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.

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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
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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
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Rochester NY

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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.

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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.

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High Falls at sunset, Rochester NY, July 2018
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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.

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Outside Scottsville NY, July 2018
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Pittsford NY, July 2018
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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.)

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Blacksmith, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
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Brewer, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
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Cobbler, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
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