Category Archives: Head

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

Colour Street Photography

More than in any other genre of photography, street photography seems to demand purity codes, like a religious cult or a hockey team. You can’t be a real street photographer unless you shoot with a Rangefinder, or a Leica, or only shoot “unposed” subjects. There’s even a UK-based web site that sells “official” streettog T-shirts. But perhaps the most persistent “rule” of street photography is that it display in black and white (ideally shot with black and white film, since digital post-processing taints the craft). I don’t know where this comes from. Joel Meyerowitz has been shooting street in colour since the ’60’s. Funny how I’ve heard of him, but never any of the rule-touting purists.


Sometimes I take a shot and realize that colour is the whole point of the image. For example: the image above. A man in red sweat pants and plaid shirt crosses Yonge Street carrying his McDonald’s breakfast in one hand and pulling a St. Bernard with the other. Conversion to black & white would eliminate something vital to this image.


The second example is a shot looking east along King St. at Bay — the financial heart of the country. A pipe has burst and steaming water pools along the curb. I draw my focus to the orange pylon while people stream across the road in the background. Again, the photo would somehow be diminished without the pylon’s orange colour in the foreground.


Finally, a shot by the Church of the Holy Trinity behind Toronto’s Eaton Centre. A woman helps a man light his cigarette while an unlit cigarette sits on her lips. I tried this in black & white with all kinds of filters, graininess, & contrast presets, but nothing worked as well as simply presenting it in its original colour. When I shot this, it was overcast. I think that made the brick of the church and the skin tones more saturated, warmer. This one deserves colour.

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College/Spadina Streetcar Track Repair

The College/Spadina intersection was blocked this month for streetcar track repairs/upgrades so I went over a couple times to catch the mess.


It occurred to me that the city’s online archive might have older photos of the intersection, so I did some digging, and while I couldn’t find anything precisely at the intersection, I did find a photo of the original streetcar line construction work on College Street a little to the east at McCaul.

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People In Yellow Creek

Despite the luridity of Toronto’s literary imagination (I know there’s no such word as luridity but it seems to work), its ravines aren’t always the dark repositories of our unconscious desires. In a previous post, I wrote about how (literary) bodies end up in Toronto’s ravines, as one did in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and another in Timothy Findley’s Headhunter. I’m also mindful of Paul Quarrington’s novel called (surprise, surprise) Ravine in which a childhood trauma in a Toronto ravine affects relationships and behaviour in adulthood. While a novel may map the topography of literary worlds, one should be wary of drawing too literal a connection between that topography and the ground we tread in our everyday lives.


For example, the other day, I encountered a young man playing a mandolin near the entrance to the culvert that diverts Yellow Creek under Mount Pleasant Avenue. Stumbling on a guy playing a mandolin in the woods is a far cry from stumbling on a body. I wanted to interrupt him and explain that, only a couple hundred metres to the north, Laura had plummeted into the creek and died in a fiery wreck. The fact that Laura is a fictional character seems a mere technicality. And yet it’s an important technicality, especially if I want to avoid strange looks from young men playing mandolins in the woods.


In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan challenges the idea of the unconscious mind. According to McLuhan, the shift to predominantly visual media (like photography, text, video) has come at the expense of other media. As we have lost the capacity to express ourselves in non-visual media, we have constructed a repository for all our inexpressible desires/fears/rages/demands and called it the unconscious mind. What would have seemed natural as poetry or a fairy tale seems inaccessible or emotionally violent, so we go to a therapist instead and enlist professional help to name what we have lost the capacity to name.


I don’t know how much credence we should give to Marshall McLuhan these days. But I do know that it’s far cheaper simply to walk through a ravine than to spend an hour each week with a therapist.

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Pointlessly Abstract

The title of this post should include a question mark. Is abstract photography pointless? If so, does that matter? Personally, I feel some ambivalence around the production of abstract photographs. Images that we describe as abstract can be pleasing to the eye. They can entertain, provoke, excite curiosity, pose questions.

Steps - Mount Pleasant Cemetery

One of the most common questions, at least for abstraction produced by photographs, is: what is it? We want the photograph to be OF something. We want to readily identify the thing which is the subject of the photograph. We resist the call to simply allow the photograph to BE in its own right, freed from its dependency upon the thingness in the photograph. So, for example, we look at the photograph above and prefer a description of steps in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. I suspect we’re less receptive to a description of grey linear patterns.

Pink Umbrella at Sugar Beach

There are many ways to produce abstract photographs. One could move the camera or zoom during a long exposure, do multiple exposures, post-processing experimentation, makeshift filters with bubble wrap or cellophane, reflections in puddles or mirrors. I’ve even considered doing a series about Sunday morning puke on the sidewalks (there’s a lot of it in the city). But by far the most common method is to frame the subject matter so tightly that it becomes difficult to identify. This is where my ambivalence arises.

Sap from strelitzia plant

What makes most modern photographs abstract is the fact that the subject matter is decontextualized. We produce something aesthetically pleasing by trashing the subject matter’s narrative, its history, particularity, locale. It becomes globally accessible, culturally universal. At the same time, it becomes pointless, maybe even flat or bland. Our curiosity might drive us to ask what it is, but not what it means. We see nothing in it of political moment. There is nothing in it that speaks to the burden of our times. But maybe that’s all we want from our photographs.

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First Peoples at the ROM

As a photographer, I’m naturally drawn to a display in the First Peoples Exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. It’s a “Mohawk Family Life Group Diorama” composed of plaster figures by an American sculptor who completed them for the museum in 1917. As the accompanying description indicates: “Such static displays give a misleading picture of indigenous cultures as unchanging, trapped in the past, and out of contact with other groups or historical events.” The museum tries to disrupt the static quality of the formal exhibit by challenging the museum-goer’s assumptions. Here, among other things, an indigenous woman in traditional dress holds a digital camera on a tripod.


Not only does the figure challenge our assumption about indigenous culture as static and isolated from other (Western) cultures, but it also challenges our assumption about who is entitled to make observations about the relationship between cultures. Typically, non-indigenous people regard themselves as the observers. The act of observation imposes a distance between subject and object and relegates the indigenous object to “the observed.” But in this instance, the observed is using her camera to make observations of her own.

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White Picket Fence

Some days, I pass a white picket fence. Although I’m sure there are many white picket fences in the GTA, it’s the only one I’m aware of in downtown Toronto. In general, the white picket fence has come to symbolize a related array of meanings:

• domestic bliss
• a settled life
• North American middle class
• financial stability

Some days, as I pass this particular white picket fence, I take a photograph of it:


In his book, The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer writes at length about the white picket fence as a photographic subject. He begins with a well-known photograph which Paul Strand shot in or about 1917.

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Hanging Outside the ROM

The entrance to the ROM – Royal Ontario Museum – is a great place to go people watching. People are drawn to the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, so there’s a lot of tourist gawking going on. But it’s also a nice open space, with benches, food vendors, pigeons. It feels piazza-ish.


The building is interesting. But everybody and their dog takes photos of the building. The building never changes. Shoot it at night. Shoot it in the morning. Shoot in the rain. Shoot from a low angle. Whatever. The challenge is to find fresh ways to see things there. One way is to shoot the people as they interact with the space:

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Slow Shooting

Have you heard of the slow reading movement? Among those who cultivate literary appreciation, there’s a growing push-back against the instant-on digital environment that treats readers as consumers and books as commodities to be gobbled up as quickly as possible so that consumers can move on to the next product. Slow reading is about savouring the moment and making yourself present enough to the words on the page that you can sense their nuance. Advocates of the movement say that it heightens the reading experience. I wonder if the same thing is also possible – maybe necessary – in photography. Digital cameras make it easy to take hundreds of exposures at a time while incurring little or no expense (except the expenditure of time needed to sort through them). Gone are the days of hiking to a location with a couple photographic plates in your pack and only those two chances to get your shot. Now there are no limitations on your resources. The problem, though, is that such convenience may make us complacent when it comes time to do the real work of our craft – the work of looking closely at a scene and applying our visual imaginations to the creation of an image. Maybe we need to slow down. Maybe we need to discipline ourselves by pretending we have only one or two chances to get the shot.

With this in mind, I tried an experiment. A while back, I had seen a drain pipe that empties into Yellow Creek. Rust from the pipe has discoloured the rock where the water splashes, turning it a bright orange. I took a shot of it before, but wasn’t happy with the result. So I thought to myself: I should go back, but this time, I should approach it slowly, methodically, breathe deeply. So, here, I document how I proceeded:

First off, I found a stable place to set up my tripod. I was going to use my 70-200 mm f 2.8 lens, which is fairly heavy, so there can’t be any shake. Next, I remembered to put on my mirror lock and pull out my remote shutter release. These two steps go hand-in-hand with setting up the tripod. They’re aimed at keeping shake to minimum. Then I lined things up and took a test shot. Here’s the result:

Drain Pipe

The reason for the test shot was to get the focus right. You see, if I really take slow shooting seriously, then I have to slow things way down. That means using an ND64 filter, which slows things down by 6 f-stops. Sometimes, autofocus doesn’t work with a neutral density filter because it doesn’t let in enough light for the camera to detect the correct distance. So, after the test shot, I switched to manual focus and screwed on the filter. At f-16, I set the shutter to 30 seconds. This was the result:


The colour is a little more saturated, but you can’t see that in a small jpg like this. Really, the only difference you can see is in the water pouring from the pipe. It has that silkiness that comes from a long exposure.

slow-shooting-drain-pipe-3I’m not done yet. Taking the shot is only half the story. The next step was to import the RAW file into Adobe Lightroom where I applied a lens correction, upped the clarity, vibrance and saturation, and adjusted highlights and blacks. You can see the settings I applied at right.

From there, I exported the image as an uncompressed .tif file which I opened in Photoshop. There, I did two more touch-ups using Nikon’s Color Efex Pro Plug-In. The first touch-up was to enhance the tonal contrast as shown below. This gave the image some punch and brought out some of the detail lurking in the shadows. I set that adjustment layer to 50% opacity because I’m too lazy to do it within the plug-in.


The second touch-up was to add a subtle vignette to the image. You might not even notice, since it’s only a 1% border with a 3% opacity.


Are we slow yet? Here’s the final image. Take your time. Savour it.


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The Ethics of Shooting Graffiti

I wonder if it’s okay to shoot graffiti. The reason for my concern is that if I shoot graffiti I’ll be appropriating the creative expression of someone else. All the originality and work is theirs. I simply point my camera and click a button. There is always the argument that because graffiti defaces property, it doesn’t lie in the graffiti artist’s mouth to complain that their rights have been violated by a digital appropriation. Then again, some photographers take their appropriation to its logical conclusion, giving rise to the possibility that maybe graffiti artists DO have something to complain about. I’ve seen photographers advertising prints of graffiti for sale on fineartamerica. It’s as if graffiti is a raw resource, like timber or crude oil, and anyone is free to stake a claim and try to make some money from it.

Thankfully, ethics has no necessary connection to property interests (or to the law, for the matter). There’s a pithy quote from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novel that can be adapted to this situation: Never let your sense of morality prevent you from doing what is right. Substitute “legality” for morality and there you go.

It seems to be a longstanding and intuitive principle of fairness that one should not profit from someone else’s efforts. Those efforts can take different forms. After all, there is graffiti. And then there is graffiti.

There is sanctioned graffiti. Municipalities commission artists to cover walls as a way to keep people from covering the walls.

Graffiti in Toronto

Or they give over public space to private corporations (as Toronto did below to a property developer, Lanterra) to commission artists to cover walls as a way to keep people from covering the walls.

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The Grammar of Photography

Do photographs have a grammar?

For more than 10 years, I’ve kept a blog called nouspique. I use the blog as a tool to explore more wordy pursuits. That’s understandable given my education (degrees in English, Law, & Theology). I am particularly fascinated by acts of interpretation (how do words mean what we say they mean?) and by the ways we deploy power to determine meaning. Despite my fascination, there are times when it exhausts me. All those words chattering in my head! I have to get away from it, so I turn to my camera. I’ve gone one further and have created a web site to display the images I find. In fact, it’s become quite a distraction and interferes with my writing.

There is an irony in this: images are interpretable in their own right, and the very challenges that hound my writerly experiences now howl loudly in the midst of my quiet photographic contemplations. I may have misunderstood the situation when I launched this web site.


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