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

Autumn Snapshots

Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

THIS IS A YEAR I WILL TRY HARD TO FORGET. It’s not that 2020 was the worst year of my life – trust me, there have been worse. Much worse. And it’s not like lockdown was unendurable; as I’ve said before, as a lifelong misanthrope, the first few months of “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” were a cakewalk, and barely made an impact on the routine of my “normal” life. But the year has reminded me that, much as I’ve strived to be a living refutation of this maxim, no man is an island, and the obvious suffering – economic, social, emotional and otherwise – that so many people around me have experienced has been impossible to ignore.

Etobicoke Creek, Sept. 2020
Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Marie Curtis Park, Toronto, Sept. 2020

I don’t want to talk too much about lost work. Paying assignments basically vanished in March, and I have no way of knowing when they’ll be back. I have a box of books and envelopes waiting to send to art directors and photo editors, but I have no idea if they’re back in their offices, will be soon, or perhaps ever. So it was obvious early on that work in 2020 was either going to be self-assigned or non-existent. I started out with still life work, tentatively ventured out for a few walks in my eerily deserted city, did a portrait series with my neighbours, and then turned my attention to my dormant travel photography blog, spending much of late summer and fall hiking around my hometown with my cameras.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Pearson International Airport, Sept. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Sept. 2020

Everything in this post is an outtake or by-product of those hikes. They’re misleadingly called “snapshots,” even though, if I’m honest, I’m many years away from being able to take a purely spontaneous snap of anything – three-plus decades of professional shooting has made that nearly impossible. I used to say that pictures like this were what I really looked forward to making when I was on assignment as a travel photographer/writer, so it’s not a stretch to say that hiking around greenspaces and trails all over the city was an excuse to take these pictures.

Etobicoke, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Sept. 2020
Middle Road Bridge, Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020

What strikes me now, seeing them all in one place, is how lonely they look. Early on my hometown travel hikes, I sent emails to Toronto and Ontario tourism departments, letting them know that I was trying to help them out in a difficult year. The response was the usual, rote indifference, though in an email from someone from Ontario Tourism I was admonished to make sure my posts adhered to appropriate standards of social distancing. In retrospect, I can honestly respond – mission accomplished.

Sherman Falls, Ancaster, Nov. 2020
Etobicoke Creek, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

Around this time in previous years I’d have been sifting through photos that make up what I call my “Right Behind You” series – shots of people, alone in groups, taken from behind, looking at art or spectating at some public event or tourist landmark. But public events in 2020 have either been cancelled, banned, or taken the form of some kind of public protest.

I am not a social documentarian, and I have taken as many photos as I can stomach of people in masks; as a portrait photographer, first, foremost and always, this has no appeal at all to me. And so this is my record of 2020, as I’ll remember it – empty places, some picturesque, some stark, all glimpsed while doing the only work permitted to me by the year’s peculiar rules.

Guild Park, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Don River, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

Winter is coming, and it’s supposed to be a cold one. My wife is encouraging me to keep exploring the city with hikes; the parks department just announced they’ll be opening trails on public golf courses to get us out and exercising and prevent cabin fever. Maybe she just wants to get me out of the house for a few hours every week or two. I can’t say that I blame her. It might happen, it might not. I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of still life work in the kitchen. Anything, really, to keep my mind off the nagging question that’s been on my mind since two weeks turned into months: What, if anything, will be left for me to do when they sound the “all clear”?

Old Mill Bridge, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Taylor-Massey Creek, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Etobicoke Creek at Lake Ontario, Toronto, Sept. 2020
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