Monthly Archives: August 2015

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Here’s a selection of some of my best shots from Toronto’s Buskerfest 2015 which raises money for Epilepsy Toronto. I’ve posted more on flickr.

Pyromancer

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Artists At Work

I think it’s natural for photographers to have a fascination with artists who work in other media. It’s like bumping into a long lost cousin: “You look like me, but there are things about you that are unquestionably different.” Some people might chalk it up to envy. After all, aren’t photographers merely failed sketch artists and painters? I’m prepared to admit some envy, but not for the usual reasons. I don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of the “photography isn’t real art” debate. But I am willing to grant that other visual arts have one up on photography in at least one respect. Other visual arts more readily carve out space for the artist to be present in their work. Apart from a handful of artists dedicated to producing hyper-realistic representations, most artists have no interest in strict mimesis. There always seems to be a contingent element, a weirdness or randomness that injects something extra into the representation.

Sketching Toronto's Old City Hall

Photography, on the other hand, starts with strict mimesis. Now, even an inexpensive camera is a technical marvel when it comes to producing hyper-realistic representations. As I view it, the challenge for photographers is to move beyond the technical brilliance of the machine to discover a space for the person to be present in the photographic practice. How do I introduce an element of subjectivity, or of whimsy, into what would otherwise be a “copy” of whatever presents itself to the eye? Since, most of the time, I fail to answer this question to my own satisfaction, I can’t help but look with envy at other visual artists.

Painting At the Weston Family Quarry Garden

My encounters with artists remind me that art is not a thing, but an act. It’s a way of engaging the world. In a sense, the outcome of an act of art (the framed painting, drawing, photograph) is the least part of the process. When I encounter an artist, I witness a person who, by his or her example, is making a subtle declaration of how to be in the world. The artist invites me to pause and look at the space I occupy. He calls me to respond to it. To feel something in relation to it. Gratitude. Love. Rage. Disappointment. Wonder.

Peter Triantos Gallery

There is a conversational dimension to acts of art. Above is a gallery in preparation for its opening. There is a sticker on the window announcing the imminent arrival of the Peter Triantos Gallery near Davenport and Avenue Road. Meanwhile, on one side of the building, taggers have decorated a door with art of their own. It’s tempting to dismiss the tags on the door, but I’m inclined to view them as part of a larger cultural conversation. I have no idea what it means, at least not in any way that is reducible to words in a blog post.

Nice Stencil Art Bro

Similarly, what does it mean when someone sprays “NICE STENCIL ART BRO.” on a city-sponsored stencil? (And why did the spray painter feel compelled to punctuate the statement?) In this photo, where should the emphasis lie: on the stencil? on the spray painted words? on the way the photograph aligns the mortar lines of the bricks? Or do we throw all these concerns into conversation. The same kinds of questions hold for the photo below. As a mimetic product of a technical marvel called a DSLR camera, it’s a faithful representation of a sign for an art supply store on College Street. Taggers have decorated it according to the demands of their own aesthetic — or whatever. Then I’ve come along and carved off one corner, converted it to black and white, and have used a shallow depth of field to blur signs further down the street. All these efforts get thrown into conversation. What it means is anybody’s guess. We pause for a time, acknowledge one another, then move on.

Windsor & Newton Premiere Art Centre

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Glenn Gould’s Grave

In May of 1982 I received a letter from the Royal Conservatory of Music informing me that I had passed my piano exam. Since I had already completed all the course work (History, Harmony, Counterpoint, etc.), that meant that I was officially an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music and could put the letters A.R.C.T. after my name. The first thing I did was phone all the music schools where I’d set up auditions and cancelled them. Screw it! I wasn’t going to be a musician; I was going to do something practical with my life. And so, in September, I found myself at Victoria College studying things like English Romanticism, Elizabethan Drama, and Medieval Latin Poetry. I have an odd view of what counts as practical in life. A couple weeks into my program of higher learning, news broke that Glenn Gould had suffered a stroke. A week later, on October 4th, 1982, his father removed him from life support and he was pronounced dead.

Glenn Gould's Grave

As with thousands of other kids who passed through the conservatory program, Glenn Gould was an enormous presence lurking in the background. I was one of those nerdy kids who collected vinyl. I bought everything by David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Brian Eno … and Glenn Gould. I had both releases of the Goldberg Variations, both volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Partitas, Haydn Sonatas, Mozart Sonatas. I even allowed for a recording of Brahms piano music, although it struck me then (and now) as strangely hollow. Even while he was alive, stories of his eccentricities had become the stuff of legends. During my piano lessons, Glenn Gould was invariably a reference point for conversations about technique: how close to the keys; how rotten the posture; how loud to hum while playing.

Glenn Gould's Grave

As a kid taking music lessons in Toronto during the 70’s & 80’s, I can’t honestly say that I ever rubbed shoulders with Glenn Gould. But there was one point of intersection between our lives. That was the piano tuner, Verne Edquist. My parents persuaded him to look after our Gerhard Heintzman upright grand piano in the years leading up to my final conservatory exam. I would sit in the room while he tuned the piano. He was a direct man and didn’t mind telling me what he thought of our piano. Years later, when my wife and I settled into a house of our own, my parents gave us the Heintzman and bought themselves a proper grand piano. I was annoyed they didn’t keep the Heintzman and buy us the grand, but I wasn’t in any position to argue with them. Ultimately, we sold the piano to one of Gerhard Heintzman’s great grandchildren and bought a Yamaha Avant Grand. Since the Avant Grand is digital, it never needs to be tuned, which means I’ll never have the kind of relationship Gould had with Mr. Edquist.

Glenn Gould's Grave

In 1982, I abandoned my musical education and it seems, in retrospect, like an act of self-sabotage. I was too something-or-other to do drugs or get nipple rings; the worst thing I could think to do to myself was to stop playing the piano. But decisions like that are never once-and-for-all-time. Last year, I started taking a master class for “mature” pianists who want to brush up on their performance skills. We meet at U. of T.’s Faculty of Music, that school I might have attended if not for my sudden fit of practicality. One of my pet projects is to work up Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s on my musical bucket list along with a handful of other big piano works. We’ll see how it goes.

Glenn Gould's Grave

It’s astonishing how, a generation after his death, Glenn Gould remains an enormous presence lurking in the background. And so I decided (finally) to pay my respects. His grave is in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on the east side of Mount Pleasant Road. It’s a modest marker in section 38: his name, his dates, and the opening passage from the Aria of the Goldberg Variations. I don’t know if my visit will give me inspiration or determination or emotional fortitude or what. Probably not. After all, his music isn’t there, at that site, in that plot of ground. It’s here and here and here, in the hearts and minds of the thousands like me who hold it with us wherever we are.

Glenn Gould's Grave

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Creative Silhouettes

Creative Silhouettes is the name of a printing business that does vinyl wraps. I make no comment one way or the other about the business, since I’ve never used their services. However, I do like the name, especially when it appears next to shadows of fence slats cast across a wall. Technically, the images which follow are images of shadows, not of silhouettes, but I’ve never been one to get caught up in technical details.

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The general wisdom is that the best times to shoot are early morning and late evening when shadows are longer; long shadows produce higher contrast images. But the general wisdom assumes that the “ground” where the shadow is cast lies flat beneath the feet, as it does for a conventional landscape. If the “ground” is a vertical wall, the general wisdom no longer applies.

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I remember reading about how astronomers used to be called as expert witnesses to testify at trials where photographs were entered as crucial pieces of evidence. If they knew where the photograph had been taken then, by using the shadows to calculate the angle of incidence of the sunlight, they could determine the date and time when the photograph had been taken. Now, thanks to exif data, astronomers have one less source of income.

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When I shot this photo, I was thinking of an exercise I did in my junior high art class — a positive/negative space lesson with light in a dark space mirrored by dark in a light space. But now, especially on the first anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I see a different inversion of the space. I hadn’t given it any thought at the time, but I see now that the “white” that occupies the “black” space is, in fact, black skin. Maybe this is the kind of inversion that a liberationist account of race demands.

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Shooting Bicycles

Here are sample photos of people riding bicycles. Each is shot by a different method, each with a different result. I shot the first image with a fast shutter speed. Both cyclist and background are crisp.

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I shot the second with a slower shutter speed (1/160) and moved the camera in sync with the cyclist as I released the shutter. There’s a certain amount of luck involved in doing this, but when it works, the cyclist appears crisp while the background is blurred. It’s possible to achieve the same effect with photo-editing software, but why bother if you can do it in camera.

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You can use a slower shutter speed but hold the camera stationary. This produces the opposite effect. The background is crisp and the cyclist is blurred. I supposed it’s all a matter of emphasis: a blurred cyclist is fine when she’s incidental to the image.

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Finally, an image where the cyclist is more obviously incidental. Both cyclist and background are blurred while something else altogether demands our attention.

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Handheld Photos At Night

Typically, when I go out at night, I bring a tripod, shoot long exposures, cityscapes with light trails, people so blurred you can’t recognize them. But sometimes it’s good to break the rules, even if they are only self-imposed. Here are some night shots without a tripod. I’ve cranked up the ISO and used my Sigma F/1.4 50mm prime lens. For stability, I’ve jammed the camera against a wall or a sign post or a street light. What I find is that if I stay long enough in one position, I become invisible; people walk past me as if I’m not even there.

Walking Along Bloor St. At Night

The exception seems to be skateboarders. They know I’m there, but they want me to be there. They want me to capture them in the middle of a brilliant move.

Skateboarding At Night

I’m not so sure people would appreciate me capturing them as they exit a strip club. In this instance, I captured a panhandler, a taxi, a passer-by, and the bouncer … but no patrons, so I guess I’m safe. I’m curious to know what distinguishes “European Style” dancing from North American Style dancing. Actually, I’m not that curious.

The Brass Rail Strip Club

There’s a fruit & veggie shop open late on Yonge Street. It’s easier to get handheld shots when you’re shooting into a well lit area. I shot both with and without passers-by and prefer this shot with a passer-by; it gives the image a sense of motion.

Fruit Store On Yonge Street

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Toronto Island

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I get all sentimental and my camera turns to goo as it did when I went to Ward Island for dinner at The Rectory. Maybe it has something to do with all the grass and trees, or the clean air, or the quiet. Don’t worry. I’ll snap out of it soon.

Sitting on a park bench

Woman with dog on paddle board

Sailboat in Toronto Harbour

Toronto skyline at sunset

Toronto skyline at night

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Billy Bishop Airport Tunnel Opens

Toronto kicked off the civic holiday weekend by opening the tunnel to Billy Bishop Airport. Passengers no longer have to wait for the ferry when they want to catch a flight from Toronto Island. Heather Mallick’s op-ed in the Toronto Star nicely captures the feel of the place: “The pedestrian lake tunnel at Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop Airport has finally opened at the cost of annihilating the soul, plus $82.5 million.” She uses adjectives like tedious, stale, drab and dreary and suggests that the materials came from Home Depot. Step into the tunnel and it’s obvious that functionality was top priority. Review the comments below Mallick’s piece and it’s obvious that most Torontonians are happy with functionality. More numinous qualities like spirit, whimsy, or even aesthetics, don’t seem to interest people, so why should we care what the tunnel looks like?

Billy Bishop Airport's Tunnel

There is an upside to the Tunnel: with the construction completed, people can once again access Ireland Park at the foot of the Canada Malting Silos.

Canada Malting Silos

In the park is a limestone wall engraved with the names of those who died in Toronto in 1847 as a consequence of the Great Famine. 1186 people died, mostly of typhus, mostly in anonymity. So far, researchers have learned the names of 675 of the dead.

Monument in Toronto's Ireland Park

The park also features bronze sculptures, Migrants, by Irish artist, Rowan Gillespie. The derelict Canada Malting Silos provide a lovely backdrop for the sculptures because, as the new tunnel illustrates, aesthetics matter to people in Toronto.

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