Behind the Scenes at Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls at sunset, July 2021

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

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

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

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

The Great Fall, Niagara, 1857 by Frederic Unwin Church

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

White Water Walk, Niagara Falls, ON, July 2021

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

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

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

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

Journey Behind the Falls

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

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

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

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

Niagara Falls, ON, August 2021

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

View from Room 2222, Marriott Fallsview, July 2021

2020: A Year to Forget?

Skull, Toronto, April 2020

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?

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2019
John Borra, Toronto, January 2020
High Park, Toronto, January 2020
Motorama, Toronto, March 2020

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.

Rose, Toronto, March 2020
Scrapbook, Toronto, April 2020
Skull still life, Toronto, April 2020
Tulip, Toronto, April 2020
Spring buds, Toronto, May 2020
Alleyway trash, Toronto, May 2020
At work in the kitchen studio, Toronto, May 2020 (photo by CJ)

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.

Toronto, March 2020
Yonge St. looking south from Dundas, Toronto, May 2020
Yonge & Dundas, Toronto, May 2020

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.

Pears (Gossip), Toronto, May 2020
Lettuce, Toronto, May 2020
Poppy, Toronto, June 2020
Thistle, Toronto, August 2020

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.

Heather, Nyiah, Isaya, Koa Béo & Mischa, Earlscourt, June 2020
Peter, Sarah & Karen, Earlscourt, June 2020
Steve, Earlscourt, June 2020
At work on “Neighbours” with my assistant, Agnes (photo by CJ)

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.

Leslie Street Spit, Toronto, August. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Don River, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Mount Hope Cemetery, Oct. 2020
Tiffany Falls, Ancaster, ON, Nov. 2020
Rouge National Urban Park, Toronto, Nov. 2020

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.

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020
High Park, Toronto, April 2020
Apples, Toronto, May 2020
Toronto Islands, August 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Don River, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto, Sept. 2020

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.

Check out my books

Behind the scenes in Atlantic City

Steel Pier, Atlantic City, NJ, Oct. 2019

SOME PEOPLE TRAVEL TO RELAX. That’s something I’d love to do one day, but at the moment traveling is an exercise in constant motion and military-style logistics. Take my recent trip to Atlantic City – I won a two-night stay at Resorts AC at a travel press event, which I decided to turn into some stories for my travel photography blog.

When it became obvious that there was no direct flight from Toronto to Atlantic City, it was time to get serious with my timetable. The best option was a Porter flight that took me from Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island to Philadelphia – via Boston. From there I had to get a SEPTA train to 30th Street Station in downtown Philly, and on to a New Jersey Rail train to Atlantic City. All told about twelve solid hours of traveling, which had to be meticulously plotted in my notebook, alongside weather, sunrise and sunset times and lists of potential subjects to be shot when I finally got there.

The trip got off to a promising start while waiting for the train to Atlantic City in Philadelphia. I was sitting on a bench in the very lovely art deco 30th Street Station when I noticed a man sitting across from me, looking up and down as he drew in a notebook. He told me to look up and we made a joke about smiling before he came across and sat next to me, introducing himself as Irving Fields.

Irving Fields, artist, 30th Street Station, Philadelphia PA, Oct. 2019

He was an artist, formerly homeless, with quite a story – only one part of which was losing his leg after being hit by a car. After he showed me his work, I said that it was only fair that I take a portrait of him in exchange. I looked around the vast hall and spotted the rows of columns on either end of the room, where I asked him to pose. He took to being a subject quite enthusiastically, and I thought to myself that the trip was getting off to a good start with a portrait before I even arrived at my destination.

Portrait of the photographer by Irving Fields, Oct. 2019

My main subject for the trip was the Boardwalk and the Steel Pier – two icons of Atlantic City that any traveler would feel obliged to capture with their camera. I put quite a lot of effort into taking shots of them both, and the Steel Pier in particular, which I made sure I caught at both sunset and sunrise while I was there.

Steel Pier, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

I was in Atlantic City just after the season ended, so despite the summer-like weather on the only full day I had for shooting, I was dealing with a much emptier town than I would have just a few weeks earlier. Which was fine by me – there’s something poignant about a seaside town off-season, not to mention the convenience of being able to capture unpeopled views.

Boardwalk, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

At the top of my Boardwalk destinations was Boardwalk Hall and its pipe organ – the largest in the world. Shooting in among the pipes in the rafters of the building I was glad I’d brought along my new fisheye lens, which I hit pretty hard while I was there. But I was also lucky enough to get another quick portrait during my tour, of Chuck Gibson, Professional assistant to the Boardwalk Hall organ’s curator, one of several people tasked with the non-stop maintenance of the instrument.

Pipe organ keyboard, Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019
Chuck Gibson, pipe organ technician, Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

I also made my way out to Margate to photograph Lucy the Elephant, America’s oldest roadside attraction and an artifact of Atlantic City’s early history. Unfortunately my time in Margate was brief, but this district of lovely big beach houses, empty of the summer people and vacation renters who’d filled them until just a few weeks previous fascinated me. If I ever get back to Atlantic City, it’s an area I’d love to explore a bit more.

Lucy the Elephant, Margate NJ, Oct. 2019
Margate NJ, Oct. 2019

I walked up and down the Boardwalk looking for shots, but my eye kept getting drawn to the streets parallel to the wooden promenade – streets named after states that cut across avenues like Baltic, Pacific and Oriental, made famous by the Monopoly board game. This ended up drawing me away from the casino hotels and the beach into the Atlantic City that people call home.

Off the Boardwalk, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

This led to my third portrait session of the trip, with Robert Ruffolo, proprietor of Princeton Antiques, a bookshop that specializes in the history of Atlantic City. He told me about buying and collecting photos taken by generations of photographers who made documenting Boardwalk tourists and Atlantic City nightlife and events their business.

Robert Ruffolo Jr., antiquarian bookseller, Princeton Antiques, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

I find places like Atlantic City fascinating – towns with unique origins and unprecedented histories. There’s the town for visitors and the town for locals, with changes of fortune up and down the decades, peopled with colorful characters. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of those characters whenever I passed the empty shell of Trump Plaza, one of three properties that made up Donald Trump’s real estate empire at different times. The massive gilded Trump escutcheon still looms over the parking lots at the back of the Plaza, the “T” conspicuously missing. It’s tempting to snicker at this monument to failure, but as I keep pointing out to people prone to this sort of thing, he did move on to an even higher profile gig.

Former Trump Plaza, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2016
House face, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019
Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

As much as I love the challenge of taking iconic travel photos for my other blog, I truly love making photos like these along the way, while I wander from sunrise to sunset. These are the kinds of photos that made me love traveling – the sort of thing I’d shoot at home, no doubt, but with the benefit and inspiration of being taken in places utterly unlike my hometown – places like Atlantic City, which I’d travel back to in a heartbeat.

Check out my books

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.

Check out my books

Georgian Bay

On Georgian Bay, 2019

THE GREAT THING ABOUT MY WORK is that I occasionally get paid to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had my eye on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry for years now, but I was recently hired by the Alternator Group on behalf of Owen Sound Transportation Company to spend a weekend on the boat between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island, take some photos and write a few stories.

My motel, Tobermory, ON, 2019

Cottage country is a big deal up here – not just in Canada, generally, but in Ontario particularly. My family never owned a cottage – we rented one for a week, once, when I was a boy – so I’ve spent my meagre time there as a guest. I’m not a driver, so I had to hire a car to get me up to where Ontario Highway 6 turns a corner by the Bruce Anchor Motel and pauses at the ferry docks in Tobermory.

Tobermory, Ontario, 2019

The ferry takes up where the road leaves off, moving cars across the mouth of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island, where the highway continues across the island, over the North Channel via a swing bridge before ending in McKerrow. I was only concerned with the highway’s path over the water on the Chi-Cheemaun, however.

MS Chi-Cheemaun arrives at Tobermory, 2019

I arrived in Tobermory with just enough time to check in to the Bruce Anchor before wandering down to the dock to watch the Chi-Cheemaun arrive from its morning voyage across the bay. Since I wasn’t booked on to the boat until the evening sunset dinner cruise, I had an afternoon to kill in Tobermory, which I did with my camera – a warm-up before I had to get on the boat and get to work.

On deck, Georgian Bay, 2019
Manitoulin Island, 2019

I like boats. I like anything that takes me anywhere, but boats have a clear lead over planes and a narrow one over trains. Going somewhere on a boat feels like a voyage, and thanks to ever-changing conditions on the water, each trip feels different than the last. The Chi-Cheemaun has been making itself a destination on its own for many years, but its branding got a boost when the bow and funnel were decorated with murals inspired by local woodland aboriginal artwork.

On Georgian Bay at sunset, 2019

I used my main camera, a Fuji X-T2, to take the portraits and reportage I needed for the commissioned stories, but as usual I took my much-loved X30 with me to capture the sorts of shots I’m always collecting when I travel. The return journey from Manitoulin was dominated by a long sunset that seemed to change every time I thought I’d shot enough and went inside again. A glimpse out the window would reveal another different combination of sky, water and colour, so out I’d go again.

Ferry terminal, Tobermory, ON, 2019

The last embers of the sunset were still burning away when we docked at Tobermory for the night, lining the horizon out towards the mouth of the bay. The sun disappeared and brought a night of rain, which carried in a day’s worth of fog that covered the lake from the moment we left the next morning, hiding the islands on the way out of Tobermory in wisps of steaming mist.

I actually enjoyed my two trips on the Chi-Cheemaun through the fog more than the spectacular sunset cruise the night before. The lake was definitely choppier and visibility was down to a few dozen metres for most of the trip, which meant that the ship’s horn would sound regularly, its muffled echo rolling back through the fog. But the views from the deck were more primal and mysterious, land glimpsed only occasionally through cool fog, the water raked with waves.

Leaving Tobermory, 2019
Manitoulin Island, 2019
See my published books

Elora again

Elora Mill Inn, Grand River and the “Tooth of Time”

I FINALLY GOT TO STAY AT THIS PLACE. Elora is probably my favorite small town in Ontario, and I’ve been there a few times now, the last two on business. The Elora Mill Inn & Spa was still being renovated when I visited last year, but I’ve been angling to get a night there since they gave me a tour. A couple of months ago I got my chance.

The mill is as old as the town, and it’s been the star of its scenic views for as long as Elora has been hosting visitors, for more than a century. It’s amazing to think that the “Tooth of Time” – a little flowerpot island that sits in the middle of the steepest part of the rapids by the mill – is still standing. The spring melt had swelled the Grand River when I visited, so the water was raging through Fergus and Elora the whole time I was there.

Time was tight while I was in town so I had to do some planning. I already had the postcards, but I needed to nail down sunset and sunrise while I was in town and figure out where the light would be. I knew I wanted to get a long exposure of the water flowing past the mill, and thankfully this time I had all the gear I need to pull it off – a lightweight travel tripod, a cable release and a set of neutral density filters.

Taking the shot with all the gear

The sunset was a bit muted when I set up on the patio outside the spa – as close as I could get to the spot where some anonymous postcard photographer set up for their shot over a century ago. I’m still not sure about shooting long exposures, but it’s a look I’ve never seriously tried before with landscapes and this seemed like a good place to give it a shot.

Room with a view, Elora Mill Inn & Spa

My room was visible from the patio – on the left side of the new glass addition, just above the restaurant and below the balconies of the deluxe suites. The hotel was nice enough to give me a suite with a fireplace, which I enjoyed the hell out of. I was in town to write a couple of travel features about Elora, but I knew that I’d try to get a post for my own travel blog about the hotel while I was lucky enough to enjoy their hospitality – and the spectacular view:

I did a bunch of interviews for the travel features, which gave me an opportunity for some portraits. Elora’s been a hub for artists since at least the ’70s, and they’ve formed a community whose work has become a key part of the town’s business and identity. I handed in colour shots for the stories, but I took some versions of my own, pretty sure they’d end up being processed in black and white.

David Cross, blacksmith and sculptor, Elora, Ontario
Neil Hanscomb and Gisela Ruehe, glass artists, Elora, Ontario

The whole Elora/Fergus area is ridiculously photogenic, so I ended up with a lot of “end cuts” even after handing in my two features and posting to my travel blog. My visits to the area, while enjoyable, are always too brief. One day I’d like to spend a few days exploring with my camera, though I doubt if my lodgings will be as luxurious.

Ruin, Elora, Ontario
Templin Gardens, Fergus, Ontario
Grand River in the spring, Fergus, Ontario
Grand River at Wilson Flats Access Point
See my published books

Mexico 2018

Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018

MY SECOND TRIP TO MEXICO IN TWO YEARS took me to a very different place than the first. This time I was sent to the Mexico most tourists would recognize – beaches and resort hotels; sun and sand. As I wrote when I posted the second of two stories on my travel photo blog (posted after the stories that paid for me to be in Mexico were printed) I’m not much of a beach person, so nearly a week on the Mayan Riviera felt very much like anthropology to me.

Our group made our way from the airport in Cancun to Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo province over the course of one very long day. The sun was down when we checked into our hotel, but I managed to get away one morning for a walk around the town by the harbour. No one would mistake Chetumal for a tourist hot spot, but it’s not a bad little city if that’s not what you’re looking for, and the waterfront has its particular charm.

Chetumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018

The real discovery of the trip was the Laguna Bacalar – the Lagoon of the Seven Colours – and its still relatively undiscovered attractions. (Undiscovered, that is, by North American tourists; the place was full of Mexicans and South Americans.) As I wrote elsewhere, it put me in mind of a tropical Lake Como where big houses and old hotels hug the shore. In other spots, the vast, shallow shoreline and clear water had a meditative quality I don’t think you get next to an ocean.

Laguna Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018
Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018

That was underlined during a lightning visit to Tulum, where the hipsters holiday, or so I am told. Tulum also provided a perfect snapshot of the tourist experience as it was often revealed to me. We were able to get a bit more time before that in Bacalar, where a trip to the town square to get money from the ATM turned into a sunset walk around the perimeter of the town that gave me some of my favorite – and least touristy – photos of the trip.

Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018
Grand Velas Maya Riviera, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018

Our two nights in the five star, luxury all-inclusive Grand Velas Maya Riviera was very different. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to loving the comfort and grandeur of a place like the Grand Velas, from its impressive front gates (very photogenic, especially at sunrise) to its wide halls and public spaces to its carefully manicured beach and excellent restaurants. It was as close as I’ve ever come to The Village, where Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six was very comfortably confined in The Prisoner. I always thought the place looked rather pleasant, and sometimes felt Number Six complained a bit too much.

Grand Velas Maya Riviera, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018
Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018

Cozumel, very nearly the tourism ground zero of the Mayan Riviera, was actually quite lovely. I skipped the snorkeling – it was useless to take up space on the boat with a non-swimmer – but I was able to kill time in a manner better suited to my temperament, with a cold beer under an umbrella looking out to sea.

We ended up back where we began – in the party town of Cancun, at another all-inclusive resort, albeit one much better suited to the voracious vacation schedule of the young and resilient. Lizards marched slowly across the manicured lawns and the Caribbean beat restlessly against the beach under a dramatic sky on our last morning. The red flags were out to warn swimmers of treacherous waves, but for someone like me who doesn’t take off their shoes, it was all just more great spectacle, and the sort of thing that makes travel irresistible.

Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 2018
See my published books

Behind the scenes of 24 Hours in NYC

WHEN I WAS INVITED TO DO THE B&H PODCAST LAST NOVEMBER, I always knew that I wanted to do it in person and not by phone or Skype. It was too great an opportunity to take part in long distance, which meant a trip to New York City – hardly a hardship as far as I was concerned.

Planning ahead for the trip, it seemed like a great opportunity to do something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years – trying to duplicate a few of the great photos that have been taken in NYC, photos that have contributed to the city’s iconography. This meant staying overnight, and a bit of homework. I’ve already posted the results on my travel photography blog, but I thought I’d like to go into detail with the planning I had to do for the trip, and also post some of the leftover shots that I took during that busy, productive day.

My room at Leo House, W. 23rd St.

I booked a room at Leo House, which has been my lodging of choice in Manhattan for the last couple of years. A modest Catholic-run hostel on 23rd Street, just a block west from the (legendary but still under renovation) Chelsea Hotel, it’s clean and old-fashioned and (relatively) cheap, and I splurged on a room with a bath.

I’d flown into Newark early on Porter that morning, but I didn’t want to waste a minute so I dropped off my bag and headed out to do a location scout on one of my main photo targets. Leo House was extra convenient in that it’s just a few blocks away from the Flatiron Building, which was made famous not long after it was built in photos taken by Edward Steichen.

I took a quick Instagram shot of the building, which looked striking even in the midday light. I knew that the weather and light had to line up perfectly if I hoped to get anything close to Steichen’s shot, which needed to be taken in dim morning light, and preferably when the pavement was wet. The Instagram pic looked good enough that I began worrying whether that would end up being my best Flatiron shot of the trip.

Just recently I returned to making notes for important shots – something I used to do all the time in the 1990s, when I was still doing a lot of studio shooting. There were a lot of logistics in play if I hoped to pull off everything I had planned for this trip, so I began planning weeks before, making notes of subway stops and routes, sunset and sunrise, and the approximate guesses of where I needed to be with my cameras, picked out with Google Maps and Google Street View.

I’d also researched my locations as much as possible, and I knew that Steichen wasn’t the only New York photographer captivated by the Flatiron Building when it was still new. His friend and mentor Alfred Stieglitz had taken a photo that likely spurred on the competitive Steichen to produce his own take, and their peer, the pictorialist Alvin Langdon Coburn, took his own famous shot of the building a few years later.

Flatiron at midday, NYC, Nov. 2018

I had all of these images in my head as I walked around the edge of Madison Square Park with my camera. I knew that getting my homage to the Steichen photo was the focus of my efforts, but while I was there I couldn’t resist making a few tentative efforts at something in the spirit of Stieglitz and Coburn’s shots.

34th St. Station, NYC, 2018

I don’t know why I love the New York subway but I do. It’s grimy and confusing but I never feel like I’m in the city until I take a ride on the subway. Every station looks unique, and the amateur historian in me is always looking out for the traces of closed entrances and tunnels to adjacent lines. It’s also a fantastic place to take photos.

DUMBO, Brooklyn, Nov. 2018
Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn, Nov. 2018

Even when I used to spend a lot of time in NYC back at the turn of the ’90s, I didn’t get out to the other boroughs very much, and I never crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Back then the neighbourhood around the Brooklyn side of the bridge didn’t even have a name. The famous view down Washington Street toward the Manhattan Bridge is overrun with selfie-takers now, but I was fascinated by the adjacent streets where the massive piers of the bridge dominate the landscape.

Brooklyn Bridge, NYC, Nov. 2019

I’m sure there are a thousand ways to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge. I ended up making a few attempts at the view of the bridge arcing its way across the East River into Manhattan, but when I was on the pedestrian walkway I ended up shooting up most of the time. I’ve been told that you didn’t used to see that much foot traffic on the bridge; I imagine you’d have to get out there pretty early, or in some pretty harsh weather, to have the whole impressive sculptural spectacle of it to yourself. Perhaps that’s a project for another trip.

Empire, NYC, Nov. 2019

As I approached the Manhattan side of the bridge, I could see my next destination in the distance. The Empire State Building still dominates the midtown skyline, and hopefully it always will.

Flatiron, NYC, Nov. 2019

I didn’t want to waste any time with lineups going up to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, so I had spent a bit extra and bought the VIP Express Pass online. I’d done my research – it was known that Berenice Abbott had shot her famous photo of Midtown Manhattan in 1934 from a window near the northwest corner of the building, but the first thing I saw as soon as I walked out onto the observation deck was my quarry for the following morning, cleaving through the thickets of buildings to the south.

Consulting my notes, Empire State Building, NYC, Nov. 2018

After getting my bearings, I headed right for the corner closest to where Abbott took her photo. Consulting my notebook, I saw that there had been very little change over the decades to the scene below, and that I would probably be able to shoot a pretty close approximation of her original photo. I only had to kill a bit of time while the sun began to set.

Midtown Manhattan, Nov. 2018

I wandered through the crowds on the observation deck, slipping into an empty spot by the railing whenever I saw one to shoot whatever looked interesting. It was, as they say, a target-rich environment – Manhattan at dusk looks magical, and I came away wondering why, with so many opportunities for a picture in front of her, Abbott had chosen that one, specific view?

New York Public Library, Nov. 2018

I had more time to kill before I had to meet a friend in the city for dinner, so I plotted out a route that would take me past the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and Grand Central Station on my way to P.J. Clark’s. The library was closed so I had to focus on the famous stone lions out front and the skyscrapers behind them – a view I’m sure hasn’t changed in at least seventy or eighty years.

Village Vanguard, Nov. 2019

The day ended at the Village Vanguard, a world-famous jazz club that’s miraculously still in business. No photographs allowed during the show, so I had to settle for a shot of the neon sign outside.

Flatiron (after Stiechen), NYC, Nov. 2019

The rain started falling when I walked back to Leo House, and it was still falling the next morning when I got up before dawn to take the Steichen shot of the flatiron. I was wet and cold but at least I was lucky enough to match the circumstances in which Steichen took his photo. Once I was satisfied that I couldn’t shoot any more, I headed back to my room to dry off and get ready for the B&H interview.

I was hoping there’d be time after lunch with my friend Chris Buck to walk down the High Line with my cameras to 23rd before I had to get back to Newark, but the weather and an accident by the New Jersey Railroad line into Penn Station meant I had to recalculate my route out of the city via the PATH. Leaving at least one more iconic New York City location to shoot the next time I was back in the city.

Check out my books

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, 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
Check out my books

Rochester NY

On the Erie Canal, July 2018

I LOVE TO TRAVEL. It was a revelation to learn that I could travel and take pictures and sometimes even get paid to do it. After my gig doing travel writing for the Toronto Star ended last year I went into withdrawal for a few months before biting the bullet and starting my own travel photography blog. There might not be money in it, but it gets me back out on the road with my cameras, and that’s really the point.

My first trip for the blog was a pilgrimage to Rochester, New York; it seemed like a suitable destination to start with for a travel photo blog, and for a Kodak kid like myself, it was even more perfect. Everyone at the city’s tourism bureau were helpful and enthusiastic and I came back with three stories for the blog.

George Eastman’s wisteria, George Eastman Museum, Rochester, July 2018

But I’m always shooting when I’m on a trip, and there are always leftover shots that don’t quite fit with the stories I produce. If I’m honest, these leftovers – “my own arty weird shit” as I used to call them when talking to my editor at the Star – are the reason I got into travel journalism. I could try and make these images without leaving Toronto, I suppose, but potentially having access to anywhere in the world to make them just increases the number of potential targets, so to speak.

High Falls at sunset, Rochester NY, July 2018
Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester NY, July 2018

It’s a travel photographer’s prerogative to ask if you can pull the car or bus over on your way between destinations to get a shot, and I’ve had to learn to find the best way to do that, whether I’m alone or on a group travel junket. Because there’s always something catching your eye, and I don’t know a photographer who doesn’t die a little when a potential shot recedes in the rear view mirror, unphotographed.

Outside Scottsville NY, July 2018
Pittsford NY, July 2018
Pittsford NY, July 2018

Travel photography is a recent addition to my portfolio, but I am always – and will probably always be – a portraitist. Opportunities to do portraits don’t always present themselves on trips, but when they do you have to grab them, as I did at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford NY. (A great family destination, by the way, if you’re in the area.)

Blacksmith, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
Brewer, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
Cobbler, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
Check out my books