Monthly Archives: June 2015

Toronto Pride 2015

Here’s a collection: 20 of my best shots from this year’s Toronto Pride week. Most are from the parade on Sunday afternoon. You can view more in a flickr album here.

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Queer Capitalism

I observe Toronto’s Pride Week the same way I observe Remembrance Day: with a great deal of skepticism. I want to remember. I want to remember how people struggled to carve out a space for themselves where they can live with a measure of dignity. I want to remember friends and family who succumbed to HIV/AIDS. And I want to celebrate the positive changes that have transformed the city and have made it a better place for everyone to live. Nevertheless, as with Remembrance Day, I feel queasy when I encounter historical revisionism tinkering with the narrative. When (mostly ideological) interests use their positions of power to recast themselves as protagonists in the narrative, I begin to suspect that Pride’s project is never really done.

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Manulife’s Proud sign

During Remembrance Day, we hear a quasi-religious account of blood sacrifice: our forebears spilled their blood to secure our freedom. But in late capitalism, freedom knows only one form of expression: shopping. Pride Week has taken on a similar narrative and financial institutions have cast themselves in the role of principal storyteller: we have always been there to finance LGBTQ struggles.

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TD Bank – Wellesley/Church branch

Of course it’s a good thing that banks and political parties support Pride and declare solidarity with people who aren’t like BMO’s bowler hat guy. But it does set up a conflict. Isn’t part of Pride’s story tied to its marginal position in relation to power? Maybe capital has engaged in a strategic queering of queer by embracing it. Contested spaces grow murky and people can no longer clearly define what they’re struggling for. Capital is the ultimate force in an egalitarian universe: it doesn’t matter who you are, if the numbers work, we’ll always approve your mortgage.

While Rob Ford was mayor, we enjoyed a brief reversion to the good old days when hatred’s mouthpiece was an unsubtle redneck and the contested ground was easy to mark. Now, our man in office may function more like the banks with what appears to be a gift for expediency. If the numbers work (at the polls or in the budget), he’ll always approve your proposals.

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BMO’s blue-suited bowler hat guy with rainbow flag

Do I need to point out that expediency (whether financial or political) is not the same thing as ethics?

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Queer Community not Gay Capitalism

I will continue to observe Pride Week, as I do Remembrance Day, in part to perform what I regard as an act of witnessing, but mostly out of curiosity. I have questions for our culture and I’m looking for answers. What is the mood of our times? Who holds power? Who’s left out? What happens when those left out suddenly find power sidling up to them? When queer acquires cachet, who holds queer to account? Who queers queer?

World Pride Parade, Toronto, 2014

Our struggles are not an opportunity for corporate advertising

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5DS for Street Photography

My initial assessment of the 5DS was that it would be best for measured, reflective, slow photography, the kind of photography that requires you to set the camera on a tripod, carefully compose the shot, turn on mirror lock-up, pull out your remote, take a deep breath, then release the shutter. That initial assessment may have been premature. This morning, I took the 5DS out to try my hand at some street photography (I use the term loosely here). Hand held. Reacting to whatever presents itself. Very little time for composition and subtle aesthetic judgments. In addition, I tried a slightly higher ISO setting (640) this time out. I’m pleased with the results. Far less grainy than I had expected, and the sheer size of the canvas I’m working with means that, if I choose, I can worry about composition and subtle aesthetic judgments after the fact. Here are some samples:

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Doing her morning face in Dundas Square.

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Falun Dafa is good.

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The Pan Am mascot is coming to town. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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Not Just Condoms

Just for fun, you can download the “Not Just Condoms” image at 8688 x 5792 pixels to see the level of detail it produces.

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Painting a utility box at Yonge & Gould.

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Canon 5DS Sample Images

It seems everyone who has their hands on a 5DS has been posting samples so people can download giant image files (50 megapixels) to see how giant an image file can get. I’ll offer a couple images here (just to get it out of my system), then side step the whole giant image thing which, after all, is nothing more than a photographic pissing contest.

Here you go. Image #1 is an early morning shot of Toronto’s skyline as viewed from Governor’s Hill overlooking the Evergreen Brickworks. I used a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens. ISO 100, f 8.0, 1/60.

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I’ve also attached a 564 x 846 pixel swatch from the above image so you can see the level of detail possible when an image is viewed at %100 resolution on a monitor.

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A few things are immediately apparent. First, if you inspect photos at %100 on a computer monitor, you’ll end up thinking most of your images are garbage. Even the slightest shake produces blurred pixels. The old rule about minimum shutter speed (i.e. for hand-held shooting, your minimum shutter speed should be the inverse of your focal length) gets tossed out the window. With a 50 megapixel sensor, clarity on a pixel by pixel basis is impossible without a good tripod. That said, when you DO achieve that level of clarity, the result is amazingly crisp. After my first day out with the 5DS, I was getting images that pop in a way I’ve never been able to achieve with my Mark III. Download a full size (8688 x 5792) jpg here.

Image #2 is a graffiti-covered trestle that crosses the Don River. I used the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM at 70mm. ISO 100, f/11, 1/50. Download a full size jpg here.

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The second thing that is immediately apparent is that images become grainier at lower ISO settings than with the Mark III. Maximum ISO on the 5DS is 12800 whereas on the Mark III it’s 102400. Simply put: the 5DS doesn’t perform well in low light. That’s another argument for using a tripod. For best results, shoot in the ISO 100-400 range and slow everything down.

Now let’s side step that pissing contest. One of the great advantages of the 5DS is NOT the size of the image it produces, but the huge amount of play it offers in terms of cropability (is that even a word?). If you’re a purist who believes everything should happen in camera, then you may want to ignore everything else in this post. But if you believe it’s okay sometimes to reserve framing and composition considerations until post production, then read on. The 5DS is your friend.

Take my 3rd image as an example:

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I shot this hand held with Canon’s EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/80. Because damselflies are easily spooked, I stood back a discreet distance & subsequently cropped the image to 5760 x 3840. The reason for those dimensions is that they are identical to the Mark III’s maximum image size. I simply wanted to demonstrate that I can sacrifice nearly 60% of the image and still end up with something printable to the size of a large painting.

Here’s a more extreme example:

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Also shot hand held with the Macro lens, I’ve cropped this fly to 3093 x 2062. While the resulting image can’t fill a wall (& who would want it to?) nevertheless, I could print it at a high quality resolution on a letter-sized sheet of paper.

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Signs Of The Times

A selection of signs in downtown Toronto:

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No Smokin or Standing at Psychic Entraence!!

I don’t see that a psychic has much to complain about in this situation; she should have foreseen the problem before she set up business. Also, I would have thought psychics are better spellers than this. Couldn’t she “travel” to the library & consult the OED before she tried a tricky word like “entrance?” When people consult her, does she put them in a traence?

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Jonathan Miller’s Nowhere In Particular

I recently bought a used copy of a photo book, Nowhere In Particular, by a medical doctor/TV and theatre director/photographer named Jonathan Miller. It features photos of rooftops, corrugated sheet metal, bits of canvas, and (mostly) palimpsests of weathered posters and torn advertising. All the images are closely cropped (or presented as a series of progressive croppings) that make it impossible to discern anything about their context and (perhaps) their meaning. The images are accompanied by a fair amount of text. When I bought the book, I assumed the text would provide the otherwise missing context. At the very least, I expected the text to explain the author’s methods or motives. Given the title of the book, I assumed that he was engaged in a project similar to Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul which meditates upon the nowhereness of intentionally global spaces like hotels, airports, and chain restaurants. Closely cropped photos might reflect a similar sensibility.

If the accompanying text bears any relation to the photos, it’s a mysterious relation. One snippet is a quotation from Mansfield Park; another, a discussion of madness from Proust. Some are personal reflections on arcane concerns, like the question why chapter summaries in 19th century novels are written in the present tense while the chapters themselves are written in the past tense. The only discernible connection between the photographs and accompanying text is that they reveal the tastes and interests of a single mind, Johnathan Miller’s. There’s something unsettling about a book whose method appears to be disruption and incongruity. The fact that it appears as a book, with its plastic sheen and crisp corners, lends the enterprise a unity and authority it might not otherwise warrant. It’s a deception or, more likely, a game.

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Turtle crossing the road.

Maybe the point of the game is to demonstrate that, when faced with a collection of incongruities, we can’t help but find relationships amongst the disparate parts, investing them with meaning. The discernment of meaning in chaos is a comfort in the same way that god is a comfort to the religious and Darwin is a comfort to the irreligious. Our spirits find solace in the conviction that at the heart of the universe is an unfathomable singularity and that at the heart of that unfathomable singularity is an indivisible kernel of reason. Then again, if the point of the game is that any point is possible, then one can’t very well privilege that point. It’s just as plausible that the point of the game is to demonstrate that what Ponce de Leon was really looking for in Florida was the recipe for Coca Cola, or that, since the deregulation of the bird market, inflationary pressures have made a bird in the hand worth three in the bush. Or maybe seeking a point is beside the point.

Maybe it would be more fruitful to ask why a book of incongruities makes me feel uncomfortable. I like my text to bear some relation to the photographs it captions. This is a reasonable thing for text to do. Text and context. That way, I know what I’m looking at. While Miller shot in film, digital photography has taken things a step further by embedding text (in the form of keywords) in the exif file. And if you post photographs online, you tag them so search engines can properly index them. If your photo of an upper east side mud wrestling competition is tagged #landscape #rural #farm #cow #holstein #patty, the farmer searching for images to decorate his marketing brochure is going to be sorely disappointed. I don’t write this to be flippant, but to illustrate one of the ways in which digital best practices contribute to visual literalism i.e. the belief that the subject of a photograph must bear a one-for-one correspondence to an object in the real world which allows the object to be readily described with a series of specially marked nouns and gerunds e.g. #cow #shitting.

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Bunches of carrots at a vegetable stand.

Current photo technology furthers our susceptibility to visual literalism by practically guaranteeing that every shot makes the correspondence between subject and object obvious. Reinforced by literalism in other areas of endeavor—the polarizing effect of social media, the loss of nuance in public discourse, a widespread refusal to engage, or even acknowledge, difference—, what began as a simple observation about the current state of photography has been elevated to an aesthetic which enjoys not merely legitimacy but the force of moral necessity. The failure to make obvious sense is an affront to the sensibilities of decent right-thinking people.

Writing about the contemporary literary novel, the critic, James Wood, calls this aesthetic “commercial realism.” A confluence of trends has produced this aesthetic: the publishing house as subsidiary of the transnational media corporation, the global hegemony of the house style, the digitization and universal dissemination of text, the global ascendancy of rights-based copyright regimes, etc. Commercial realism has such a hold on our collective imagination and on our expectations about what counts as an aesthetic that we can hardly remember what preceded it. We forget that it’s a contingent blip on a wide arc whose trajectory is marked by a long series of other contingent blips.

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The indefatigable spirit of the human heart.

What I have described as visual literalism could just as easily be called commercial realism, and for many of the same reasons that invite the term’s application to current literary practices. The same transnational media corporations manage our “visual ecology.” The global hegemony of the house style finds its correlate in the requirements of stock photography pools, modeling agencies, photo competitions, and the EULAs of large photo-sharing web sites. And digitization treats text and images indiscriminately, as do rights-based copyright regimes.

Visual literalism denigrates the metaphor. I use metaphor in its most general sense to indicate the radical leap between disparate thoughts. It’s the patterns of light and dark through a venetian blind that inspire a poem. It’s the image of a snake biting its own tail that prompts a scientific breakthrough. It’s epiphanic. It’s associative. It’s aleatory. It’s a jazz of the eyes.

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Russian monkeys lost in space.

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People On Bloor

This is a selection of photos I shot while walking along Bloor Street & chatting with whomever I bumped into. There are times when the camera becomes a tool not so much for making images as for setting aside the customary barriers between strangers and enabling connection. This strikes me as ironic if we accept the usual modernist schtick that we (especially those of us who live in cities) live in alienation both from our world and from each other; the camera further underscores our alienated condition by placing a hunk of technology between our eyes and everything we encounter. However, I’ve never regarded myself as a particularly modern person, and I think it’s quite possible, in the words of Adam West (as Batman), to hoist the modernist schtick on its own petard.

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Fetishizing the Really Real

I shoot with a DLSR from Canon’s 5D series and so I was delighted to learn that the new 5DS & R cameras would come with a 50 megapixel sensor. Naturally, I began to salivate: at that resolution, imagine the size of the images I could print! Once the exclusive province of medium and large-format Hasselblads costing tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars, the hi-res image has fallen within reach of the consumer pro market. Although affordable, one must use the term advisedly since the 5DS & R bodies retail for more than C$4,000. I was determined to have one, but wasn’t sure how enthusiastic my wife would be about me spending that much money on something she regards as a toy for someone old enough to know better. We cut a deal: I can buy a 5DS but only after I’ve lost 20 lbs. What’s more, I will have to weigh in each morning and if I’m above my target weight, I don’t get to use the camera. My wife will have a healthy new husband who is more likely to provide her with companionship in her old age; I will have a new camera so I can deprive her of companionship in the here and now.

Halfway to my goal, the inevitable happens: rumours suggest that Sony will release a new camera with a 57 megapixel sensor. I’m despondent. I may as well eat a hamburger and drown my sorrows in a pitcher of beer. Who cares what I have slung around my neck as I waddle my fat ass through the streets.

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“Accidentally” left my camera in aperture mode while walking indoors.

There will always be hardware that’s just beyond my latest purchase. The same is true of computer monitors, smart phones, tablets, processors, internet connections. Why do we subject ourselves to this cycle of desire and disappointment?

My kneejerk reaction is to suggest that this state of affairs arises from a conspiracy, or at least a synergistic manipulation, of technology manufacturers and global telcos. But in her book, On Photography, Susan Sontag hints at a more benign explanation—benign because it relies on a cultural narrative that predates (and in some respects lies beyond the reach of) technology manufacturers and global telcos. Addressing surrealism in photography, she writes:

The contingency of photographs confirms that everything is perishable; the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable. Reality is summed up in an array of casual fragments—an endlessly alluring, poignantly reductive way of dealing with the world. Illustrating that partly jubilant, partly condescending relation to reality that is the rallying point of Surrealism, the photographer’s insistence that everything is real also implies that the real is not enough. By proclaiming a fundamental discontent with reality, Surrealism bespeaks a posture of alienation which has now become a general attitude in those parts of the world which are politically powerful, industrialized, and camera-wielding. Why else would reality ever be thought of as insufficient, flat, overordered, shallowly rational? In the past, a discontent with reality expressed itself as a longing for another world. In modern society, a discontent with reality expresses itself forcefully and most hauntingly by the longing to reproduce this one. As if only by looking at reality in the form of an object—through the fix of the photograph—is it really real, that is, surreal.

The production of ever-higher resolution cameras may be understood as a commercial answer to late modernism’s disaffection with the limitations of reality and its desire for the “really real”. It is not for nothing that Sontag titles her first chapter “In Plato’s Cave”.

In another sphere of digital life, Google has undertaken an analogous project. Google’s Streetview seeks to produce a regularly updated visual record of every publicly accessible street and path in the world. Its commercial justification is user convenience e.g. determining beforehand if there is parking available in front of a given building. But the project is grounded in a long-standing and well-publicized epistemology, what Jaron Lanier describes in We Are Not A Gadget as cybernetic totalism. Google believes that it is possible to know everything and to produce a searchable record of everything known. (It appears the NSA shares this belief.) However, the belief in a cybernetic totalism engages us with a paradox.

Imagine a future Google so technologically advanced that it can produce a “streetview” that documents every last bit of reality. The result is both granular and comprehensive, reproducing every subatomic particle in the universe. But where does one store a reproduction of the universe? And if a reproduction of the universe is stored in the universe, must it not also include a reproduction of itself to achieve its completeness? And must it not also include a reproduction of the reproduction? And so on.

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Boulders in shrink wrap.

I don’t know enough about philosophy to say for certain, but I wonder if cybernetic totalism bears some relation to Bertrand Russell’s set paradox. The universe is like the set of all sets. The set of all sets includes a set whose function is to reproduce sets (like a giant streetview camera?). But a set-reproducing set can’t exist within the set it reproduces. Therefore the set of all sets cannot be the set of all sets.

I don’t engage this paradox for the simple pleasure of mind-fucking photographers, but rather to draw attention to the absence of a stable rationale for the pursuit of ever-increasing camera resolutions and the obsessive documentation it enables. Recently, twitter was awarble with news of a 365 gigapixel panorama of Mont Blanc and environs. It took two months for the team to stitch together the 70,000 images that comprise the panorama. If printed at 300 dpi, it would cover a football pitch. I receive this enthusiastically as data collection; I have more difficultly receiving it as photography. It illustrates the obsessional quality of a quest for the really real through photograph-as-reproduction. If they had the gear for it, I have no doubt our Mont Blanc photographers would photograph the universe and spread the resulting panorama on a giant celestial football pitch.

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“Forgot” to delete a mistake.

Often, what jars us from our complacency and challenges us to refresh our craft is precisely what cuts across the grain of contemporary trends. In photography, those trends include fetishizing the really real. Hi-res DSLRs, instantaneous auto-focus, HDR in post-processing. All these tricks alleviate our anxieties about occupying indeterminate space.

Use film. Recharge the batteries in an old point-and-shoot. Switch everything to manual mode. Fuck image-processing software. We aren’t in this game to make enhanced copies of the real world. Leave mimesis back in ancient Greece where it belongs. Surely, after more than two millennia, we can come up with fresh ways to think about light and colour.

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The Hand Of Man

Three times a year, the Toronto Camera Club accepts submissions for its internal “Nature” competition. Members can submit under one of three categories: botany, zoology, and general. The general category is for nature-themed images where the main subject is neither plant nor animal e.g. a landscape, or seascape. There is one proviso: the submitted images cannot include any evidence of the “hand of man.” This isn’t an arcane proviso that a single club has imposed; it’s a requirement found in almost all nature-related competitions. Personally, I find the proviso annoying, not just because of the gendered language used to articulate it, but because it makes an assumption about our world that’s almost as quaint. The proviso assumes there is such a thing as a natural world. Experience suggests otherwise. For example, below is a shot taken from a rocky outcrop on the Finger Point Trail in Pigeon River. The birch trees are in bud, but the leaves haven’t come out yet, so it produces an interesting white against green effect. However, near the top, roughly a third of the way from the right side, there’s a slight break in the trees where you can see the road to the trail head.

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Or how about the shot I took in Katherine Cove on the east shore of Lake Superior. Mid-May and there was still ice on the water. At first glance, the image seems to comply with the proviso. It looks perfectly natural. Until you start examining the colour of the ice. It’s covered in a layer of grime: a winter’s worth of airborne pollutants that circle the globe and gently settle back to the surface. Hand of man, indeed!

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There are times when I just say: fuck it. What’s the point even pretending this is natural. Here, we have a lovely vista. In the foreground is a sign pointing the way to the place where we can best view the vista which, presumably, includes the sign. What a beautiful sign, and the background’s nice too.

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Viewed as a pure abstraction, human elements can enhance the formal properties of a photograph that might otherwise count as a landscape. Here, it’s more of a highwayscape.

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And what photo north of Superior would be complete without a discarded Timmies cup in the foreground.

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Abandoned Spaces in Northern Ontario

If I stopped every time I saw a burnt out motel or abandoned gas station beside a highway in northern Ontario, I’d never get anywhere. In May, I stopped at a few choice locations, and bookmarked a few others for the end of the summer when I’ll be passing that way again. The images are inherently dramatic, they raise questions, imply a story. For example, what happened at the Dorion Inn? This motel sits on the south side of Highway 17 by the township of Dorion half way between Thunder Bay and Nipigon. Interestly, you can still find it listed on TripAdvisor. Good luck booking a room. According to the wikipedia listing for Dorion, the town has a population of 338. Maybe 337 if one of its residents was staying in the room on the end the night the fire broke out. But why would a local need a room? Unless … My imagination gets the better of me.

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