Monthly Archives: October 2015

New Graffiti Under St. Clair St. Bridge

An earlier post on graffiti under the St. Clair St. bridge is now officially an archival document. The original subject matter no longer exists, so the only record of it is in photographs like mine. The city’s anti-graffiti people have grey-washed the concrete footings on the east side of the St. Clair St. Bridge. Why, I wonder, would they deem it necessary to spend public funds covering up murals that aren’t even visible to the public? To see them, you have to make a special effort. Predictably, some of the grey-washed walls are already covered and others have been outlined in preparation for future murals. Below is a sampling of new art.

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Why did I shoot yet another fucking cliché?

This morning my alarm went off at 5:00. I remember setting it last night. My night self was pulling a prank on my morning self. My night self told my morning self that getting up at 5:00 is good for you. That’s when you get all the good shots. Plus: getting up is good for body and soul. Think of Benjamin Franklin: healthy, wealthy and wise. Yeah, my morning self sneers, fat lot of good early rising did him; he’s dead. I turn off the alarm and roll over but I can’t get back to sleep. Fine, my morning self says to my night self, have it your way. I pack my gear, eat a banana, and fill a thermos with hot coffee.

My night self had the vague intention of plopping my morning self on the slope of Riverdale East Park and watching the sun rise over the city. Because it’s nearly two hours until sunrise when I step onto the street, my morning self supplements that plan with another vague intention: taking shots of the Bloor Viaduct. Since the Pan Am Games, the Luminous Veil has been lit up with coloured lights that moved along the length of the bridge. I catch the first train to Broadview Station and set myself up on the east end of the bridge. There are cloudy wisps in the sky and they turn the full moon into a diffuse ball of light hovering in the west. Light trails seem like a good thing to shoot, but afterwards, as I’m packing up my tripod, I remember that everyone and his dog shoots light trails. The world needs more light trails about as badly as it needs more Facebook memes.

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Scaffolding

When I moved into my current home (on the 15th floor of a condo), it was with the understanding that I would be moving into construction. The condo corporation had just contracted to replace all the windows and repair the building envelope. (Until I moved here, I had no idea that buildings have envelopes.) No sooner had I settled into my new space than a truck arrived and men started hauling metal poles out of the back. In short order, they’d put up scaffolding along the front of the building.

Man walking under scaffolding on Avenue Road in Yorkville, Toronto

Man wearing “scaffolding” shirt on Avenue Road in Yorkville, Toronto

Although scaffolding sites are temporary, and shift dynamically across the face of the city, the fact of scaffolding itself is a permanent feature of modern city life. Forgive the oxymoron, but scaffolding is an ephemeral permanency. There’s always a new project underway, and always a demand for temporary struts to support it, or to protect passers-by on the sidewalk below. Once the structure is complete, the metal bars and stagings disappear, only to pop up somewhere else.

Scaffolding at construction site, Queen's Quay, Toronto

Scaffolding at construction site, Queen’s Quay, Toronto

In documenting city life, I would be remiss if I didn’t allow scaffolding to creep into some of my photographs. In a way, my documentary obsession is a kind of scaffolding. I hold in mind a blueprint of the city. Call it a Platonic ideal if you like. It aspires to completeness: a whole vision: the city’s deepest truth. One day I’ll publish a photobook about the city, and implicit in its publication will be the claim that I’m presenting the city as it really is. That claim is a fiction, of course. I’m not omniscient; I don’t have a godlike perch from which to survey everything simultaneously, from the Rouge to the Humber, and from the lake shore north. I offer a sampling of what I see and, for a brief time, like metal rods and stagings, it props up a larger vision which can’t yet reveal itself.

North side of Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto

North side of Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto

Toronto's Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2015

Dundas & University

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The Long Shot

Sometimes I like to photograph people from a distance, using a white or light-coloured wall as a backdrop. One challenge in a city is finding a wall that isn’t obscured by building shadows during the sweet light times of day. Once I find a good wall, I stand there in full view and capture people as they enter the frame. West-facing walls work best in the afternoon.

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East-facing walls work best in the morning.

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I’m luke warm when it comes to south-facing walls.

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A Killing Frost

On Monday morning, I sat in the dark on the north side of the Brickworks quarry, sipping from a thermos of hot coffee, and watched the light from the rising sun spread across the city. (Note to self for future project: this sight deserves a time-lapse video.) As the light changed from complete darkness to deep blue, I saw that all the golden rods and grasses at the bottom of the quarry were covered in a silvery frost. So, once the sun had risen, I went down below and experienced the sunrise all over again as it appeared above the east face of the quarry.

Evergreen Brickworks

Man walks his dog at dawn thru the Evergreen Brickworks.

Wildflower

Frost adorns a wildflower.

Frost-covered grasses

Frost turns the tall grasses white.

Frost-covered goldenrod

Golden rod: not so golden anymore.

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Trudeaumania

Congratulations to Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals for their stunning election victory last night. To celebrate the ouster of King Stephen, I offer a bit of nostalgia: some photos I took of Justin’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. I think it was during the 1979 election campaign. Our high school orchestra was invited to a Liberal shindig to play the national anthem. The theme to Star Wars was big then, what with the Force and all, so it wouldn’t surprise me if we played that too. I brought my viola and my camera bag, so when I wasn’t bowing furiously, I was lurking around the stage trying to get a decent shot. I had a Konica T3 35 mm camera and Bushnell 35 mm lens. These aren’t great photos (made worse by the fact that they’re scanned from slides), but sometimes it’s useful to revisit earlier efforts. I can see the makings of a street photographer here.

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Fall Colours In Yellow Creek

If I were a nature photographer, I’d be out driving through the countryside to view the fall colours. Maybe I’d stay at a hotel in Haliburton so I could be up early to catch the sweet light. But I live in the city and I’m too lazy to plan a big weekend in the countryside. Besides, if I went out of town to view the fall colours, my wife would want to come. She’d want a nice dinner. I’d drink a bottle of wine. I’d sleep late or, if I did manage to wake up early, all my shots would be crooked thanks to the wine. So I settle instead for the urban countryside, Yellow Creek to be precise, where I can see the fall colours in all their glory without having to drive anywhere. Not all the colours are natural, but they can be pretty in their own way.

The first is the closest to a straight up fall shot I’ve ever taken in Yellow Creek: a soft-focus shot of water pouring over rocks and yellow leaves. I wonder if the fallen leaves are what give the creek its name.

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More Friday Afternoon Photos

Another Friday, another Blue Jays game. I worry, when I take my camera out during a Blue Jays game, that there won’t be enough people in the streets to make it worth my while. Judging from Facebook and Twitter, everybody in the city is either at the game or at a bar watching the game. But I discover that most of the city (and the world, for that matter) is oblivious to the fortunes of our local ball club. Life keeps pressing on. The momentary excitement quickly folds itself into the background noise.

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I met a man sitting in front of the Toronto Reference Library and holding up a mostly empty can of beer. I went up to him and asked what he was doing. He wasn’t all that clear in his explanation, but if I understand correctly, I could have whatever was left in the can for some cigarettes.

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I met this couple lying together on the big granite rock on Cumberland Ave. in Yorkville. You wouldn’t think granite is all that comfortable, but they seemed happy to be there.

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Why aren’t there more suits in street photography? We tend to fetishize the homeless and leave the suits to wander unperturbed. A possible answer may be that, visually speaking (does that even make sense?), suits are boring. Seen one, seen ’em all. But if one of the roles of street photography is documentation, then suits deserve their place too. As do skate boards.

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Getting Made

Getting Made is that magic moment when you discover that despite your best efforts to maintain your cover as you photograph in the street, the people in your frame know exactly what you’re doing. Typically, that magic moment doesn’t happen until post-processing when you’re taking a close look at your images and you see how the eyes stare directly at your camera. They made you. The image no longer qualifies as a candid shot. It has been “tainted” by a self-conscious gaze.

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The curious thing is that nobody cares. When you read posts by street photographers, it seems universally the case that they approach their craft, at least in the beginning, with a heightened sense of anxiety. What if someone catches me taking their picture? Will they get angry? Will they think I’m a pervert? Will they beat me up? Experience quickly demonstrates that this anxiety is unfounded.

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1. Most people who stare at your camera are thinking: Oh look, there’s someone with a camera. It doesn’t necessarily occur to them that you’re actually using it, especially if you’re not looking through the viewfinder when they see you.

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2. Even if the person thinks “Oh look, there’s someone with a camera and he’s actually using it” they rarely think you’re a pervert because that would mean they were somehow participating in the perversion (e.g. flashing you as you take the picture). They know they’re not doing anything perverted, so the photo must be okay.

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3. People are generally flattered that you find them interesting enough to photograph. What’s more, in the self-absorbed social media culture that marks our times, playing to the lens is the norm.

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4. Even when people don’t want to be in your photo, so what? If they don’t like it, they can turn their faces the other way. The fact is: in a public space, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. In the street, the law favours the camera.

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(Afterword: I don’t want to come off as too cavalier about #4. I don’t think a photographer has an absolute entitlement in public spaces. Sometimes ethical considerations about the exploitation of vulnerable persons and respect for personal dignity have to trump. I’m also cognizant of the fact that as a white middle-aged male I can, like Rob Ford, pretty much do anything I want without consequences.)

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The Original Street Art

Before there were graffiti artists, there were civil engineers. At least that’s a theory of mine. For years now, Toronto has been in the grips of a construction boom and, before anybody breaks ground, teams of surveyors and engineers spray paint lines all over the pavement. The streets become canvasses for a kind of urban development graffiti.

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