Monthly Archives: December 2014

Photo Movie: Salvador

Salvador is a great movie to watch if you’re interested in photojournalism. Richard Boyle (James Woods) is a burned out journalist (and self-professed weasel) who, along with a DJ sidekick, Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi), heads down to El Salvador to see if he can pick up some freelance work. The two Americans arrive in time to witness the assassination of Oscar Romero, the murder of four church workers, and the U.S.-backed military push to crush the leftist guerrillas. Boyle connects with a more professional journalist, John Cassady, who feeds him some work.

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Before things really blow up, they go together to photograph the bodies of the disappeared. It helps survivors identify loved ones. As they’re wandering through a dump site, they have a conversation about photography and Robert Capa:

You know what made photographers like Robert Capa great, Rich? They weren’t after money. They captured the nobility of human suffering.

That was a great shot in Spain. One flying through the air.

Yeah, but it was more than a body, Richie. He got…why they died. That’s what Capa caught. He caught that moment of death.

You’re right up there with him, John. You’re in his league. You’re the best.

You gotta get close, Rich…to get the truth. You get too close, you die. Someday…I want a shot like Capa. Someday. Someday.

But there’s a scene near the end of the film that seems to undermine what they say. Boyle and Cassady are running in the line of fire between rebels and the military. They’re clearly sympathetic to the leftist rebels and hope to capture that decisive moment when the people of El Salvador take back their country. But the U.S. turns on its military aid pipeline, with all its big machinery. Boyle and Cassady can see the tanks and planes coming. Cassady is after his shot and stands his ground while a plane does a strafing run. Boyle watches in horror as Cassady takes a bullet. He performs a field tracheotomy with a switchblade and a pen. Cassady’s last words are: “I got my shot.”

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The problem with the scene is that, on his own terms, he doesn’t get the shot. He gets a shot of a plane flying high overhead and, maybe, puffs of dust where the bullets hit the ground. What he doesn’t get is a closeup that captures the kind of moment that he values in Capa’s work.

Boyle agrees with him – yeah, you got your shot – and promises to take the film back to New York for processing. But either Boyle’s stupid for not realizing that the shot doesn’t measure up, or he’s trying to comfort a dying man. At least that’s how I view the film. I think we’re meant to view it straight: he got his shot and paid the price. But, photographically speaking, he paid the price for nothing.

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Shooting Into The Light

The rule of thumb is: shoot with the sun to your back. It’s a good rule. It means your subjects are well lit and your colours are more saturated. You don’t have weird lens flares or washed out subjects. And yet, sometimes, rules need to be broken. For one thing, if your shooting is determined by a few simple rules, one image will start to look like all your others. Here are a few shots I took into the sun just to change things up.

The first shot is kind of a cliché. It’s the steeple of the San Francisco de Asis Mission in Taos, New Mexico. I was going for all the flare I could get. (Tip: don’t use your view-finder when you point at the sun or your could damage your eyes. Set up your shot using the LCD screen.)

San Francisco de Asis Mission

I took the next shot facing west from St. James Cemetery in the late afternoon. I held my hand above the lens hood. The shadow of my hand reduced the glare.

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MXC – Wave – Graffiti

Yesterday, while I was walking under the St. Clair Street Bridge (aka The Vale of Avoca), I saw this guy finishing up a “Wave” on one of the concrete supports. He tagged it MXC. I asked if I could take his photo. At first, he didn’t want me to, so I said I’d just shoot his work. But once I’d swapped lenses and set up my tripod, he wandered into the frame anyways, so I clicked away while he dated it.

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We got around to talking about Rob Ford. Never has a mayor had such a hate-on for graffiti, even spraying over graffiti underneath bridges and other places that aren’t publicly visible.

I asked him why he does it. The question caught him off guard; he had to pause and think. He started doing this when he was a kid. At first, it was just imitation. He saw what older people were doing and tried to do the same. His early work was shit and people told him so, but that only made him work harder at being better. He tells me maybe he does it for fame, or at least for a reputation. When he puts stuff on a wall, everyone can see it, and if it’s good, everyone knows it. They take pictures and post them online. Word gets back to him.  The recognition feels good.

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He said that when he was a kid he played hockey like everyone else, but he was realistic. He was never going to be any good. Certainly not professional. But the graffiti gives him a chance to develop a personal style, something unique, even from the rest of his own art, something not many people do or are any good at. He thinks he’s getting good at it, at least by Toronto standards, maybe not compared to what’s happening in L.A. or New Zealand, but we’re getting there.

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White Picket Fence

Some days, I pass a white picket fence. Although I’m sure there are many white picket fences in the GTA, it’s the only one I’m aware of in downtown Toronto. In general, the white picket fence has come to symbolize a related array of meanings:

• domestic bliss
• a settled life
• North American middle class
• financial stability

Some days, as I pass this particular white picket fence, I take a photograph of it:

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In his book, The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer writes at length about the white picket fence as a photographic subject. He begins with a well-known photograph which Paul Strand shot in or about 1917.

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Christmas Lights

Merry Christmas! Some lights to fill you with cheer!

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Oops! I don’t know how this first photo got into the mix. Let’s move on to something more sanitized, shall we?

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Yorkville At Night

Here are three images I took one night in Yorkville. Must go back for more, especially in the summertime when it’s crowded. Each of the images has a person in it. The first is me, of course, or at least my shadow. I guess if I was purist, I’d clone out the shadow in photoshop.

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In the second, a girl is walking along Cumberland. She apologized for getting into my photo. I didn’t bother to explain that getting her into the photo was kind of the point.

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Hanging Outside the ROM

The entrance to the ROM – Royal Ontario Museum – is a great place to go people watching. People are drawn to the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, so there’s a lot of tourist gawking going on. But it’s also a nice open space, with benches, food vendors, pigeons. It feels piazza-ish.

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The building is interesting. But everybody and their dog takes photos of the building. The building never changes. Shoot it at night. Shoot it in the morning. Shoot in the rain. Shoot from a low angle. Whatever. The challenge is to find fresh ways to see things there. One way is to shoot the people as they interact with the space:

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My Perviest Photo

At Parliament & Mill Street, at the northwest corner of the distillery district, there’s a wedge-shaped building, and right at the pointy corner of the wedge is a lighting store, and on display in that lighting store is (or was) a mushroom-shaped lamp.

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The mushroom-shaped lamp inspired me to take pervy photos. I stood on one side of the wedge, with the lamp in the foreskin, I mean, foreground, and waited for people to pass in front of the far window.

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Why are all the mannikins white?

In Toronto, there is a generally held belief that we are a culturally and ethnically diverse city. Canada has a long-standing official policy of multiculturalism and nowhere is that trotted out more often and with more self-congratulatory pats on the back than in Toronto. But a survey of our shop windows tells a different story:

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Where are all the black mannikins? The Filipinnikins? The First Nationikins?

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Things I’ve Seen Today

One of my personal theme songs is “Things I’ve Seen Today” by Madeleine Peyroux. You can watch her perform it on Youtube:

Sometimes, I like simply to go outside and shoot whatever I see. The idea is to be observant in the midst of the ordinary. To be startled by the commonplace. And then, to come home and review everything I’ve seen that day. To remark on how awake the exercise has made me.

Here are 10 shots from a single morning. I had to pick something up on Queen’s Quay, so I took up my camera and walked from Bloor to the lake and back again, all the while humming my theme song.

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Children passing Our Lady of Lourdes on Sherbourne St.

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