Monthly Archives: March 2016

Rob Ford’s Funeral Procession

Yesterday morning I walked down to St. James Cathedral bearing my camera gear like a giant question mark. I wanted to see if I could discern what makes Rob Ford tick—not Rob Ford the man, obviously, since he’s no longer with us, but Rob Ford the cultural phenomenon.

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Mourner, hat in hand, waiting for the funeral procession.

I went with a theory: that Rob Ford is an accidental postmodern. The way I understand postmodernism, it began as an intentional critique of the relationship between power and culture and supplemented its theorizing with a set of practical tools for subverting that relationship. It challenged the hierarchical structure of cultural production. The distinction which privileges high art over pop culture is a false distinction. So, too, the distinction which privileges scientific/academic discourse over lay inquiry. Professionalism over the amateur. Religious orthodoxy over grassroots spirituality. Reason over dreams. White over black. Man over woman. Straight over queer. Not surprisingly, the earliest theoretical glimmers of postmodernism coincided with the rise of practical movements: Black Power, Feminism, Gay Rights.

More recently, we’ve witnessed the emergence of cultural phenomena which, while never intended to fulfill a postmodern agenda, nevertheless bear some of its marks. They are accidentally postmodern. Facebook is a good example of this. It has ripped down the walls between our neatly compartmentalized discursive habits. Now, it’s hard to tell whether we’re reading news or advertising, gossip or fiction. Facebook makes it impossible to privilege one discursive mode over another. (The only thing that’s privileged is Facebook itself.) In the same way, Rob Ford never woke one morning and said to himself: Hey, I’m gonna be a postmodern mayor. It just happened that way.

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Consider the evidence (or don’t, since that might be too scientific). Ford occupied the office of mayor which, traditionally, evokes a sense of gravitas. The mayor is addressed as Your Worship, and he has all the powers of a Justice of the Peace which entitles him, among other things, to preside over marriages. Tradition treats it as an office marked by dignity. People loved Ford for the fact that he was accessible and casual. He was hands on. Accessibility may have come at the expense of dignity. Everybody knew he was smashed on the job. Everybody knew he worked while driving. Talked on his cell phone while driving (gave a woman the finger when she told him to hang up). But so what? He demystified the aura that enshrouds the mayoral office.

He blurred lines. With him, it was impossible to tell whether he was politicking or entertaining. The conflict of interest scandal that nearly cost him his job underscores this blurring of lines. He didn’t appear to understand that it might be inappropriate to solicit funds for a personal charity on City Hall letterhead. But why should he when such distinctions belong to an earlier time with its archaic assumptions about propriety? Or consider his personal wealth which suggests white male privilege. And yet he styled himself a man of the people. A mayor for the little guy, enormously popular with working class and Black voters. Never mind his union busting, his racist rants, his groping and butt patting, his refusal to attend LGTQ events. One could call him hypocritical or contradictory. But I wonder if, maybe, he occupied a Both/And cultural space that gave him an extraordinary sense of freedom.

Clowns in gowns pretend to be officiants at a religious service.

Clowns in gowns pose as religious officiants.

At Jarvis & Adelaide, I cut through St. James Park. I remember when this was a tent city during the Occupy Movement. Although I was early, a line had already formed in front of St. James Cathedral, members of the public hoping to get inside for the funeral. I crossed to the south side of King Street and positioned myself across from the front door. Beside me, the media had set themselves up, talking heads, live commentary, drooling experts. A man in shorts and a Santa Claus hat was posing behind them. I laughed. It seemed perfect. I squinted at the man with his goatee and cigarette. Wait a sec. Isn’t that Zanta?

Have you heard of Zanta? He’s something of a fixture in these parts. You can read more about him on his wikipedia page, but the short version is that, 16 years ago, he fell down a flight of stairs and may have suffered neurological damage. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. His name is David Zancai, but he has adopted the performing name of Zanta. His performance involves wearing a Santa hat, doing a lot of push ups, posing (totally ripped), and wishing people a Merry Christmess on any day of the year (except Christmas).

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Zanta (David Zancai) kneeling in front of St. James Cathedral.

Zanta lay down on the street in front of the church and started doing pushups. When he finished his pushups, he lay his sweatshirt on the pavement, pulled out a magic marker, and started writing a message on it. Three police officers stepped onto the street and encouraged him to leave, forcing him to the eastern edge of St. James Park where he simmered for a time on a park bench. I spoke to the police officer who led the push to expel Zanta. If I was going to play amateur photojournalist (or whatever the hell I thought I was doing), it seemed a good idea to do some fact checking. The police officer confirmed that, yes, the man is Zanta. He rolled his eyes. He’d had dealings with Zanta for probably 10 or 12 years now. But they had to get him out of there. It was important for the funeral to go off with some decorum.

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Police remove Zanta from the scene.

Later, I spoke to Zanta. He was pleased to hear that my name is David. He asked me if my parents are alive. Yes. Grandparents? One. How about the other ones? Well, um, uh, no (logic didn’t appear to be one of his strong suits). He said he’d tell me where they are. His rambling boiled down to this: my deceased grandparents are with Rob Ford. No doubt they’re delighted to have his company. He talked in a wandering way. It wasn’t an associative wandering. More a string of non sequiturs. It was impossible to have a rational conversation with the man.

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The pipers piped. The honour guard marched. The hearse arrived and pulled to the front door of the church. And behind it all, the rabble. People with their signs and little flags declaring their allegiance to Ford Nation and proclaiming Rob Ford the best mayor ever. They were loud and unruly. They shouted their non sequiturs, their contradictions. I turned and Zanta was gone. I caught sight of his white hood disappearing into the mob. He fit right in. So much for the police and their decorum.

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It would be easy to ridicule the Ford Nation phenomenon. I was born into a modern world, but educated into a postmodern sensibility, so I tread on fractured ground. The reasonable me, the one who likes neat categories and well-reasoned arguments, would very much enjoy running Ford Nation through my privileged blender. But the unreasonable me recognizes that my reasonable upbringing is intimately tied to stories of unjust relations. With time to reflect on the photos I took of Ford Nation’s citizens, I’m reminded of the Black Lives Matter tent city at Police Headquarters. These are not two separate groups. They merge like a Venn diagram. Their points of intersection are messy but they need to be acknowledged. As for Rob Ford, I wonder… Privileged white man with a penchant for hypocrisy? Or could he, indeed, have been an ally? And what does that make me if I dispute those who claim he was?

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Citizens of Ford Nation follow the funeral procession.

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Ross

I met Ross on College Street in front of Fran’s. He asked me directions to Women’s College Hospital. He said he had an x-ray booked there. He’d just come into town from Saskatchewan.

I think my photo might create a false impression of him, like he’s tough or disagreeable. Speaking to him, it was quite the opposite. But he was stuffing his mouth with food, so when he posed for the shot, he clenched his jaw shut to keep the food from spilling out. I think it’s the clenching that creates an impression of toughness. Or maybe it’s something else, something obvious that I’m missing.

Ross

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The Canadian Men’s Chorus

I sing (tenor) with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. When you sing with a community choir, one of the expectations is that if you have gifts (quite apart from your voice) you will place them at the choir’s disposal to contribute to its success as an organization. And so I am called upon, now and again, to show up with my camera. It’s given me occasion to think about the mechanics of shooting both choral groups and individual choristers. However, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts into practice, at least not in a concert setting with Orpheus, because it’s hard to sing and shoot at the same time. Fortunately, in the last few years, there has been an explosion of high quality choral groups in the Toronto area. With that has come a corresponding explosion in demand for choral photography.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with the Canadian Men’s Chorus as they update their promotional material. The CMC is in its sixth season, with Greg Rainville as artistic director and Arlene Jillard as manager.

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Here are some thoughts about shooting choirs, by no means exhaustive:

This is NOT wedding photography.

If you expect to shoot a group of people standing static on risers and smiling for your camera, you’ll be shooting something that looks like a choir, but it won’t be a choir. Choirs are anything but static. Sometimes, I think choirs are dance ensembles that happen to sing. Choral music engages the whole body.* There are the obvious things: the lungs, the tongue, the palate, the lips, the face. But the feeling radiates out from there. The body sways with the rhythm. Feet tap to the beat. The whole spirit vibrates and, if it’s a good choir, those vibrations start to move the audience too.

Sometimes, body movement is deliberate, as illustrated by the shot below where the CMC sings the world premiere of “Boots (Infantry Columns)”, Don MacDonald’s TTBB setting of a Rudyard Kipling poem about infantrymen on the march. Footsteps (and snare drum) supplement the work’s martial character.

Think of shooting choirs as more like street photography than wedding photography. You’re looking for that decisive moment—a facial expression, a meeting of eyes, a sway in the body as the music transports the singer.

(In fairness, good wedding photography is not wedding photography either.)

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Respect the performer’s dignity.

My second observation flows naturally from the first. Shooting choristers as they sing can be a lot like shooting people as they chew on their food. When singers work to give their words clarity, they contort their faces. Captured as stills, the resulting expressions can be unflattering, or even frightening. Shoot continuously through a range of motions, keep whatever works, discard the rest. Better yet, wait for held notes when the face isn’t doing a lot of weird things.

Related to that is eye contact. In a perfect world, all choristers watch the conductor all the time. When still photos catch a chorister with their nose buried in the score, it’s incriminating evidence. A flattering photo is one that captures the chorister staring attentively at the conductor with smiling eyes. Yes, smiling eyes. As I am learning from my own choral experience, eyes that smile help to produce a brighter sound.

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Community choirs aren’t church choirs.

I can’t speak for Europe, but in North America, community choirs have a branding challenge. They are secular organizations heavily reliant on funding from secular sources (government & charitable foundations), and many (including both Orpheus and the CMC) are committed to commissioning new works that reflect the huge cultural shift from sacred to secular that engulfs us all. At the same time, unless a choir can pack a large concert hall, the best venues are churches. Acoustically, most churches are designed to amplify the sonorities of a choir. They also serve well as mid-sized concert venues. The problem is: they’re full of religious paraphernalia.

The challenge for the photographer is: you’ve been asked to photograph a secular organization, but all your images end up with religious symbols and churchy-looking architecture in the background. There are workarounds but no perfect solutions. One technique is to use a shallow depth of field to make the background blurry. This is fine for blurring out small crosses and whatnot, but never really eliminates obvious architectural features like gothic arches. A second technique is to fill the frame with individual choristers, which is fine but never answers the challenge of shooting the entire ensemble. A third technique is to clone out sacred details in your favourite image editing software. Effective, but labour intensive.

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Choristers in community choirs are like superheroes.

During the day, they go about their ordinary lives. Working. Going to school. Making meals. Caring for children. Picking up poop after their dogs. But when the sun goes down, they assume a new identity. They put on gowns and bow ties. Or if they’re off to rehearsal, they fill their water bottles and sharpen their pencils. Like superheroes, their involvement in community choirs is voluntary. That means their time is limited. It’s difficult to gather them all for a dedicated photoshoot. Instead, you most likely have to shoot at times when the choir is already gathered. Rehearsals and concerts. The problem with shooting during rehearsals and concerts is that choirs already have something to do: rehearse and perform. Artistic directors have things they want to accomplish during rehearsals. Those things are musical, not photographic. It’s important for the photographer not to interfere with those aims.

Yes, get your shot, but be unobtrusive. Don’t get in the way of sight lines. Turn the camera to silent mode so it doesn’t make beeps when you release the shutter. In performance, time the shutter release to moments when the choir is singing forte so your clicks don’t disturb the audience. Wear quiet shoes and dark clothes. Show up early for the performance so you can catch the choir warming up. That way, you can get “performance” shots (i.e. the choir singing in concert dress) from positions you wouldn’t be able to occupy during the actual performance.

Catch the next concert of the Canadian Men’s Chorus on May 7th 2016: On Growing Up.

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* People who know me and how stiff I can be may find this amusing. Treat my writing as aspirational. It reflects an ideal, not something I actually accomplish.

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Homeless On Bloor

I’m working on a photobook tentatively titled The Disposable City. It’s a vehicle for exploring urban concerns like ephemera, waste (garbage, demolitions, pollution), and the commodification of everything, including people. Every now and then, I do another spread, then let it sit for a time to see how I feel about it. A while back, I did one on a homeless woman who camped out for a few weeks in a doorway across from me. It seems like a reasonable piece to post on Good Friday. I’ve included the text and a few images below, but for the full impact, you can download the two spreads in pdf format.

From The Disposable City:

I live high up in a condominium on the north side of Bloor Street. Across from me on the south side, one by one, the retailers are leaving their shops as a new owner—a developer—prepares to demolish the existing structures and build a 49-story tower in their place. A homeless woman has started camping out in a doorway. The sight of her greets me in the morning as I eat my breakfast, and again at night as I get ready for bed. Each day, out of curiosity, I lean out my window and train a long lens on her. I want to know if people interact with her as they pass on the sidewalk.

What I have learned is that most people barely acknowledge her existence much less interact with her. On the preceding page are 25 shots of the same scene. In all but one, the people passing don’t appear to see her. A small child, maybe seven years old, is the only person who turns her head and looks directly at the woman. Later, another child waves from his stroller.

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It would be easy to sentimentalize the scene, maybe read something Biblical into it—you must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. That sort of thing. I dismiss my observations as coincidental. Like so much of photography, it’s a “framing” issue: I’ve watched for only a short time and this has allowed me to be selective in the sliver of time I choose to capture the interactions of pedestrians and a homeless woman. Those interactions just happen to play out in a way that evokes a Biblical aphorism. If I watch for long enough, my sample size will more accurately characterize the interactions. They will become more statistically representative and less Biblical.

The next morning at breakfast, I look out my window and note that a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses have set themselves up within spitting distance of the homeless woman. The scene suggests to me a story about a certain man who lay injured in the street and the pharisees who passed him and did nothing. So much for being statistically representative!

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Over the days and weeks that follow, I watch the homeless woman from my perch. I’m disinclined to suppose that my observations become statistically representative of anything. But they do become more complicated:

A man approaches from the east. He sees the homeless woman. He stops in front of her. He leans in and speaks to her. He pulls a five dollar bill from his pocket and offers it to the woman. They exchange words and then the man walks away. I’m a long way off and can’t infer much from their exchange; I assume the man asked the woman how she was, she answered, and he (taking pity on her) gave her a five dollar bill.

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It isn’t until I examine the exchange on my computer monitor that I realize something different has happened. The man palmed the bill as he walked away. The homeless woman refused the offer of charity.

What a different impression of the parable we would have if the injured man lying in the street had told the Samaritan to go fuck himself.

Then again, that story may have no relevance to the scene on the street far below me. After all, the story was first addressed to a lawyer and so was told in terms he could understand. It was reasonable. Logical. And it was told in answer to a question about the definition of a word (neighbour) and not, as we usually suppose, to encourage acts of charity.

If we want to learn about charity, the stories we hear are anything but reasonable. Emphatically illogical. A woman wants to douse her master’s feet with a valuable perfume. Judas, the greatest villain of the Western canon, makes the reasonable suggestion that they sell the perfume and give the proceeds to the poor. I think it’s important to remember that it is Judas who endorses charity. Maybe it’s his unassailable logic that makes him so villainous.

In the movie, The Unforgiven, William Munny points the muzzle of his rifle. Cowering in terror, Little Bill looks up and says: “I don’t deserve this.” Munny answers: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” He pulls the trigger. If he weren’t a murderer of women and children, Munny could be a religious man explaining the dark underside of a theology of grace. It’s deliciously unreasonable. And terrifying in it’s consequences.

If I am to be gracious, then I must be unreasonable. I find myself asking: what is the unreasonable way to view myself in relation to this woman? What is the unreasonable thing to expect me to do (or not to do) in answer to her presence?

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Williams Farm At Sunrise

Note that the shots in this post are NOT shots of sunrise at the Williams Farm; they’re shots of Williams Farm at sunrise i.e. I took them all within a few minutes of one another on either side of sunrise. Although I didn’t intend these shots as an illustration of anything, I do think they stand as an illustration of the fact that when you’re shooting landscape/nature/rural type shots, the best results happen within a narrow stretch of time when the sun is just below or just peeping above the horizon.

For the sake of accuracy, the 3rd photo is not a shot of the Williams Farm. It’s a shot of the farm immediately to the south. The pinky clouds were irresistible so I popped into the next field. Also, since you asked, it’s a composite of 5 different shots blended using the HDR tool in Adobe Lightroom.

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Early Morning Frost

Here’s a sampling of early morning shots taken at the Williams Farm after a good frost. These come from either side of the 2015/16 winter season. I shot the first two on boxing day, 2015. I shot the second two on the first day of spring 2016. On both occasions, I was inadequately dressed and inadequately coffee’d. Note that none of the images would have been possible without a tripod, an alarm clock, and a good pair of boots.

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Under The Millwood Road Bridge

I think our neighbour has killed himself. Nobody who knows will talk about it, but it seems likely.

We drive home around dinner time and have trouble getting into our building. Police cars block the entrance. An ambulance sits on the sidewalk by a stretch of yellow tape. Our building superintendent is talking to the police. The building manager sends an email message advising us of a police investigation on the premises, but we aren’t to be alarmed; there’s no danger. Later, we leave to go out for the evening and three police officers exit the unit across the hall from us. It belongs to an elderly man who has always struck me as lonely and reclusive. Seeing the police, we know what to think. When we return home from dinner, the night concierge is already on the desk. He isn’t allowed to say anything, but they sent the evening concierge home, told him to take some time off.

There must be something in the air. It’s been a long dull winter without the fluffy decorative cheer that snow brings. We hear in the news how a woman stabs the concierge at a nearby building as he helps her move some boxes. She flees and ends up on the balcony of a 27th floor apartment in another building. Police rappel from the balcony above to capture (rescue?) her. The media identify her as an “internationally renowned architect and philanthropist.” It is implied that her outburst is the result of a mental health issue. The woman is held on a suicide watch. The media interview a friend (she’s a “remarkable woman”), a man who, it turns out, designed the Luminous Veil, the Bloor Street Viaduct’s suicide prevention barrier. The woman in question was instrumental in promoting the barrier and raising funds for it.

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Posed vs. Unposed

Like most people who do street photography, I started doing it because it’s fun and interesting. I’ve learned a lot about local geography. I’ve gotten a lot of exercise. And I’ve met a lot of fascinating people. Quite apart from the physical and social dimensions, there is, lurking in the background, something of an intellectual (or even spiritual) quest at play. I don’t take photos of people out of some lurid voyeuristic obsession, but because I’m drawn to fundamental questions. Taking photos of people is a way to address those questions. I’m drawn to questions of identity. What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person socially entwined with other persons? What does it mean to be a person physically entwined with an urban environment? What are our responsibilities to each other in this environment?

Despite the benefits and the high-minded questions, the practice of street photography is hampered by trivial concerns. There seem to be a lot of rules about what counts as street photography. Typically, these rules are established by people who want to protect ground they’ve staked. Only film. Only black and white. Only candid. Only ambushed. Only people. Only 50mm or less. Only close-ups. On and on. People who view street photography as a species of documentary photography or photojournalism have another rule: no posed photos. People protect this rule so fiercely, you’d think Moses brought it down from the mountain on a stone tablet. I find it amusing that people get so wound up about the one area of photography that makes no money for anybody. I find it amusing, too, that it’s often impossible to tell, simply from examining a photograph, whether it was posed or unposed. I offer two photos of my own to illustrate.

A cursory glance suggests that the first is unposed and the second is posed. The first is a casual shot. The subject sits on the sidewalk and exhales cigarette smoke. His gaze is 90 degrees from the camera’s view as he looks to the left where a streetcar is passing. The second is more formally precise in its composition. A strong low light produces a long shadow and bold contrast. More importantly, the subject appears to be staring directly at the camera.

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In fact, the first is posed and the second is unposed. Let’s look again.

I was walking west along Queen Street past Broadview when I saw a man blowing huge plumes from an e-cigarette. Two things struck me. First, the temperature was 5 degrees and he was wearing a T-shirt. Second, the plumes of smoke interacted with the sunlight to produce an atmospheric effect. I approached and said: “I like the way your smoke plays in the sunlight. Would you mind exhaling again?” Now that I think of it, that’s a pretty Asperger’s way to start a conversation, but he didn’t seem to mind and said: “No problem.” He inhaled as I knelt. He exhaled as I released the shutter. I got maybe 7 shots before the smoke dissipated. He didn’t change anything about his demeanor or what he was doing, but, technically speaking, it was a posed photograph. I directed him in order to produce the shot I wanted.

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For the second shot, I was poking around the Underpass Park in Corktown by Eastern Avenue. A guy was skateboarding there. I started up the ramp that follows Eastern Avenue across the Don River, hoping for an elevated position that would give me a better point of view. Most of the time, he noodled around in the shadows. But on one occasion, he came off a concrete structure and rolled out into the light. From his perspective it was blinding, so he couldn’t really see what I was up to. I just happened to release the shutter as he struck this GQ pose. In fact, it was part of a broader motion to keep his balance. Purely accidental. Purely unposed.

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Photographic Literalism

Synecdoche is a classical Greek word that the English adopted to describe a specific rhetorical practice—referencing a part to mean the whole. The standard (very English) illustration is the word “crown” which refers to an ornamental headpiece but which can be used to mean the entire state. Synecdoche can also apply to other forms of expression, including photography. We often reference cities through images of memorable geographic features or buildings. We see the Eiffel Tower and we think of Paris. We see the Opera House and think of Sydney. Even in a provincial backwater like Toronto, the same thing happens. Our city has a distinctive city hall and our media often uses images of it to evoke the idea of Toronto.

Clarke Quay fountain, Singapore

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Geese Over Canada Malting Silos

At the beginning of this year, I was standing at the foot of the Canada Malting Silos and saw a flock of geese approaching from the southeast. They were flying from the water and heading straight for me. I’d been shooting with a monopod and there wasn’t time to unscrew it so I abandoned the idea of shooting the geese. But they kept approaching and, looking up, I realized they’d be passing directly over the silos. Maybe I’d be able to capture the geese in some relation with the top of the silos …

I pointed my camera straight up with the monopod sticking out in a vaguely phallic pose. The geese flew overhead. They were really moving! I tilted back and back and … I fell over. Sure, I looked like an idiot, but I got this photo which (I think) exemplifies one of my photographic aims.

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I want to explore the intersection of the human and natural worlds. We humans are, I believe, at a pivotal moment in our relationship to the natural world. Since the rise of early modernism, we have defined ourselves out of nature. We have conceptualized ourselves as other and apart. We are master; it is subject. Maybe it’s time to reinsert ourselves into the world we left. Maybe it’s time to give up the master fantasy and to resume our place as humble participant. We may have no choice.

The silos are crumbling. There’s a fence around them, and signs warn of the danger. The geese continue overhead on their trek to the northwest. These silos could be here or not here. Either way, it would make no difference to the geese.

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