Monthly Archives: November 2015

Over-exposure

Now, as the weather turns colder, one must take precautions against over-exposure. Photographers, of course, are concerned about over-exposure all year round. Photographers tend to think of over-exposure as the presence of too much light space in an image, but over-exposure can just as easily result from the presence of too much dark space in an image. Watch out for dark space. If handled poorly, it can ruin your photograph.

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My Name Is Bond – James Bond

While the official story holds that Ian Fleming named his most famous character after an American ornithologist, local legend tells a different story. In 1942, Fleming spent a few weeks at Camp X near Oshawa where he was taking specialized training (he was leader of a British commando unit). Fleming was staying at a home on Avenue Road, and, every day, on his way to Camp X, he passed a local church, St. James-Bond United Church. The church’s name sank into his memory and, after the war, when it came time to write about the exploits of agent 007, the name floated to the surface.

The hyphenated church name theory is probably no better than historical fantasy but, since we’re in the fantasy mode, why not ratchet things up a notch? Here’s a fresh speculation: while in Toronto, Ian Fleming almost became a Trappist monk. Instead of writing Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang and Dr. No, he almost ended up writing meditations on the contemplative life and tracts protesting military spending.

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In his memoir, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton  writes about his younger brother, John Paul. Like Thomas, John Paul had drifted across the Protestant/Catholic divide and had even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. For whatever reason, the idea never took hold. John Paul was an impulsive young man and suddenly ran off to Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. The U.S. wasn’t in the war yet, and, I suppose, John Paul was itching to see the sort of action he couldn’t get south of the border. Merton writes that “he was in camp, somewhere near Toronto.”

One of the things I like about John Paul is the fact that he was a photographer. Their father had been a painter, and both sons inherited his artsy fartsy sensibility, Thomas, with his poetry, and John Paul, with his camera. I can imagine how, as training trudged from 1941 to 1942, John Paul grew bored of the Air Force. On Saturday nights, maybe he came into town with his camera, hoping to shoot some action—bar fights, girls, whatever caught his fancy.

I can imagine him sitting by the window of a pub on Eglinton Avenue when a proper English gentleman strolled past. The gentleman paused, struck perhaps by the sight of a young man reading a newspaper while a draught sat chilling on his table beside a Rolleiflex. After exchanging pleasantries, Mr. Fleming joined the young John Paul and they began their conversation by wondering how small one might engineer a camera for use by, say, a spy agency.

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By the typically circuitous path that conversations take, John Paul let slip that he had an older brother, Thomas, who had become a novice monk and had joined the Abbey of Gethsemani in Louisville, Kentucky. Without thinking, Fleming blurted: “What the deuce would a man do such a thing for?” He was so flustered, he dangled his preposition. Being a good Church of England man, himself, it never occured to him that real people might choose celibacy. Nevertheless, he was fascinated to learn about Thomas Merton’s decision and left the pub with the monk’s address.

The two men struck up a correspondence and, after the war, Fleming even visited Merton at Gethsemani—not so far-fetched when you consider that Merton entertained many famous personages including Joan Baez and Thich Naht Hanh. Together, the men drank a toast to John Paul Merton, whose plane had gone down in the English Channel in 1943. For a time, Ian Fleming flirted with the idea of becoming a monk, but finally dispatched the idea with the publication in 1953 of Casino Royale. After reading the novel, Merton allowed their correspondence to peter out.

As an afterward, I note that St. James-Bond United Church no longer exists. As the congregation’s numbers dwindled, it opted in 2005 to amalgamate with the congregation of Fairlawn Heights United Church. Together, they worship as Fairlawn Avenue United Church. In 2006, most of the church was demolished. Now, a retirement residence stands on the site and incorporates features of the previous building.

Woman Passing Construction Site

A photo apropos of nothing.

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Mike

This is Mike. He was waiting for a bus on the northeast corner of Bathurst and Dupont. He was sitting with his back to the window of the Vesta Lunch shop. A low November sun shone full in his face. There was a backlight, too, reflecting from the shop window.

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Mike invited me to a party. He said there’d be a girl there. The whole thing would be recorded on video. Streamed on the internet. I could wear a mask if I liked. I don’t know why, but while he told me this, I was wondering who he voted for in the last federal election. I didn’t ask, of course. I didn’t want to make him feel awkward.

Mike

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Amry

I met Amry outside a dental office in Cabbagetown. He was leaning against a poster of a big perfect smile, smoking a cigarette. When I asked if I could take his picture, he said sure and wondered where I was from. I figured “fair is fair” and asked him the same question in return. He was born in Iran but has lived in Toronto for the last 20 years. I asked if has any family. He said he has two brothers. Any children? He shrugged. Maybe. He can’t be sure about such things.

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Random Acts Of Creativity

The old house was the same, droopy and sick, but as we stared down the street we thought we saw an inside shutter move. Flick. A tiny, almost invisible movement, and the house was still.

Somebody cut a few sentences from Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, and pasted them to the side of a booth in a parking lot. Why would they do that?

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I like to get up in the morning and follow more or less the same routine every day.* Mostly I get dressed by starting with my underwear, though, if I throw caution to the wind, I might start with my socks instead. I eat my cereal with a sliced banana on top and wash it all down with a glass of grapefruit juice and a mug of black coffee. I eat my lunch at noon and my supper at six. I go to bed at eleven so I can have a good night’s sleep. I like the regularity. It never occurs to me that I could disrupt this well laid pattern by snipping up a novel and pasting bits of it onto carefully selected surfaces. It might make me late for lunch.

In the same way, it never occurs to me to stay up past my bedtime, sneak through the dark streets, and peel selected letters from a shop window so the remaining letters offer an entirely different message.

Adulterated Shop Sign on Queen Street West, Toronto

I think it has something to do with the 2nd law of thermodynamics. I’m a closed system with no energy from outside sources, so I wind down as the energy dissipates. One day, I’ll be old and doddery. I’ll hobble around on a cane and yell for everyone to speak up. People who design and print stickers of stylized hotdogs, then run around the city looking for places to stick them, are people who have mysterious reserves of energy. Their creativity defies the fundamental laws of the universe. They are demi-gods creating ex nihilo. They are ageless.

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But the execution (of a creative plan) accounts for only half the energy. Before the snipping or the peeling or the designing or the printing or the running around, there’s the imagining. There’s the decisive moment when a person says “aha, I could really DO that.” For ordinary mortals, that imaginative act draws GigaWatts from the grid, but for creative demi-gods, the “aha” moment arrives with a lightning bolt and, for that reason, has its own power supply. Even the simple act of giving a stone figure a cigarette catchlight leaves the traces of an autocatalytic impulse.

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Something you should know about random acts of creativity (RACs for short): they haven’t been vetted or approved or officialized by an authoritative curator type. That means not everybody is happy to see their appearance in public spaces. If RACs could be curated, then everybody would be happy because they would have the assurance that, somehow, the RACs had a proper place in the big picture; they might even have an economic rationale which, no doubt, is the true raison d’être of all creative undertakings.

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Something else you should know about RACs: they are ephemeral. One day, I passed a brilliant treatment of James Dean. The next day, I passed and it was gone. Someone in authority had obliterated it with whitewash. Why do we put up with such vandalism!

Rebel With A Cause

These ephemera are the shadows of consumerism. Like all consumer goods, planned obsolescence is written into their DNA. Some of them shine at us like glossy advertising. We note them with a two-second flick and then they turn invisible to us. We become desensitized to their impact, just as we lose our urge to spend money once a marketing campaign has petered out. What are we being asked to buy? What urge are they stimulating in us?

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* I apologize for the redundancy: “more or less the same” is what makes it a routine. (I apologize doubly for the incoherence: nothing can be “more or less” the same; either it is or it isn’t.)

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Eveready Freddy

Freddy was sitting on a bench in Allen Gardens tuning his guitar. I went up to him and asked if I could take some photos of him doing his thing. A couple hours later, after (among other things) a trip to a Timmies where I bought him a coffee, we parted company on Carlton Street.

As soon as Freddy saw the camera, he was talking publicity photos for things like posters because he’s putting together a band and he needs to work at promoting himself. He shot to his feet, grabbed his sweatshirt and jacket, and ran off to see about backgrounds for the shot. The bench where I found him was on the south side of the St. Andrew Evangelical Lutheran Church. It’s a nice stone church; maybe the wall would be a good background. But he decided no and turned to one of the glass conservatories on the other side of the walkway. Maybe that would work. But where would he sit? He ran past a row of benches but they were all covered in graffiti. I had trouble keeping up with him. Finally, he settled for a stone post by the entrance to the greenhouses. He hoisted himself onto the post and set to work tuning his guitar. I’d play a note from the keyboard app on my iPhone, he’d tune for a few seconds, then stop to tell me a bit about himself.

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Freddy is from Owen Sound. One of his ex-wives lives there with his daughter and a man (who made her pay for half of her ring). He has a dog which is living in Markdale. It’s a show dog and he’d like me to take photos of it someday. He’s just come into the city from Oshawa. Somebody robbed him at knife point last night while he was still in Oshawa. Or maybe it was the night before last. He can’t remember. He needs to get back to Union Station sometime to pick up his lunch. He left it with a guy he trusts so, even if the guy isn’t there, he’ll have left it with someone else reliable. But if he loses his lunch (so to speak), so what? He’s only out a jar of olives and another jar of pickles and some other stuff. No big deal.

The reason he’s in Toronto is to find his son who’s MIA – completely dropped off the radar. The boy was born in 1997. His mom—Freddy’s previous ex-wife—just up and left with the boy. Sent him a Dear John letter and that was that. He has a paralegal working for him to help find his boy. Says he hasn’t got much hope of getting access what with Ontario’s laws and all. But he’s heard that maybe she’s in Alberta and that would be a lot easier for him legal-wise. Thing is: he can’t do that from here; he has to get out to Alberta before he can do whatever.

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I ask about his music. He says it’s all his own material. As for influences, he names some people I’ve never heard of. But also the Eagles, Bob Dylan, and Ronny Hawkins, Jr. I mention Gordon Lightfoot. Yeah, he likes Lightfoot, but the harmonies in his music are a bit more tricky, not your straight 1-4-5 stuff. So you’re more of a Stompin’ Tom man, then? He laughs, then he starts singing Bud the Spud.

I have to admit, he has a pretty good singing voice. He says it’s a bit rough. He’s got something in his throat and it probably wouldn’t hurt to have, say, some tea with honey. I take the cue. I’ve got enough shots by now, so we head over to the Timmies across the road from the church. He tells me his stage name is Eveready Freddy, like the bunny, keeps going on and on. I check when I get home: it’s Energizer that has the bunny. Still, the whole bunny thing seems apt. Keeps going on and on.

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He says the biggest problem is managing his bandmates. They’re off doing their own things. Or when they do get together, they want to take their share of the door and snort it up their nose or fuck prostitutes. He thinks it’s such a waste. So you guys play bars up in Owen Sound? Down in Toronto? Well … we haven’t actually got any gigs yet. We’re still putting it all together. (I’m thinking: if the door is $0, then there probably isn’t a lot of snorting or fucking going on.)

He asks for a double double, which I pay for, and he promises to buy me one the next time we get together. We sit at the counter by the window. He pulls out a pack of cigarettes which he empties onto the counter. There’s a twenty dollar bill, a one dollar American bill, a couple coins, and a broken cigarette. He leaves his double double to cool and goes outside to bum a light from a kid smoking on the sidewalk.

When he comes back inside, he tells me about his highs and his lows. Some people have told him he should be taking something for it, but he absolutely refuses. If he took chemicals like that, he wouldn’t be him anymore. There was once when he was hospitalized for a drug-induced psychosis. Wasn’t his fault. He smoked PCPs. The guy who gave it to him said it was weed. Now he has a history. Get hospitalized and it never leaves you. It wasn’t his fault, but they check and go “oh he has mental health issues” even though it was really nothing at all, but now he’s fucked.

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Somehow, we get talking about fairs. Freddy has family near Markdale who run fairs. Then again Freddy doesn’t trust carnies. I ask if he’s ever been a carnie himself. He smiles and gives me his patter. He’s pretty good at it. As you’d expect, he spews it out at breakneck speed. Eveready Freddy. I learn other things, too. Freddy holds a finger to his lips and smiles: in secret, he and a couple buddies are building an ultra-light plane. It’s in a barn up north. They’re just waiting on a shipment of special aluminum.

We walk west along Carlton, and at Mutual Street, a woman drops her bicycle on the street and chases after an envelope that’s blown loose from her jacket pocket. In a thick French accent, the woman explains how important the letter is. She says she’s from Montreal. She says … and then … and then … and then … Not even Freddy can get a word in edgewise. The mantle has passed to someone else so I take my leave.

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An Unseasonably Warm November

At a time when the weather should be cold and dull, a streak of bright warm weather comes as a boon to street photographers. People are out being people, doing all the varied things that people do, maybe with more gusto (desperation?) because they know it can’t last. Here is a selection of photos to mark the week that has come and gone:

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Hunting for vinyl at Kops Records on Bloor St. W.

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Skateboarding at Alexandra Park

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Talking God with proselytes

I see these people everywhere. I could be wrong, but I think they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re always careful to stand close to the curb so that they fall within the road allowance. Standing on public land, they have a Charter-guaranteed right to be there (freedom of expression) and shop owners can’t make them leave. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the same right and am free to take their photo while they’re standing on that public land. Lucky me.

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#whatsvictorupto – street art at Bathurst & Dundas

I see sidewalk art in this style all over the place with the hashtag #whatsvictorupto but, until this week, I’ve never caught the artist in the act of creating his work. I tend to think of art more as an event than as a static object. I like to witness the process. In the same way, I take a great deal of satisfaction from the moment of capture that comes with the release of the shutter. The event is at least as important as the result.

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Take-down at Church & Bloor

No day is complete without a shoplifter take down. I was passing by as an undercover security guy had a young man pressed against a pole and was clicking on the handcuffs. There was almost no time to respond and it was getting dark, so most of my shots were too blurry, but this one worked. I find it curious for two reasons. First, the shoplifter is wearing what I presume to be prayer beads around his right wrist. This raises questions about the man’s spiritual life, his attitudes to personal possessions, possible feelings of disenfranchisement. Maybe he’s a victim of late capitalism. Maybe theft is resistance. The second curiosity is the person facing the man in handcuffs. I was focusing on the handcuffs, so the person’s face is blurred. He’s a shadowy figure with his hood up. He adds a note of mystery or foreboding to the image.

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Chatting With Agustín

Yesterday, a fist fight broke out at Queen and Spadina. I’ve been following the street photography edict that you should always shoot with a prime lens that has a focal length of no more than 50mm; if you need to get closer to your subject, let your feet be your zoom. That edict is all well and good, but Spadina is a wide street. By the time my zoom had taken me to where the action was, the fight had broken up and I walked away disappointed.

There’s a karmic quality to street photography: what the gods take away with one hand, they grant with the other. I walked west along Queen, squinting into the late afternoon sun, and saw a man in silhouette leaning against a wall and bumming a light from a passerby. As I stepped in line with him, he made a comment about my camera. I walked a couple steps past him and turned around to face him. It was a deliberate move on my part. There was a beautiful light shining full on his face and I wanted to position myself, you know, just in case …

I asked if he’d mind me taking some photos of him. He shrugged. Sure. Why not.

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He said his name is Agustín. Not with an “e” at the end and not with a “u” after the “A”. He has an aunt in Buenos Aires who’s a famous photographer, so he gets it. The whole photography thing. She was training to be a ballerina but had an accident so couldn’t realize her dream. Instead, she became a photographer and is known for her shots of the ballet. I asked if, with family in Buenos Aires, that’s where he’s from. No. He was born here. But, yeah, he has lots of family from South America. I got the impression some may have come here from Chile after the coup in 1973, but I may have misheard.

He says that, nowadays, people don’t get photography. They run around pointing and shooting without thinking about it. The discipline. Knowing the proper exposure. Just like people don’t get drugs. You don’t do drugs just because it’s fun or feels good. People forget what the point of drugs is.

I think maybe he was talking about spiritual experiences.

Agustín is working on a graphic novel called Autonomous Man. Maybe, when it’s done, I could take shots of each page to help him digitize it. Sure. Sounds interesting. I give him my URL and say, when the time comes, he can contact me through the web site. He writes the address on a slip of paper and I notice that he doesn’t write serially. It’s as if he shakes all the letters in a cup then tumbles them randomly onto the paper. A “d” here. An “r” there. But they all end up in the proper order. I wonder if maybe he sees a word as a complete visual entity, so it doesn’t matter which part of it he writes first.

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Agustín has a collection of odds and ends sitting on the window ledge behind him. There’s a pair of drum sticks. He says he needs them to stay sane. There’s a blue plastic garbage bag. It comes from the TTC. The TTC has the best garbage bags. There’s also a plastic press for bread so you end up with an image of the Virgin Mary on your toast.

Sitting on the curb is a stack of old boxes including a box with a picture of Mr. Clean on the side of it. Mr. Clean gives him the creeps, like he’s a Nazi or something. I take off my hat and tell him to take it easy on us bald guys. No, he says, it’s not the head; it’s the way he stands there all white with his arms crossed. Everything about him.

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The Ugly Truth

The first time I visited Glasgow, it was to visit a friend who had settled in the nearby town of Kirkintilloch. He showed me the sights and I was happy to shoot whatever I saw. However, I sensed a certain — I’m not sure how to describe it — maybe embarrassment? — as my camera sometimes strayed from the more palatable tourist subjects (the Kelvingrove, Buchanan Street, Glasgow Cathedral) to the stuff you’d never see in a brochure (panhandlers outside the Lodging House Mission, graffiti in an alley off Sauchiehall St., empty liquor bottles on a street in Govan). I didn’t mean to embarrass, but with a camera in hand, I felt compelled to shoot what’s there, not what other people wish were there.

My friend’s response brought to mind something we all do: call it pride of place. We tend to tell narratives of the place we call home. Maybe because we need to believe that we have some mastery over our circumstances, that we have chosen where and how we live rather than submitting to forces beyond our control, we tell stories of our place that reassure us we have chosen well.

I have found myself doing the same thing as my friend visits me in Toronto. I show him the sanitized sights (the Eaton Centre, the U. of T. Campus, Yorkville, the ROM, Chinatown, Kensington Market) while pretending not to notice the man on the sidewalk outside the Waverly Hotel with a needle in his arm, or the police shaking down a shoplifter, or the (presumably) schizophrenic woman harassing strangers. Toronto is a wonderful city, I tell myself. Ignoring, for the time being, that I was born here and so never had a choice about living here for the first 18 years of my life, and, ignoring for the time being that, for the rest of my life, I have been too afraid to go anywhere else, I couldn’t have done better for myself. Truly, I am the … uh … master of my universe.

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When November Turns Warm

Most years, we think of November as cold and dreary. We don’t need meteorological records to confirm our assumptions about November; we can read what poets and novelists have written.

“The gloomy month of November, when the people of England hang and drown themselves.”
– Joseph Addison

“I know that I have died before—once in November.”
― Anne Sexton

“No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –
November!”
― Thomas Hood, No!

But this year our first encounter with November has brought something altogether different. The bright sunlight and warm temperatures have inspired people to get out and enjoy one last hurrah before the weather turns.

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Photographically speaking, these are perfect conditions. No stiff fingers fumbling with camera settings. No losing lens caps in pockets buried beneath layers of sweaters. And, maybe most significantly, no waiting until two o’clock — shadows are long all through the day.

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