Monthly Archives: January 2016

Then and Now – Shoveling Snow

Then:

A photograph from the Toronto Archives’ Globe and Mail Fonds. This photograph was probably shot by John H. Boyd who served as the Globe’s first staff photographer from December 1922 to November 1953. It was shot on December 28, 1922. It shows men on Queen Street shoveling snow into a horse-drawn cart.

Snow shovelers, Queen St. - December 28, 1922

Now:

A photograph shot on January 12, 2016 which shows men clearing a sidewalk on Bloor Street West by pushing snow onto the road, presumably because all the horse-drawn carts are busy elsewhere.

snow shoveler

I wonder what kind of shots people will be taking in another 90+ years. Driverless cars? The whole city under a giant dome? With global warming, maybe snow removal will be a curiosity from the olden days. Grandparents will sit little ones on their knees and ramble on: When I was your age I had to trudge to the driveway through 2 cm of snow to get to the SUV for the drive to school.

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Visual Hygiene

Last night, I went to a clinic in the suburbs for a sleep study. I rode the subway and got out at Leslie Station just before my 9 pm appointment. Leslie and Sheppard is one of those big suburban intersections where cars rule and pedestrians are an afterthought. My head was in a different space. I’d been reading a poetry journal and couldn’t make the switch to the more prosaic task of crossing the street. The light changed before I was halfway across and I had to run. My boots crunched on the salt. The road was slick and reflected the headlights beaming through the darkness.

This is my fourth sleep study, a followup to make sure everything is fine. My first—the one where I was diagnosed with sleep apnea—was 16 or 17 years ago. My current CPAP machine (which makes me look like one of those Giger-inspired creatures from Alien) is 11 years old and has logged more than 22,000 hours of use. I find that shocking. That’s 22,000 hours when I’ve failed to be a productive contributor to the global economy. Instead, I’ve spent time refreshing myself and dreaming. I’m so irresponsible.

I suffer a clinical loneliness during these studies. You sit in a cramped stark room while a technician daubs putty all over your head then sticks wires into the putty and tapes them in place. Then you have to lie back on the bed while the technician performs a series of baseline tests. “Blink ten times,” he says through the futzy intercom. He’s sitting at a computer terminal in another room and watching you through a camera hanging from the ceiling. “Cough three times. Point your left foot down, then flex it. Move your eyeballs up and down, up and down. Now side to side, side to side.”

The last time I did this, there was a man in the next room who snored like a tractor and when he wasn’t snoring he was buzzing the technician to help him unplug his wires so he could go for a pee. I had a miserable sleep and, the next morning, rode home on the subway like I’d been out all night on a bender. It could have been worse; I could have been him. The time before that, I met a girl who looked like Drew Barrymore. I stepped into the room while she was having wires stuck into the daubs of putty. She looked up at me, smiled, and fell asleep. She functioned like she was a hundred and three.

This morning, the technician opened the door and flipped the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault. Once I’d adjusted to the light, I noticed, for the first time, a print of a painting that hung on the wall above my feet. It was the only adornment in an otherwise bare room. It was a “realistic” painting of a maritime scene: ocean, rocky shore, green grass above the rocks, lighthouse, rainbow, and bald eagles. The colours were gaudy. The horizon line cut straight through the middle of the scene. It was sentimental. It was kitschy. It was worse than the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault.

It reminds me (of at least one of the reasons) why I spend so much time with a camera. I feel like King Canute declaring war against a rising tide of visual garbage.

Cycling in snow flurries

Cycling in snow flurries

There’s a phrase I learned, probably after my first sleep study when I went back to the clinic to get outfitted with a CPAP machine. The RT (respiratory therapist) spoke to me about sleep hygiene. I’ve always been a fan of the Buddha whose principal claim is that he wanted people to be awake. I think the Buddha was talking about a spiritual state, but he could have been speaking literally, too. You can meditate until your toes fall off, but it won’t amount to anything if you’re dozing with your head between your knees. So I practise sleep hygiene.

By analogy, I think there is visual hygiene. I have lofty aims. I want to SEE the world. I want to see in a way that isn’t distorted by my own situatedness in it. Or, at the very least, I want to see in a way that is aware of its distortions. But sometimes that seems an impossible task. Every day my eyes are assaulted by a barrage of images. Advertising. Facebook memes. Glossy magazine spreads. Instagram posts. Book covers. Traffic signs. Instructional manuals. Cheesy prints on clinic walls. I swim in their culture. I swallow their meanings. I become desensitized to visual garbage. I lose my ability to distinguish one thing from another.

Desensitization and the inability to distinguish modes of seeing are distinctively postmodern experiences. I don’t think we need to evaluate them. As experiences, they are neither good nor bad; they simply are. However, these experiences should alert us to the risk of overwhelm. Psychologically, we aren’t designed to cope with the barrage of imagery that screams for our attention, just as we aren’t designed to cope with perpetual wakefulness. We need time to tune out, turn off, recuperate.

My experience with a camera engages me in intense seeing, but it also shields me from the risk of overwhelm. The very fact that I can frame a scene gives me a measure of control over it. I can eliminate excess detail and focus attention. I can use depth of field, cropping, desaturation, black & white conversion, and mindful curation to accomplish the same thing. Using a camera also helps me to hone my visual literacy so I can reacquaint myself with the habit of distinguishing one thing from another. Finally, as a practical matter, whenever I’m looking through a viewfinder, I’m not staring at advertising, Facebook memes, cheesy prints on clinic walls.

I’d love to write more, but I had a horrible sleep last night and I need a nap.

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Fire On Jarvis Street

Early on the morning of January 4th, my wife woke me with the news that there was a fire on Jarvis south of Carlton if I felt like getting up for some good photos. It was -15 degrees, dark outside, and I was tired, so I fell back to sleep. As is typical, I kicked myself afterwards for my lack of motivation. Now, all you can see of the site is the burnt out peak of the roof and a plywood fence to keep people out.

jarvis-fire-564-1

The building is 150 years old, an example of Beaux Art classicism (so says a Toronto Star article), and is designated a heritage building (which means it’s an impediment to further development). There’s no info as to the cause of the fire. It should be noted that the building was unoccupied and no one was injured.

Fortunately for me, I did have enough motivation to get to the site before the boards went up. It was still cold and a lot of the water that had been sprayed on the building had stayed behind to decorate the mayhem.

jarvis-fire-564-2

Naturally, there was a security guard posted to keep the gawkers out. He followed me around. I assumed that he assumed that I was going to try to sneak into the building for some interior shots, so I thought I better say something to assure him I’m not stupid. I should know better than to assume anything of anyone. Before I had two words out of my mouth, he asked me a gear question.

“Oh, so you’re a photographer too?”

“Yeah, I’m a bit of an addict,” he said. It turns out he wasn’t worried that I might do something; he was curious to know how I was seeing, how I was framing things, what I was shooting. Then he pointed me to the other side of the building. I might find the ice there kind of interesting. I thanked him and went where he pointed while he went back to his car to stay warm.

Us photographers, we’re like a secret society. We have a handshake and everything.

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Birdlady

If they can have an Oscar-winning film called Birdman, then I can have an award-winning (okay, not award-winning, but at least blog-worthy) photo called Birdlady.

birdlady-564-1

I met this woman in the space south of Trinity Lutheran Church in the St. James Town area. She doesn’t feed the birds and squirrels every day, but when it’s cold she makes a point of giving them something to eat. She comes with bird seed, peanuts and, in case the squirrels don’t like the peanuts, she brings walnuts.

She loves animals. She grew up with animals. Her father kept dogs and cats. They had a chicken too. They even had a pig. Her father raised the pig as a family pet. He gave it milk from a bottle when it was little. They lived in a small town and everyone knew them. Wherever her father went, the pig followed him.

birdlady-564-2

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Adam

Welcome to 2016. After a break for the holidays, I’m back at it. I hadn’t expected to do much street photography in January, but, apart from one day, the weather has been extraordinarily accommodating.

At the beginning of December, I took some shots of a guy named Scott who was working the door to the Tim Horton’s on the Ryerson campus (Bond St. north of Dundas). I’d promised to give him a print so I went looking for him. A different guy was working the door. I showed him the photo. He knew Scott and suggested I go over to the Timmies at Jarvis and Dundas.

In the meantime, I had a camera slung around my neck and a willing subject standing in front of me, so we got talking, and I did what I do. This is Adam:

Adam

I showed him some of the shots and he was pleased. I think he was worried about how he’d look because he’s missing some of his top front teeth and the bottom ones aren’t anything to write home about. I wanted to send him a copy of this shot but he couldn’t think of how that would work. In the last month, he’s had two cell phones stolen, plus he can’t use his email account anymore. His ex-girlfriend is a computer programmer and, like, psycho. She’s hacked all his passwords. He’s got to figure out something else for email.

I’m not sure how we got around to it — maybe something to do with work troubles — but his health hasn’t been great. A guy stabbed him in September. Maybe I heard about it in the news? He was in the Leslieville Value Village and this guy attacked him with a steak knife. He told me to look it up, so I did. The blade broke off and was lodged in his abdomen. They rushed him to the hospital. Major surgery. It was more than a month before he was on his feet again.

I had no reason to disbelieve him, but maybe there was something Thomasish in my expression. He lifted his jacket and shirt and showed me the scars, a small one from the steak knife, and a large one from the surgery. After things healed, he got a tattoo to cover the entry wound: a Jason character with a hockey mask and a big knife.

Knife wound

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