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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Camera Club

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

I DO NOT MISS SHOOTING FILM. Which is why joining a camera club to shoot and develop film would seem like a strange thing to do, right? Yet that’s exactly what I’ve done, for reasons that it’s going to take a whole blog post to explain. It’s a good thing I have a lot of photos to share to try and make a point that, if I’m honest, I’m not completely sure if I understand myself yet.

I suppose it all begins at the beginning, with Kodak. I grew up a few blocks away from the Kodak Canada plant in Mount Dennis, a working class neighbourhood of Toronto, where my family began working back in the ’20s, when my mother got a job there. Which meant it was inevitable that someone, some day, would give me a camera, like this one:

This isn’t that first camera – a Christmas gift back when I was about ten years old – but an identical Instamatic I bought at a junk shop a few years ago. (That original camera is long gone, left behind when the house I grew up in was sold.) I’ve told this story a couple of times now when I’ve given talks about my work, but I loaded it up with a couple of rolls of 126 cartridge film and headed out into the snow in pursuit of some idea I had in my head.

Once I was done I took the film to mom to ask if she could have it developed. She asked what I’d shot; I told her it was just things I’d seen – snowbanks and bushes and trees and road – whatever was within walking distance of the house that looked like the images I had in my head. She seemed puzzled – why take photos of anything that isn’t family or trips or parties or special occasions? That was, after all, what was in nearly every photo in our house. In any case those rolls got shuffled into a drawer and were never, as far as I can recall, sent to be developed.

And that was it for my career as a photographer for at least a decade.

Fast forward thirty years or so. Work was getting scarce and my creative confidence was taking a hit and I needed something to help me clear my head and reconnect with whatever inspiration I once had, and for some reason I decided that the best way was to find a camera as close to that long-lost Instamatic as possible. Which meant a Holga – a cheap plastic camera made originally for the Chinese market that had become a staple of what became known as Lomography.

This isn’t that camera. My first Holga 120S fell out of a bag while while trying to get our kids off of a plane after a summer trip to Nova Scotia. I ended up falling hard for the serendipitous process of shooting with a camera with a fixed aperture and only notional control over focus. Even after I (gratefully) gave up my darkroom and switched to digital, I kept a Holga around and would occasionally run a roll or two of film through it.

But I’d send the film out for developing – no more messing around with chemicals. And then last year Dave Watts at Shacklands – the west end brewery where I had my book launch party late last year – told me he was starting up a camera club for anyone interested in shooting and developing film, which began meeting on the first Wednesday of each month last December.

I showed up at that first meeting with two boxes full of my old film tanks and reels, which included a tank loaded up with two rolls of 120 I’d shot on that original Holga two decades ago that, for whatever reason, I’d never developed. They ended up being the first rolls of film I’d develop since I packed up my last darkroom in the dusty basement of the house on Macdonell, where we moved after I gave up my studio. Until I’d finished souping these rolls in the sink at Shacklands I didn’t even know what was on those rolls.

Georgian Bay, 2002?

They turned out to be shots taken in Georgian Bay, while visiting a friend’s cottage, and out on Cherry Beach in the Port Lands, during one of the walks I’d taken out there looking for inspiration. Light leaks had fogged the edges of some frames, but otherwise they were still more than usable- not that I went all the way and printed them with an enlarger.

Cherry Beach, Toronto, 2005?

Those undeveloped rolls were an unfinished bit of business that had haunted me since I stopped developing film, so finally running chemistry through them felt cathartic. But part of the camera club’s mission was to shoot film. And since all of this was happening at Christmas, the memory of that first Instamatic came to mind and I decided to wait until a suitably snowy day, like the one during that long ago holiday break where I headed out with my present.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

My destination was another place of hometown inspiration – High Park, where I’ve been going since I was a child. The cold and a recent snowfall had emptied most of the park except for dog walkers, so I had the place mostly to myself as I looked for compositions strong enough to work with the strong technical limitations of the Holga – the indistinct focus, the blur and vignetting at the edges of the frame, the uncertain sense of precise composition in the very primitive viewfinder.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

As an experiment, I tried to duplicate compositions I’d shot on the Holga with my cell phone. The frames above and below are fairly decent examples of the unique qualities available when you shoot with the most basic camera this side of a pinhole and a marvel of miniaturization and photo software.

I also brought along a “real” camera – my much-loved Fujifilm X30. The frames below are the sorts of photos I could take all day, every day, and while I’m hardly complaining, there’s something that makes me try to work harder, and avoid the easy path. The Shacklands camera club is an opportunity to force myself to think outside the digital realm, with all of its many conveniences. So the Holga will be taken off the shelf again, as I try to get the confidence to haul out my 4×5 view camera again for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. Stay tuned.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020
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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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New books: INSTAGRAM

THIS BOOK IS A SEQUEL, OF SORTS, TO SQUARE – THE MOST PERSONAL OF THE TRIO OF BOOKS I PUBLISHED LAST YEAR. It might be even more personal; unlike SQUARE, which included studio still life work and by-products and leftovers from travel gigs, this is really a collection of snapshots – photos taken with the most simple, easy to use cameras I’ve ever used: My cellphones.

All of my cellphones, in order

I’m not sure when I took my first cellphone pic. It might have been with the third phone I owned – a Palm Trio built for texting that I never did. I mostly used my phone to take notes for locations; Instagram launched in 2010, but I didn’t open my first account until January of 2015.

I took a lot of time matching shots for the spreads in this book. The shot on the left was taken in an industrial park in a Toronto suburb. The one on the right was shot in Montana. I like to think that they both suggest a bit of a story that the viewer will try to fill in for themselves.

The snapshot of Irving Penn’s painted backdrop, taken during a trip to New York to see his big retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, screamed out for a portrait on the facing page, but I almost never shoot portraits with my cellphone. (Don’t ask me why.) I did, however, have a photo I took of a wooden sculpture – a portrait of an African chieftain in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Instagram is full of a lot of types of photos. There are selfies, of course (which I don’t take) and shots of food (which I have taken, rarely.) Most of all, though I think it’s a platform for people to share their travel photos, and I’m no different. This spread suggested itself – two different views of airplane travel, shot from plane windows. Like the two photos below, they’re quick grabs at capturing something ephemeral, and that mix of loneliness and wonder I find so compelling about travel.

Every new generation of cellphone I’ve had has improved camera image quality immensely. Shooting a professional gig on a cellphone is still a bit of a stunt today, but I can imagine a day when it will be completely normal. Perversely, this is why I decided to publish cellphone pics in the book with the highest printing quality (and highest price – $20) of all the books I’ve made so far. I’m pretty certain that the next book I do will move on from magazine to book format, so INSTAGRAM was a tentative test of what I can expect to see.

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Ian Blurton & Future Now

I THINK IT TURNED OUT PRETTY WELL. If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be shooting LP and 7″ single covers in 2019, I’d have said you were crazy. By the time I shot my first album covers thirty years ago the CD was taking over; every record cover I shot made it into the world 5″ square and not 12″ (except for the odd record that also came out on cassette, but that didn’t last long.)

Ian Blurton is a legend in Toronto’s music scene (and likely all over Canada) but he probably doesn’t love hearing it all the time. I’ve known him for over thirty years, and two years ago he told me that he was working on a solo record. He asked me to shoot artwork for the project, and last week the first single from Ian Blurton’s Future Now was released. I actually think this is the first 45 cover I’ve ever done.

I met Ian by High Park after sundown on a warm early summer day and we went for a wander through the park looking for the moon behind the trees. Our rough inspiration was the cover of Paranoid by Black Sabbath, but that ended up more as a mood setter than anything else once we were deep in the park.

I knew that my go-to camera at the time – my Fuji X30 – produced impressive results in low light, but I was pushing it a little bit in the deep shadows under the trees of the park. Ian had brought along a pair of glasses with little LED lights attached, and they were supposed to be the highlight in each frame, a hot spot under the hood of the parka Ian would put on every time we stopped at a likely location.

Ian chose a night with a full moon, hoping we’d get a shot like the one that ended up on the cover of the 45. Even without the moon in the frame, moonlight filled in the sky that would otherwise be black. My favorite shot is probably the one just above, but I’m grateful that Ian and Yeah, Right! records were willing to go ahead with a photo dominated by blacks and dark grays.

It was an altogether pleasant evening; Ian and I talked about how our work ends up finding us. I was planning the end of the old blog by this point, and had quietly decided that I was back at photography again. Ian has never lost his commitment to the work that found him, and spends most of his time producing, recording and playing music. There’s a reason why he’s a (sorry, Ian) legend.

I waited another year to hear from Ian about the record, and last winter he called about a promo shoot with the band he’d put together for the project – drummer Glenn Milchem, bassist Anna Ruddick and guitarist Aaron Goldstein. He suggested Riverdale Park as the location, with its view of the city and the sky, on another night with a nearly full moon.

I didn’t want to rely on the moon and streetlights so I brought along my simplest lighting rig – a pair of Coast LED maglights and light stands. The shot above was taken with my phone as a note to help plan the double exposure I knew I’d want to do with the Blood Moon or Wolf Moon that was due later that weekend. It was freezing that night, so I worked as fast as possible.

We did a reprise of the shoot for the single cover when Ian pulled out a set of little LED lights for everyone to put on, though Anna – the only non four-eyes in the group – had to hold hers in place. Fans of Ian and the band will be seeing more of this shot this summer as it’s being used for promo and posters.

The sky was clear a couple of nights later when the Wolf Moon was due. I was grateful to see it rise from the east and come into view right above my backyard, where I set up a tripod and my old Olympus E30 – the only camera I own that has a lens long enough (70-200) to get a close shot of the moon. After some trial and error – I’ve never really done much night sky shooting – I was able to get a bright, sharp shot of the Wolf Moon.

Combining the band shot with the moon was a challenge; every option with the moon roughly the size it would have appeared in the sky above Toronto looked a little underwhelming, so I kept making it larger and larger. The shot above is the most dramatic – and unrealistic – and remains my favorite at the end.

It’s nice to work with people you like. So far almost all of the work I’ve done for musicians since I returned to shooting has been with friends, and it’s been both pleasant and rewarding. I’d like to hope this doesn’t change; I’m too old to do work that I don’t enjoy, and having discovered a third act to my career – one I didn’t imagine happening even a few years ago – I’d like it to remain as satisfying as possible.

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Snapshots

At home, 2018

I TAKE PHOTOS ALL THE TIME. Especially since the day I noticed I had a camera on my cell phone, long before I got the Fuji X30 that’s become my favorite camera. My hard drives are full of random folders of shots – pictures taken as I make my way through the world.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Kodak kid, but I’ve been fascinated by snapshots for years – since before I ever took photos seriously. I’m not sure if most photographers feel this way, but I always want to find a way to tap the artless feel of snapshot photos for my own work (when appropriate.) I think I’ve been doing this too long to really take what most people would call a snapshot, but I love the snapshot aesthetic too much to take that option off the table.

AGO, 2016
Willowbank, 2016
Edwards Gardens, Toronto, 2017
Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo, 2019
High Park, Toronto, 2016

These shots are an informal, pick-and-mix record of things I’ve seen and places I’ve been for the last three or so years, back to when I was still doing my old blog and not really sure where all of that was leading me. At some point my friend Jonathan Castellino loaned me his Leica V-Lux 4 for a few weeks, which produced the next four shots:

Chinatown, Toronto, 2016
High Park, Toronto, 2016
Black Creek, Toronto, 2018

These photos were taken “off the clock” – while out with my family, or killing time wandering around town. The Black Creek shot was taken while Chris Buck was taking my portrait; the shots below at Oshawa Autofest, where I was helping my friend Alex sell t-shirts at his booth.

Oshawa Autofest, 2016

I guess I have some pretty predictable obsessions – clouds on the horizon, behind bits of skyline or parkland or striking intrusions, like the camera cranes at an auto race. These are notes – visual post-its; I see these things all the time, so I feel pretty happy when I have the wherewithal to capture them with a camera every now and then.

Honda Indy, Toronto, 2018
University Avenue, Toronto, 2016
Port Credit, 2018
Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo, 2019

And every now and then I get to indulge the street photographer I’ve never really let myself be, like at the Yayoi Kusama show at the AGO with my family. I can’t help but catch these scenes out of the corner of my eye; sometimes I remember to bring a camera.

Yayoi Kusama, AGO, 2018
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The Discarded

THE DISCARDED RELEASED THEIR THIRD RECORD – AN EP – LAST MONTH. It was also the third record I’ve worked on with Joel, Jared and Caden, a collaboration I haven’t had with anyone since Jane Bunnett in the ’90s. There’s something altogether pleasant about working with an artist on their visual image over the long term, and only part of it has to do with a sense of trust that’s probably felt disproportionately by the photographer.

I’d known Joel since the heyday of the the Queen West music scene here in Toronto – a community of groups that I always felt would have been better known, in a different city, in a place where major record labels weren’t branch plants of their parent corporation, or during (and not before) the digital revolution that changed the way music is made, distributed and marketed. After Joel ended up living with his two oldest sons after a divorce, they pulled a sort of post-indie Partridge Family and formed a punk band. When a record was imminent, he contacted me about doing publicity photos for his group.

Not From This Town is the first part of an ambitious project – the first act of a punk musical, or what we children of the ’70s used to call a “rock opera.” I’m not sure if it was meant to be this explicit, but the cover of act one ended up pulling in the influences and anxieties experienced by any new group; the Abbey Road visual shout-out was definitely something Joel and I talked about when planning the shoot, but the reference to The Who’s My Generation cover only became apparent when the band had moved a couple of blocks up Bay Street and I framed them standing in front of Old City Hall.

We ended up taking care of the two big shots in almost no time – the advantage of a bit of planning, I suppose. But with the rest of a weekend morning to burn, we headed out to other locations, like the front of the Concourse Building on Adelaide West, an art deco gem that was very nearly demolished a few years ago, J.E.H. MacDonald murals and all.

Out next stop was the ferry terminal by the foot of Yonge Street, where we had a vague plan to get shots of the band with the skyline of “This Town” behind them. We bought tickets and rode back and forth to Ward’s Island while I shot the band in various spots around the boat. My favorites turned out to be one along the railing, the band as weary and wary as any band will look, and another underneath the ceiling stuffed with flotation vests.

Back on shore, we wandered back to the car, where I posed Joel and his sons with one of the old island ferries in the background and I shot them having a moment probably as much like a family as a band.

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Cemetery

Lambton.Jewish.Cemetery.09.2018_08
Lambton Jewish Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2018

I THOUGHT I KNEW THE WEST END PRETTY WELL BUT I DIDN’T KNOW THIS CEMETERY WAS THERE. A job had taken me out to a decidedly wealthy area on the “good” side of the Humber (I grew up on the “bad” side) and I saw the gates to the Lambton Jewish Cemetery from the bus stop. I’m a sucker for cemeteries (I live next to one) so I had to go inside and, even better, I had my camera bag with me.

The Lambton Cemetery is a conglomerate of several burial grounds. There are the cemeteries for synagogues – Junction Synagogue, Beth Jacob, Ostrovster Synagogue, Beth Aaron – and various burial societies like the Grand Order of Israel, Kol Yankov, the Ostrovster Young Mens Society, the Sons of Abraham and (my favorite) Hebrew Men of England. There are recent graves, so the cemetery is still active and well maintained.

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Every cemetery is full of stories, though reading them is like trying to figure out a book with just its last page. I probably wouldn’t have noticed all of the Fishmans grouped together if I hadn’t been drawn to the arresting sculpture of an infant on one of their stones. It’s hard not to be moved by the graves of children. And then there are the Holocaust memorials – long lists of names of relatives whose names are all that could be recovered. A cemetery is a quiet place until you notice all the remembrances around you, gently pleading for your attention.

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Northumbria

Northumbria.live.12.2018_07

I SPENT THE FIRST TEN YEARS OF MY CAREER IN AND AROUND MUSICIANS. Toronto had a great – and undersung – music scene in the ’80s and ’90s, and many of my friends from that scene are still performing and recording. Guitarist Jim Field was a mainstay on the scene back then, and last Sunday he and bassist Dorian Williamson played a gig for the release of Vinland, the latest from their group Northumbria.

Northumbria.live.12.2018_02
Northumbria.live.12.2018_04
Northumbria.live.12.2018_03

I don’t love shooting live music – I’ve explained that in the old blog – but it’s not easy to do, and every now and then it’s time for a challenge and trying to get a decent photo in dim, changing light with a subject who isn’t paying attention to you will make you work hard as a photographer. Jim and Dorian sounded great, and it was refreshing to photograph a show without having to work around microphone stands. Check their record out – if you like that sort of thing you’ll love what they do.

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