust on my camera sensor.
Making any image work revolved around identifying the feature or shape or texture that would attract the eye, then going about a series of actions in Photoshop that isolated those features, sharpening their edges and shadows digitally, then subtly burying that sharpening in the soft, gauzy layers of the image. There was actual detail hidden each image; it just had to be carved out, then blended with the rest of the composition to maintain the dreamy feel of a pinhole image. It was a formula it took me weeks to refine, and I’m not sure I’ve gone nearly as far as I can with it yet.
Each image required at least an hour or two of work. I usually chose frames that had stark silhouettes or bright, highlighted areas against deep shadow. Even before the sharpening and blending, the best candidates had obvious graphic appeal that quickly made me realize that I was working toward a finished shot that had as much – if not more – in common with illustration or painting than photography.
There was a painterly quality to all of the pinholes, but the best images- to my eyes, at least – were ones that looked like they were engravings or rotogravures taken from an old storybook or magazine. I’ve made no secret about ending up in photography only after failing as an art student; I was a merely OK draftsman, but a very poor painter. And I’ve complained for years that modern lenses are often simply too sharp for my uses. So this ongoing pinhole experiment has been wildly satisfying, as it’s allowed me to become both the early 20th century illustrator and pictorialist photographer I have always longed to be.
Like most of my experiments, I’m still not sure where this one is leading me. The process has been a learning curve – always a gratifying experience – and while the results have been very different from what I was expecting when I pledged the price of this lens on Kickstarter over a year ago, they’ve been more than merely interesting, and at their best rewarding. There are some potential new directions for future work, and that’s never bad news.
Winter’s in sight, and more lockdown with it, apparently. I doubt if I’ll be out in the wilderness with my cameras for a few months, and I don’t want to stop experimenting with the pinhole. The burning question that I’ve been asking since I got it – “Will it portrait?” – has already been answered, with one quick but encouraging session during a recent shoot. Which is great news, especially during a year like this one. But more on that later.
SUMMER ISN’T OFFICIALLY OVER YET, BUT WHO ARE WE KIDDING? Temperatures are dropping and the kids are going back to school and we’re bracing for another corona spike before the leaves start turning. We’re still not back to normal – whatever that might be any more – and the time for parks and patios is running out. God but I hate 2020.
After the self-quarantining of the spring, I’ve tried to spend the summer outside, working on projects like my moribund travel blog. It doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere for a while, so I’ve taken up the challenge of finding what’s worth seeing and talking about in my hometown – a place I tend to take for granted, and hardly one of the world’s more picturesque cities.
In addition to an as-yet-unnamed project, I’ve made my way out to the Toronto Islands and the Leslie Street Spit with my new camera backpack, a tripod and a bag full of lenses. I’ll keep exploring destinations reachable by public transit until the weather finally forces me and everyone else back inside. Until now, though, the biggest challenge has been shooting under relentless blue skies.
As I’ve said many times, since Toronto isn’t the prettiest town, I’ve had to find my joy here finding “ugly beauty” – accidental grandeur and intriguing juxtapositions. And, of course, lurking behind my fellow citizens looking for a good shot – an old activity that’s been made immensely easier thanks to the politely antisocial protocols of “social distancing.”
You could argue that it’s not really a snapshot if you need a camera bag and a tripod, but I’m not going to bother addressing that. It’s my blog and I’ll call it what I want to call it. And as any professional photographer will tell you, any time off where you still have a camera in your hand is really just a busman’s holiday.
My excursions have given me another chance to play with my new pinhole “lens”, outside in the sorts of conditions in which I think it’s meant to be used. I am, frame by frame, slowly getting the hang of this thing. With just another couple of months left to use it outside under sun and sky, I think I might break through to something that’s still forming in my imagination. Let’s see where we are in another three months.
THESE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WE HAVE SEEN MORE OF (BESIDES OUR FAMILY) THAN ANYONE ELSE IN THE LAST THREE AND A HALF MONTHS. More than friends and extended kin, co-workers or schoolmates. As Covid shrunk our world down to a couple of blocks in any direction from our home, our neighbours became the people we came to know with unexpected and offhanded intimacy. Not that we’re complaining; perhaps some people might, but I can’t speak for them. Maybe we just have really nice neighbours.
When lockdown hit all of my work, actual or potential, pretty much dried up. A portrait series I’d only just begun had to be put on hold, and while there was always still life work and street photography to fill the weeks, I missed doing portraits. Frankly, I’m amazed it took me as long as it did to realize that the most appropriate subjects of all were within walking distance, waiting out the lockdown as eagerly as we were.
Using email, the neighbourhood Facebook page or just stopping people as they walked by the house, I began making appointments for quick portrait sessions. The rules were simple: I’d take the photos at either the front or back door of the homes where they’d been sheltering in place. They could choose how they wanted to dress and present themselves.
My camera and tripod would be set up a minimum of the acceptable socially distancing standard of six feet, if only to respect one of lockdown’s most sacred rituals. My oldest child acted as (paid) assistant, and bookings were made around when the sun wouldn’t be in the eyes of my subjects.
These are portraits of people near the end of lockdown. They have pushed past the uncertainty and improvisation of the first weeks and settled into a conditionally comfortable but decidedly ad hoc lifestyle that all of them, I’m certain, can’t wait to leave behind. Some of them have become better cooks. Many of them have watched far more television than they imagined. Their dogs have been living in a paradise of attention and exercise since winter ended, bonded more tightly than ever with a pack that never seemed to leave them.
We are Torontonians. We are polite people who don’t like to intrude, and will politely discourage intrusion. And yet we’ve become familiar with everybody’s regular habits, enthusiasms and preferences, mostly by simply observing our comings and goings, and those of our delivery people. I have, quite against lifelong habit, developed a real fondness and fellow-feeling for my neighbours, the result of living through what we were meant to understand was a lethal threat, in the comfort of our homes. We have bonded by experiencing what I can only understand now as a combination of a horror movie and a vacation.
AFTER NEARLY TWO MONTHS IN LOCKDOWN IT WAS TIME TO SEE WHAT’S HAPPENED TO MY CITY. News stories and tweets weren’t enough – Toronto is my hometown, and I was naturally curious about what it looked like when you took away its shopping and jobs. The only people I assumed were left downtown were the ones living there, and they had been told – like everyone else – to stay inside.
So on a sunny weekday morning I headed for Yonge Street, the city’s main drag, and started walking south. Up in midtown it was business as usual (except for all the closed stores), but as I got closer to the downtown pedestrian and street traffic thinned out where they would normally been bustling on a sunny day in spring.
I feel obliged to point out here that not everybody was masked. My estimate was that it was about half – less if they were working a strenuous job like construction (and there was a lot of construction going on, and why not, with the streets empty.) But masks are the totem of this unusual time – they’ll be visual shorthand for 2020 when it’s time to make movies set during coronavirus.
Yonge Dundas Square was also mostly empty, except for TV news crews filming b-roll footage, those hardy and/or reckless souls who’d be in the square anyway, or locals desperate for a bit of air and light. The big neon screens that make the square look like a tribute to Blade Runner were heavily on-message, broadcasting Covid-19 messages from banks and airlines and city government.
Street photography isn’t my long game, but I felt I had to get as many pictures of mask wearers as I could. Most of my shooting was done discreetly without looking through the viewfinder of my X30, shooting with the camera at chest level, hoping to get lucky with composition and timing. There was time for one portrait, however, with a couple I met while lining up for a coffee at one of the few open cafes.
There wasn’t much open, in an area full of stores, restaurants and hotels. I’m still trying to anticipate how bad the economic damage is going to be, in both the short and long term. For the most part it just looked like staff had cleaned up at the end of the night and locked the doors. Only a couple of shops had barricaded their storefronts, and I couldn’t help noticing that the most valuable commodity in this time of crisis is apparently sneakers.
The financial district was the emptiest area – the place where no one lives, while all the jobs done at desks in the office towers are currently being done on laptops in home offices and kitchens. But the eeriest spot was Union Station, where the trains were only barely running, and the arrivals and departures board was dark. Travel will probably be the last thing to resume at anything like its former vigor, but I’m having a hard time imagining just when that will be.
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.