Urban Scenes: Montréal

It’s been a long time since I was last in Montréal. Decades, in fact. As a kid, I’d go at least once a month with my parents to visit my grandparents. One of my earliest memories comes from Montréal: Expo ’67. I don’t remember much about Expo ’67 except that I got my hand smushed by the monorail door. I was staring out the door’s window, hands pressed against the glass. When the monorail pulled into the station, the doors retracted into their slots and dragged one of my hands with them. I remember screaming and screaming. My parents tell me my hand was flattened and stayed that way for the rest of the day. They thought it would never be right. But young bones are resilient and by the next morning my hand had popped back to its normal size. In a sense, Expo was a masturbatory celebration of all things modern—technology, progress, future fetishism, all that sort of thing. I think my hand-smushing trauma may account for my lifelong suspicion of modernism and for my general expectation that it inevitably fails to deliver on its promises. It’s a miracle I can play the piano.

I was in Montréal during the October crisis. I remember how soldiers stopped our car at the Quebec border and questioned my father. My grandfather was a minister and one of his parishioners showed up at the manse in a panic, convinced the FLQ had a cell in her apartment building. My grandfather made a phone call and soon the manse was teeming with police and paramilitary types. I was too young to understand the issues, but I was old enough to understand in a visceral way the meaning of military authority, and the connection between fear and power. In retrospect, I think Trudeau’s War Measures Act was thoroughly reprehensible, but thoroughly understandable in light of the values celebrated during Expo ’67.

A couple years later, my grandfather retired from the ministry. As anglophones in an increasingly politicized and culturally polarized environment, they decided to leave. On his own, I think my grandfather could have adapted quite nicely to life there, but my grandmother was American and had already made one enormous cultural change when she married my grandfather and moved to New Brunswick. I don’t think she had it in her to make another major cultural change. I suspect, for her, the Montréal charge was only ever provisional. So my grandparents moved to Ontario. After that, I only ever visited Montréal on my way to somewhere else—until last week when I discovered how much I miss the city. We visited the offices of McCarthy Tétrault (my wife’s employer) and from the reception windows on the 25th floor of Le 1000 de la Gauchetière I looked out over Habitat 67 and La Biosphère where I had my hand smushed nearly 50 years ago. I looked across the river and thought I could almost see the spire of the church where my grandfather had served. I was surprised at how the view brought a lump to my throat. I need to spend more time there.

Child Crossing Place d'Armes, BMO Banque de Montréal in background

Child Crossing Place d’Armes, BMO Banque de Montréal in background

Sidewalk, Rue Saint Pierre, Old Montréal

Sidewalk, Rue Saint Pierre

Subway station on the Orange Line of the Montreal Metro rapid transit system

Square-Victoria-OACI – Subway station on the Montreal Metro

Garbage residue flowing down Evans Court, Old Montréal

Garbage residue flowing down Evans Court

View from alley onto Metcalfe St., Montréal

View from alley onto Metcalfe Street

Street Art at Boulevard de Maisonneuve & Rue de la Montagne, Montréal

Street Art thru phone booth at Blvd de Maisonneuve & Rue de la Montagne

Poster on Mill Street Bridge, Montréal - Pointe du Moulin à Vent in background.

Poster on Mill Street Bridge – Pointe du Moulin à Vent in background

Pointe du Moulin à Vent, Montréal

Shadows On Silos – Pointe du Moulin à Vent

Shadow of Stop Sign on Wall

Shadow of Stop Sign on Wall

Exterior of Centre de Sciences de Montréal

Exterior of Centre de Sciences de Montréal

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Street Photographs From Montreal

This post is dedicated to my spouse, lover, therapist & best friend, Tamiko, for her measureless patience. When we holiday together, I insist on using my camera, not to shoot the sights like a normal tourist, but to treat our time away as an opportunity to get good photographs. So it was last week in Montreal. It’s an addiction; I can’t help myself. She turns her back for a minute and I’m gone. I get a text: “Where r u?” I answer: “Saw a puddle.” I love puddles. Kids splash in them. I block pedestrian traffic, crouch low, and shoot reflections in them. Bus windows are good for that, too. Kids. Fire escapes. Stupid signs. Bicycles. People on cell phones. People off cell phones. People crossing streets. The occasions for us to get separated are limitless. Tamiko bears it all with the patience of Penelope and I thank her.

Boy plays piano outside Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History

Boy plays piano outside Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History

Puddle On Cobblestone, Rue St Paul E, Old Montreal

Puddle On Cobblestone, Rue St Paul E

Tourists Off The Bus, Old Montreal

Tourists Off The Bus

Drinking a Coke at the Rue de Vaudreuil, Old Montreal

Drinking a Coke at the foot of Rue de Vaudreuil

Man In Parking Lot, Rue de la Montagne, Montreal

Man In Parking Lot

Couple holding hands, crossing street (Sainte-Catherine & Peel), Montreal

Couple holding hands, crossing street

Beer Wine - Poster on Canada Post Box (Sainte-Catherine & Metcalfe), Montreal

Beer Wine – Poster on Canada Post Box

Bicycle Passing Fire Escape (Rue Notre-Dame O), Montreal

Bicycle Passing Fire Escape

Gripping Smartphone

Gripping Smartphone

Intersection At Night (Place d'Youville & Rue Saint Pierre), Montreal

Intersection At Night

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Photography Betrays God’s Creation

Photography Betrays God’s Creation – or at least that’s the sort of statement that could have served as the headline for an article published in an 1839 edition of a German newspaper in response to rumours that a new process had been invented. The author writes: “To fix fleeting images is not only impossible, as has been demonstrated by very serious experiments in Germany, it is a sacrilege. God has created man in His image and no human machine can capture the image of God. He would have to betray all his Eternal Principles to allow a Frenchman in Paris to unleash such a diabolical invention upon the world.” Cited in Photography & Society by Gisèle Freund. Maybe it was a Lutheran thing. Roman Catholics certainly didn’t share these concerns. Freund reports that in 1867, the Alsatian photographer, Adolphe Braun, persuaded the Vatican to allow representatives from his studio to photograph the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The project took 6 months to prepare and 2 years to execute. Freund notes: “Even the Pope, it is said, became interested in the Alsatian’s work, and visited the chapel several times a week to prowl around the scaffolding and to chat with the photographer.”

Meanwhile, I continue in my diabolical ways, as evidenced by this photograph I shot last week in Montreal, a discarded paper Pepsi cup in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica.

Pepsi cup in front of Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal

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Chasing Luck At Toronto City Hall

This is a followup to yesterday’s post. There, I suggested that street photographers can engineer their luck by going to heavy traffic locations when light is good, and then shoot and shoot and shoot. If they persist, they get good shots. Yesterday, I featured shots from the intersection of Yonge & Dundas Streets. Today, it’s the area around Nathan Philips Square at City Hall.

For the first shot, I stood on the west side of the pool with the sun at my back. I kept my head low, gazing down into the rear LCD viewfinder, doing my best to appear disengaged from everything happening around me. Every time somebody passed through the frame, I released the shutter. Back home, I had a long series of identically composed images to choose from. Most were garbage, but I was quite struck (not literally) by this woman who stared at me as she walked past.

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The second shot follows the opposite strategy. Instead of trying to appear disengaged from everything happening around me, I was very much engaged in this scene. Everybody in the scene knew I was there and knew what I was doing. The girl on the right (cropped at the neck) has just doused the man (her boyfriend? husband?) with water. You can see the water splashed on the pavement. She tosses the empty bottle over the dousee to the man standing on the left. The dousee is reclined on a vent, using it as a giant blower to dry his soaked pants. Strangely, there is another man in the top left corner who is running away from the scene.

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I shot the third image from above, swapping out my 35mm street lens for a 100mm Canon lens on a Metabones adapter. I was able to isolate the photographer from everything else in the scene. It makes for a clean image.

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Finally, a man has barely got the chocolate-dipped ice cream cone into his hands before it goes straight to his mouth. He’s well-dressed and carries a Harry Rosen bag. Clearly not a tourist.

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Go To Where Luck Is

I once had a professor who was the most humourless man I’d ever met. Do you remember Kingsfield from The Paper Chase? My professor was like Kingsfield. He seemed to delight in grinding students into piles of dust through inquisition-sytle interrogations and public humiliations. Yet one day my professor cracked a joke. Apropos of nothing, he said to the class: “As my uncle Max once told me, never marry for money; go to where money is and marry for love.” Most of us were too stunned to laugh. Our jaws fell open and we let out choked gurgling sounds.

I wouldn’t mention the joke except that it illustrates an interesting point that’s transferable to photography. Sometimes, it seems that what makes an image interesting has little to do with skill, and everything to do with luck. A preacher is talking to his acolytes and turns at just the right angle so that the cross dangling around his neck catches the sunlight. It looks as if a holy light blazes from his chest. A one in a million shot, or so it would seem. And yet these one in a million shots are more like one in a hundred shots. They happen again and again. The reason, I think, has something to do with uncle Max’s advice.

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Street Preacher at Yonge & Dundas.

Except for B & W conversion, this image has not been retouched.

Detail. Except for B & W conversion, this image has not been retouched.

In photography, never rely on luck; go to where luck is and rely on skill. Or, to put it differently, an essential part of the photographer’s craft is to engineer luck. In the genre of street photography, a good way to engineer luck is to place yourself in a heavily traveled public space when the light is good and shoot and shoot and shoot. In Toronto, one of those lucky locations is the southwest corner of Yonge & Dundas Streets. There, it’s easy to shoot people in a crowd (fish in a barrel, as they say). The challenge is to isolate an individual, or a discrete interaction, so that they don’t get lost in the onslaught of people.

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Man carrying suitcase and garment bag.

People are streaming across the intersection. Every third change of the lights is an all-way crossing for pedestrians. They head north to the movie theatres or the HMV or the liquor store or the Ryerson campus. They head south to the Yonge/Dundas Square or the Eaton Centre or the Hard Rock Café. A break appears and a young man emerges from the crowd. He carries a suitcase and garment bag. More distinctive, though, is that fact that he wears a vest and carries a pocket watch. It’s as if he’s stepped from a time warp and into my frame.

After dark, as I’m walking home from a film, I pass through the same corner of the same intersection. Three men are playing drums. That in itself isn’t particularly interesting. Buskers form one of the many tired clichés of street photography. I’m prepared to ignore them except that the crowd encircling them isn’t watching them. I follow their stares to an older man in hospital garb and blue booties who has set his cane to one side and is dancing to the rhythms. I use the term “dancing” loosely. A teenager drops a coin in the bucket and swings around the old man. What is happening here? Where has the man come from? The drummers call him by name. Is he a regular? And what about the audience? Many of them have smartphones raised to shoot pictures of the old man. Do they care about him? Do they feel concern? Or are they voyeurs? Are they the sort of people who would cheer at a train wreck?

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Man in hospital garb dances to drummers.

Speaking of voyeurs, I’m fascinated by tourists. They ride around in their red double-decker buses. Here’s the museum. There’s the CN Tower. Look at Casa Loma up there on the hill. It strikes me as a rather sanitized way to view things. At a granular level, things are not so pretty but they are definitely more interesting. Step out of the bus and meet real people! Or are you afraid that would that shatter your pleasant idealized view of the city? Below, a red tour bus passes a man as it pulls to its stop on the southeast corner of Yonge & Dundas. I wonder what they think of this man. I wonder if they even see him.

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Tourists in their safe red bus.

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Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

A couple weeks ago, we went early into Glasgow, found a place to eat breakfast (that played ’70’s rock as background muzak) near the foot of Byres Road, then walked along Dumbarton to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. We didn’t plan to stay long. Just long enough to check in on some old friends. Since admission is free, it’s easy enough to pop in for a few minutes, then continue on to somewhere else. Our old friends include a painting, Dali’s St. John of the Cross, and some sculptures shown below.

I like John Cage’s approach to music and think it’s equally applicable to other media. During a performance, Cage would open a concert hall and allow all the ambient noise—honking horns and jack hammers—to impinge on the scored music. He saw no necessary distinction between the “official” music listed on a program and the other sounds we encounter in our daily lives. In the same spirit, I see no necessary distinction between the curated works of art that appear in a gallery and the visual gifts that appear in my camera’s lens. And so I include in this post images of a garbage can in front of the museum, a discarded piece of plastic by an exterior wall, and a notice to “Mind The Step” outside the entrance.

Entrance to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Entrance to Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum

Return To Sender, 1996, Mixed Media Sculpture by Sean Read

Return To Sender, 1996, Mixed Media Sculpture by Sean Read

Floating Heads, by Sophy Cave

Floating Heads, by Sophy Cave

The Harpy Celaeno, 1902, Marble Sculpture by Mary Pownall

The Harpy Celaeno, 1902, Marble Sculpture by Mary Pownall

Garbage Can in front of Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow

Garbage Can in front of Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum

Plastic Food Container In Puddle

Plastic Food Container In Puddle

Mind The Step, Entrance to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Mind The Step, Entrance to Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum

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Scottish Scenes

Some of these images are exercises in poor-weather photography. Overcast sky. Threat of rain. Absence of shadows. The last image stands as proof that the sun can indeed shine in Scotland, though not reliably. All these images, regardless of weather & lighting conditions, have at least one thing in common. They all break a basic “rule” of photography: don’t run the horizon line through the centre of your image; place it on one of the lines dividing the image into thirds. It’s a tiresome rule and I recommend breaking it. The reason for the rule is valid enough: a horizon line through the middle of a photograph can make it look static and bland. But there are plenty of other ways to introduce a dynamic feeling into a photograph without manipulating the horizon line.

Loch Lomond, Scotland

Tree on Milarrochy Bay, Loch Lomond

Detail of valve on steamship, Sir Walter Scott

Detail of valve on steamship, Sir Walter Scott, on Loch Katrine

Shot near Kirkintilloch, Scotland

View from towpath, Forth & Clyde Canal, near Kirkintilloch

Beach south of Dunure, Scotland

Rock In Water, beach south of Dunure, Scotland

Near Maidens, Scotland

Culzean Castle

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Glasgow Street Photography

Over the past year, I’ve had the good fortune to find myself in some of the world’s best locales for street photography: Manhattan, Hong Kong, & Singapore. Although Glasgow is much smaller by comparison, it shares the vibe that makes these larger cities such great places to shoot. From a technical perspective, Glasgow works well because the weather sucks; on any given day it’s even odds the weather will be overcast which means you don’t have to contend with deep shadows; and rain turns pavement into a reflective surface that produces a feeling of intimacy. The city also has great high-traffic public spaces. Only an hour away, in tourist-infested Edinburgh, the people are genteel; they tuck away their idiosyncrasies. By contrast, Glaswegians are blunt; they won’t leave you in doubt about who they are or what they’re thinking. Chutzpah is a phrase that comes to mind. Bluntness cuts both ways for street photographers. On the one hand, if they don’t want you taking their photo, they’ll tell you. On the other hand, pointing a camera is a blunt communication in its own right, and more often than not Glaswegians will respect that.

Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, Scotland

Woman With Canes, Sauchiehall Street

Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, Scotland

Think Before You Step Out, Sauchiehall Street

Glasgow, Scotland

Bus On Ingram Street

Argyll Arcade, Buchanan Street, Glasgow, Scotland

Setting Out Jewelry, Argyll Arcade, Buchanan Street

Argyll Arcade, Buchanan Street, Glasgow, Scotland

Idle Beadle, Argyll Arcade, Buchanan Street

Mitchell & Gordon Streets, Glasgow, Scotland

Pedestrians at Mitchell & Gordon Streets

Walking In Rain along St. Vincent Place, Glasgow, Scotland

Texting & smoking in the rain on St. Vincent Place

Glasgow, Scotland

Woman Smoking In Rain, Looking Down Exchange Place to Buchanan St.

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Jellyfish

Last week, we stayed overnight at a beach south of Dunure on the west coast of Scotland. At low tide, we were able to walk along the sand to Culzean Castle. If we’d been more ambitious, we could have continued along to the village of Maidens where Donald Trump has lent his name to a luxury resort. If we’d been really ambitious, we would have duffed golf balls through the windows, but why waste perfectly good balls?

Algae & Seaweed

What caught my attention most were the jellyfish washed onto the beach. It gave me the perfect opportunity to play with new gear. I was putting a Sony Alpha A7 II through its paces and brought along a Metabones adapter so I could use my Canon lenses with it. Yeah, whatever. I used a 100mm f/2.8 macro for the jellyfish. The great advantage of the Sony body is that the rear LCD monitor tilts so that you can place the camera on the ground or, in this case, on the wet sand, and shoot low without getting a soaker every time you try to frame a shot.

Jellyfish

I took my first shots in the late afternoon. I shot into the light. The translucent jellyfish bodies acted as a natural light filter, adding a tinge of purple to the images. Reflections from the background water produced a nice bokeh effect. As an aside: in some places there were so many jellyfish, we had to watch where we were going. Stepping on a jellyfish is a bit like stepping on a cow platt.

Jellyfish

The effects of backlight & bokeh were more pronounced when I went out at 9:30 pm as the sun was setting. That introduced oranges to the purples.

Jellyfish

Shooting jellyfish seems a far cry from my street photography but, maybe, from a jellyfish point of view, these are candid portraits capturing life in the raw. I walk along the beach like some gigantic—I don’t know—two-legged oppressor?—and all the jellyfish scream in terror as they catch sight of me. I capture the panic in their, um, eyes, or whatever. Oh the humanity! Oh the snot-like goo!

Jellyfish

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Speaking Scottish

While (or is it whilst?) visiting Glasgow & environs last week, I was introduced to the sitcom, Still Game (available on Netflix). It’s about two widowers who share a council flat on the outskirts of Glasgow. They frequent the local pub where they round out their geriatric adventures with a few pints and, like all Glaswegians, the more they drink, the broader their accent. There is banter that, to my North American ear, is  incomprehensible. That pretty much matches my real-life experience as a guest in Kirkintilloch with a room full of locals chatting up their Canadian friend while polishing off a couple bottles of Laphraoig. Apparently, they were speaking my mother tongue. They themselves acknowledged that it might sound foreign to me. That’s an understatement. There were times when I thought I was on another planet.

Tying Up The Steamship, Sir Walter Scott

I love to go into Glasgow for the street photography. One morning, while (or is it whilst?) ambling down Sauchiehall Street, I noticed a man on a bench who was engaged in an animated conversation with a can of lager. It was all in that broad Glaswegian accent so I had no idea what he was saying. I doubled back for a better shot, at which point he caught sight of me and turned. At first, I thought I had captured yet another Scotsman on his way to a day-long bender with a siesta in an alley. It wasn’t until later, when I examined the photo more closely, that I realized something else might be happening. You will note the books peeking out of his coat pocket. The closest is a dog-eared copy of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, the Scottish tragedy. He wasn’t having a conversation with his can of lager; he was reciting lines. It got me to thinking about the performances of MacBeth I’ve seen, how the leading role is always played by a grand Shakespearean actor delivering his soliloquies in the Queen’s English. But really, wouldn’t it be more true to life if MacBeth were seriously pissed and spoke in a broad incomprehensible Glaswegian?

drinking-on-sauchiehall

Accents and dialects are local. Like a pin on a map, they fix a person to a particular region.  I’ve read statements from other photographers who extol their craft as a kind of universal speech. They tell us that images are like music: they are accessible across cultures; they bridge barriers of language. I’m not sure that’s a virtue. Maybe universality is possible only when it engages us in acts of erasure. A man walks down an alley with a cell phone pressed to his ear. Click. I catch him as he passes. The resulting image is easy to read. Perspective lines draw our eyes to the lightest part of the image somewhere at the end of the alley. The man is following those lines to that light place. Lines of perspective are a universal phenomenon. The alley could be anywhere, Manhattan, Kowloon. The movement from darkness to light has a Jungian appeal. But the image erases the gritty particularity of that locale off Buchanan Street. The smell of an old industrial town. The speech into the cell phone. Low. Not posh, like in Edinburgh. The distinctive traces of a paradoxical place that rejected independence from the UK, but also rejected the UK’s call to leave the EU. My image trashes all of that and leaves you with a simple (almost numbingly stupid) message.

Off Buchanan Street, Glasgow, Scotland

A man reading a newspaper raises similar issues. A mass-media rag owned by which corporate conglomerate? With headquarters where? Paying dividends to shareholders around the globe? It offers local news, but filtered through a formula that gets applied on every continent. I critique what I see, but how am I any better than the rag? I internalize big media’s visual formulas and filter everything I see, even everything I see critically, through its assumptions. In the background, a kid plays a guitar. Maybe he’s like me. Maybe he craves to maintain his status as an outlier, to sing with integrity, to honour his local culture. But he can’t help himself. He’s listened to too many top-40 radio stations (or the online equivalent). He’s internalized the demand for slick mediocrity.

Reading Newspaper on Buchanan Street, Glasgow, Scotland

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