Category Archives: Head

The category, Head, is for posts that make us think.

White Men In Business Suits

Why do street photographers do so little work with white men in business suits? Why are they so preoccupied with “grittier” themes? After all, if street photographers ignore white men in business suits, they might feel left out. Who knows? They might even feel discriminated against.

If you take the time to talk to white men in business suits, you’ll discover that they are people too. I should know. Once or twice a year, I put on my armour and go out into the world as a white man in a business suit. It can be an alienating experience. It makes me feel lonely. I want people to hold my hand and to comfort me.

Man in suit climbing stairs

I took the photo above while wandering through Toronto’s financial district. During rush hour, a lovely late-afternoon light was streaming down a west-facing staircase. I positioned myself at the foot of the staircase and waited. Being a white middle-aged man means I blend right in. Okay, I have a mustache, but apart from that, I blend right in. Every now and then, a person would veer from the standard rush-hour course and climb the stairs. Click, click, click. And then I’d wait for someone else to pass.

This photograph (and my cheeky remarks at the opening of this post) point up a conflict inherent in street photography. There is a conflict between street photography’s professed claim to be a documentary discipline (maybe even a species of photojournalism) on the one hand, and its aesthetic aims as a photographic art on the other hand. Ethics and aesthetics.

As a documentary discipline, street photography aims to capture the world as it is. But it would be naive to believe that the world presents itself to us as it is; the world is mediated to us through our interpretive lens even before it passes through the camera’s lens. The world as it is includes white men in business suits, but street photographers make a decision to weight the world as it is in favour of less well-dressed subjects. At its best, this is the photographic expression of a liberation theology with its preferential option: photography becomes a radical approach that casts light into the dark corners of marginal lives.

This is high-minded language, and something worth aspiring to, but I don’t always trust photographers who use such language to justify their encounters with the world as it is. It’s telling that photography deploys the language of mastery to describe the mechanics of image-making. We capture moments in time. We frame the subject. We take photographs. The flavour of our language is distinctly colonial. Do photographers care about their disenfranchised subjects? Or do their actions merely fetishize the homeless and people of colour? Maybe this is just another species of poverty porn.

As an aesthetic discipline, street photography likewise aims to capture the world as it is. But “the world as it is” means something specific within the enterprise. Here, reality doesn’t refer to the world as it is so much as to a set of visual conventions that has evolved over the past 180 years. Elements in a photograph signal meanings just as words in novel. A catch-light in the eye signals a deeper interior life. Wrinkles on an elderly face signal wisdom and lived experience. An upturned gaze signals hope or optimism. In the same way, other elements can certify reality. The graininess of a high ISO, for example, suggests the grittiness of a dirty street. A slight blurring indicates motion, as if the photographer was pursued when the shutter was released. Perhaps the most important element to certify reality is the portrayal of suffering.

In his Poetics, Aristotle said that in order to produce the cathartic effect of tragedy, the poet had to evoke feelings of pity and terror. But in the age of Oprah and Disney, the rules have changed. Our world avoids tragedy the way bats avoid light. Our narrative insists on a redemptive end that’s won through suffering. Like the ancient poets, we are free to evoke pity with portrayals of suffering, but it’s an ironclad rule that we must simultaneously hint at the possibility of hope. If a narrative denies the possibility of hope, it denies everything we know to be real.

Suffering is the nexus where the twin aims of street photography come into conflict. As photojournalism, street photography justifies the portrayal of suffering as a way to expose the consequences of unfettered power and seeks to hold such power accountable. But as aesthetic expression, it forces the portrayal of suffering into the constraints of the prevailing narrative (perhaps invented by organs of that same unfettered power). That narrative trivializes suffering by attaching to it the puerile moral assumptions that are fed to us through social media and airhead news commentators: suffering is the prerequisite to redemption, and if redemption never comes, you probably didn’t deserve it anyways.

Returning to my photograph of the white man in a business suit, I think I understand what’s troublesome about it. While it includes a pseudo narrative of suffering and redemption (man climbs stairs and will eventually emerge into the light where he will go to his club and drink a single malt), it fails to fulfill the documentary convention because it offers us nothing to care about. It resorts, instead, to a faux grittiness. It trivializes the trivial. What could be more au courant than that?

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Migraines and Photography

I get migraine headaches. I’ve been getting them since I was 11. On average, I get about 18 each year. On average, I’ve always had about 18 each year. Although I experience minor variations in the symptoms, they play out in roughly the same way each time. The first migraine headache I had at 11 was no different than the migraine headache I had last weekend. I have no idea what causes them and only suspicions about triggers. I’ve never really noticed any patterns…until now.

Migraine Art: The Migraine Experience from Within, by Klaus Podoll and Derek RobinsonI recently picked up a copy of Migraine Art: The Migraine Experience from Within by Klaus Podoll and the late Derek Robinson with a forward by the similarly late Oliver Sacks. It represents the culmination of a project to develop a collection of art produced by migraine sufferers to communicate the experience from inside the head, as it were. They organized a series of four competitions advertised through the British Migraine Association and sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. They received more than 500 entries from children and adults, amateurs and professional artists, often accompanied by descriptions of their experiences. These were adjudicated by both artists and medical people many of whom were also migraine sufferers.

Among other things, the authors hoped the collection would be of practical value, perhaps serving as a diagnostic tool, at the very least, giving non-suffering practitioners an appreciation of the fact that migraines are not ordinary headaches. Also, they hoped that the exercise of using artistic expression to communicate the experience would provide some therapeutic benefit, especially for the children who participated.

Reviewing the art, I realize how varied migraine experience can be from one person to the next. For example, my migraines invariably begin with visual aura. There are six types of aura, but I’ve experienced only four. Mine start with scotoma (holes in my field of vision where things disappear), followed by tunnel vision, hemianopia (half the field of vision is obscured), and concluding with fortification spectra whose outlines shimmer almost like electric arcs. Some people experience only scotoma, no numbness, no headache, nothing. Other people experience “Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome” where they perceive limbs and/or neck as longer than usual (Lewis Carroll was a fellow sufferer). Some perceive themselves as removed from their bodies.

After the visual aura, I experience numbness of fingers, face, and tongue, typically (though not always) on my left side. In the case of a severe headache, the entire left side of my body will be paralysed. My foot flops around like a wet fish; I’ve caught it in the door and not even noticed. After the numbness, there is a period of 5 or 10 minutes when I become aphasic. I can formulate words in my head, but when I try to speak them, I make no sense. People might think I was having a stroke. Paralysis and aphasia are harder to represent in visual art and so, understandably, far fewer of the pieces in the book try to represent these experiences.

Finally, the headache. There’s a scene in a Robertson Davies novel, The Rebel Angels, I think, where one character rams a knitting needle up another character’s nose and through his skull. If I don’t get my medication, that’s what it feels like for me and I go to the hospital. Usually, I have meds handy and everything is fine, but sometimes the headache starts in my sleep and by the time I wake up it’s too late.

As I leaf through the book, I wonder how I might represent the migraine experience with a photograph. I haven’t got an immediate answer to that question, but I do know that I sometimes I get a migraine headache while making a photograph.

That happened to me recently in Montreal. One evening, we were walking along Rue Saint-Paul when I saw the low light striking the dome above the Marché Bonsecours. I paused to capture the moment:

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The road had been excavated for repairs and there were hoses running here and there and I saw plumes of water spraying from tiny holes, presumably to keep the dust down. Puddles had accumulated in front of the building. I love puddles. If I have a camera in hand and I see a puddle, I’m like a 5-year-old. I have to go splash in it then crouch low to see what’s reflected in it. Here’s the shot I got when I ran to the puddles:

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It was the right idea, but I thought I could take it further. I crouched. I stood up. I moved. I crouched. I stood up. I found something to stand on so I could look at things from even higher. I lay down on the ground. And so on … Boom. Oh shit. I stood up. Something had gone wonky with my vision. I looked at my fingertips and they disappeared. Classic scotoma. I rooted through my camera bag for my Imitrex. I take it as a nasal spray because delivery is faster through the nasal membrane. If I take a squirt within seconds of seeing the scotoma, I can minimize the headache; the next day, I might have a hangover and need to wear sunglasses to hide from the light, but that’s nothing compared to the headache. I stared at the ground and everything shimmered. Here’s the shot I took when a migraine started:

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I like it as an abstract shot. I also think it’s a fair representation of my visual field when a migraine starts. When I got home, I realized that I’ve had a number of migraines this spring and summer while using a camera. Scrolling through my archive, I found the photos I shot each time a migraine started. That’s when I noted a pattern.

The last time I got a migraine, I was stalking a seagull along a beach south of Ayr. The sand was wet and reflective. Viewed from a low angle, it had a plastic quality, transitioning seamlessly into the bay beyond, and the distant hills of Arran and the clouds above. It all began to shimmer. Again, a squirt of Imitrex. I packed up my gear and walked away. Earlier in the spring I was hiking along a trail that leads to the shoulder of the Sleeping Giant north of Superior. A stream tumbled down the rocks beside the trail and every now and again I paused for a shot. At one point, I stared up the slope at the water splashing towards me, the afternoon sun glancing off water, and something disappeared. I walked a little further, flirting with denial, but when the aura started in earnest, I had to stop and announce that it was time to turn around.

From this, I surmise that bright sunlight reflected from below acts as a trigger. Unfortunately, bright sunlight reflected from below also produces interesting photographs. Since I’m not about to stop trying to shoot interesting photographs, there’s nothing for it but to put up with migraines. Maybe I should leverage the situation to sell myself as a suffering artist. Maybe I should cut off my ear and shoot starry nights and flocks of birds swarming around my head.

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My Grandmother’s Eyes

My Grandmother died on April 20th. I’ve never been present before when a death is declared. My grandmother had obviously expired, but the attending VON lacked the necessary government-approved certification to say unequivocally that she was dead. At times like this, I become strangely practical. I suggested we turn off the oxygen machine (why waste perfectly good oxygen?), but the VON said no; we needed to wait until his supervisor arrived and declared the death. To my mind, these strict procedures could mean only one thing: some time in the past, a well-meaning relation had turned off an oxygen tank and inadvertently suffocated his grandmother who wasn’t in fact dead but only appeared to be dead. I pulled my hand from the machine and sat like everyone else, waiting for the supervisor to show up. I had to pee but didn’t move. I was afraid tinkling sounds might disturb the solemnity of the moment.

When the supervisor arrived, he did the usual things you’d expect. He felt the wrist for a pulse. Then the carotid artery. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened for a heart beat. Logically, it’s impossible to prove a negative proposition, in this case, that my grandmother was not alive. Everyone in the room—my parents, me, the VON, the supervisor—everyone knew that my grandmother was no longer alive. But how do you establish that as a fact? You want to avoid the Pythonesque situation where, on the way to the funeral home, the presumed corpse sits up and says: I’m not dead yet.

The day before, they had wheeled a hospital bed into my grandmother’s living room so she could die in comfortable surroundings. Now, as the supervisor followed his procedures, I sat to the west of her, on her favourite couch. As a kid, I had sometimes slept on that couch, but in the living room of the house on the family farm. As a teen-aged sci-fi geek, I had read Robert A. Heinlein novels on that couch. Later, as an English major, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses on that couch. Now, my grandmother’s body lay propped a little to one side, facing me where I sat. My parents stood to the east of my grandmother and so they missed what I saw next.

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The supervisor asked for a Kleenex. My mom found the box and handed it to him. He took a Kleenex and rolled it to a point. He leaned over my grandmother from the far side of the hospital bed, with his back to my parents. He pushed back the eyelid of her left eye. My grandmother stared directly at me with her one unblinking eye. Her pupil was dilated, ringed around by the thin band of her blue iris. The supervisor tapped the cornea, once, twice, three times, with the tip of his rolled Kleenex. I don’t understand the physiology of it, but I guess he was looking for some kind of autonomic response. He didn’t find it. He shut the eyelid and scribbled some notes on his official declaration of death form.

At that moment, I couldn’t help myself. I guess it has something to do with my literary background. As I stared at my grandmother’s dead eye, I couldn’t help but think of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Near the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the old man’s eye:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Although my grandmother had died, still she stared at me. Based on that stare alone, I would not have been able to tell that she was not alive. They say (and by “they” I mean some impossible-to-identify person in the misty past) that the eyes are the window to the soul. But my experience suggests that the eye is a deceptive organ.

When I do street portraiture, the number one rule is: focus on the closest eye. As a result, I’ve become adept at manually shifting the active auto focus point into position as I’m yakking it up with prospective subjects. When I capture an expressive face and discover, in post, that the closest eye is perfectly crisp, I smile and give myself a pat on the back. I’ve got myself an image that viewers will care about. Inevitably, the image will draw their attention to the eye. They will stare into it and sense that, almost mystically, it reveals the inmost depths of my subject.

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Diane Arbus observed: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” I would suggest that her observation is doubly true of the eyes that appear in a photograph. When we stare at an image of a person’s eyes, maybe all we can know for certain is the content (the hopes and expectations) of our projections. We meet an elderly man. We observe the time-worn lines etched deep in his face. We think: he looks like wisdom personified. He squints and it looks to us as if he’s staring halfway across the galaxy. As photographers, we want to capture this look and share it with others. But when we talk to him, the mystery evaporates. The man is a moron. Or worse, an asshole. He tells dirty jokes. He says he has a stash of kiddy porn under his bed.

I would hazard that the eye isn’t a sensory organ so much as an aesthetic convention. When we look at a painting or photograph, its eyes tell our eyes where to look. We stare first at the eyes, then follow their gaze into the scene. It produces drama. It suggests the culmination of a narrative. What’s more, the presence of eyes tells us how to engage the work. If eyes are the window of the soul, then a representation of the eyes is a representation of the window of the soul. The eyes tell us that if we look closely, we will discover hidden depths. Just as a perspectival trick (first invented in the Renaissance) produces the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface, so a moral trick produces the illusion of deeper meaning.

A Child's Stare

In his book, The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer opens by drawing a thread through the history of photography: the thematic preoccupation with blindness. He suggests that blind subjects are the objective correlative of the photographer’s desire for invisibility. I don’t think it’s that complicated; I think photographs of blindness lay bare the moral trick. Unless there is something in a photograph that indicates blindness (in many of the early photographs Dyer examines, the blind person wears a sign that declares the blindness), the photograph is no less meaningful than one in which the subject is sighted. Photographs of blind people reveal that the functionality of eyes has no bearing on the effectiveness of a photograph. By extension, they play on our anxiety that photographs—and art more generally—may in fact have no deeper meaning.

As we sat with my grandmother’s body waiting for the supervisor to arrive and to declare the death, the VON spoke to my mother. Maybe the silence bothered him and he felt compelled to say something. He asked if my grandmother was a Christian. I rolled my eyes. While my grandmother was a regular at a local Presbyterian church, she never talked about her religious beliefs. As I later discovered while sorting through her belongings, she maintained a hefty stash of Bibles and they were all dog-eared. My mother nodded and the VON went on a riff about how Jesus’s resurrection was a promise from God blah blah blah. As the VON went on about Jesus, I felt anxiety descend like a fog upon the room. I stared at my grandmother’s body. After 97 years of life, is this all that remains? What if we have no deeper meaning?

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Religiosity On The Streets

There’s a breezeway between St. James Cathedral and what I presume to be the admin building for the Anglican Diocese. Photographically speaking, it’s interesting because it has a glass ceiling (for the men to walk on?) that produces good reflections when you shoot from underneath it towards the street. The other evening, I was standing there, amusing myself, when someone nearby started picking a guitar and singing. I poked my head around the corner and found a man sitting on a stone bench. The church’s exterior wall has a lot of angles that provide secluded alcoves. I asked the man if he was practising. He said yeah, he had a gig across the road, just one song but he wanted to get it right.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I asked if he’d mind me taking shots of him while he practised. He said sure, but he figured it was probably worth the price of a beer. I said I figured it was, so he did his thing and I did my thing and we both were happy. Mike speaks with a bit of a twang so I was expecting him to sing in a nasal Willie Nelson voice. Mercifully, he’s sings much better than that and his picking is fantastic. You can see from the photos that he plays a mouth organ. I grew up calling it an organ, but he calls it a harp. He plays a Lee Oskar. He doesn’t like Hohner; he says they just don’t hold up.

When it came time to make good on my promise, I realized I’d made a mistake. Normally, when I go out, I load my pockets with twonies. But this evening I’d forgotten. Well, I thought, a deal’s a deal. I held up a twenty dollar bill and said it’s all I had. Mike turned all obsequious on me and it made me feel awkward. He pressed his hands together like he was Gandhi. “Oh man, all I wanted from you was a twonie for a beer. Tell me, are you a Christian?”

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I hate when people ask me that question. I don’t want to disappoint them. At the same time, I don’t want to be taken for a bigot or an asshole. To be honest, I don’t know what I am. I suppose I’m happily in limbo. I ended up telling Mike that I grew up in the United Church of Canada but I’m a bit lapsed these days. “Lapsed” describes most people who grew up in the United Church of Canada. “Well bless you anyways,” he said.

One day, my photography habit is going to turn me into a bona fide sociologist. I’d love to conduct an investigation of religiosity on the streets. While mainstream media keep harping at the secular/humanist/agnostic shift of the mainstream-cultures/middle-classes/people-who-pull-twenty-dollar-bills-from-their-pockets, that shift doesn’t appear to have touched those who live in the margins. In part, it may have something to do with the fact that a lot of front line services are run by notoriously evangelical Christian organizations. But nowadays even those organizations are under pressure to keep religion out of it. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, but leave their souls to the great whatever.

So where does it come from? Does it ooze up from the pavement? Is it prompted by the simple fact of poverty? Is it (consciously or otherwise) a way for those living in the margins to distinguish themselves from the secular lost and their barren normativity? Does my vocabulary and academic/investigative posturing merely underscore the barrenness?

Shut up and shoot, Dave. Shoot like it’s a prayer. Share like it’s a sacrament.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

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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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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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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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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.

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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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