Category Archives: Spleen

The category, Spleen, is for posts that make us angry.

#BLM & the Toronto Dyke March 2016

Once, Pride was Protest. Pride was Social Action. Pride was a Play for Justice. The whole Loud and Proud and Out in the Streets thing was a strategy to draw our eyes from the centre to the margins. Now it’s a party. It’s a celebration. It was one thing. Now it’s something else. Each thing lives inside its own neat box. One sits on a shelf with a label: Historical Pride. The other dances in the street.

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#BLM came to Pride and put its Protest, and its Social Action, and its Play for Justice into the party box. Oops. That would be bad. People shouldn’t get angry at parties. It’s against the rules. We need rules. Without rules, our boxes would get full of crap that doesn’t belong in them. I don’t know about you, but when my orderly boxes get filled up with crap that doesn’t belong in them, I start to feel uncomfortable.

When the people from #BLM brought their anger to the party, it made me feel uncomfortable. I just want have fun. Don’t ask me to think, especially on a weekend. Worse yet: don’t ask me to empathize with your situation. For me to empathize with you would take a lot of imagination and emotional maturity. I’m not up to it. Just leave me with my doobie (is my age showing?) and let me shout incoherent shit at nobody in particular. That’s all I ask of the world.

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The curious thing is that, after a smooth time at the Dyke March, the next day #BLM got its own boxes all mixed up. At the Pride Parade (I’ll post photos tomorrow), it held things up for half an hour and made demands of the Pride organizers not least of which was that Police should be prevented from marching in next year’s parade. People (mostly white?) went into conniptions, pointing out that the Police box has a lot of other crap in it, you know, police who are LGBTQ, police who are Black, police who are LGBTQ & Black, etc.

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My impression is that everybody would like their boxes to be neat and orderly. The Pride organizers would like their boxes to be neat and orderly. #BLM would like its boxes to be neat and orderly. I’d certainly love it if my boxes were neat and orderly. There’s a phrase that describes this propensity to keep boxes neat and orderly: black and white thinking.

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To mark all the black and white thinking that’s been swirling around the latest #BLM controversy, I decided to post only black and white photographs. I’m sure many of them would show better in colour, but one of the great features of black and white thinking is that denies people a richer view of their own experience.

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To be fair, a moratorium on police in the parade is a good idea. So you know somebody who’s black or gay who serves on your local police force. Don’t try to forward that fact as proof that things are getting better. What kind of “contract” has your black or gay friend entered in order to function within the culture of that police force? Don’t know? Of course you don’t know. That information doesn’t exist. And a complete absence of transparency means that it won’t exist for a long time to come.

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Personally, I don’t think #BLM went far enough. Let’s ban banks. Let’s ban the political hucksters right up to the PMO. Let’s ban that great bastion of regressive taxation, the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corporation. How about Home Depot? Air Canada? They celebrate your Black body, your Gay body, your Oppressed body, but only as a site for marketing and winning votes. Once you strip away all the sponsors and political interests, what are you left with? Maybe five people walking down the street holding hands?

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Do #BlackLivesMatter Anymore?

#BlackLivesMatter was a thing, just like #OccupyWallStreet was a thing before it. And now those things are done. The problem with turning chronic social injustice into a media concern is that once it loses its traction in the media people get the idea that somehow it’s been dealt with. A cause grabs media attention (with its very own hashtag) and people call it “raising awareness” or, if they’re feeling lofty, “raising consciousness”. Something has been accomplished. Progress has been made. We can go home now.

After the tent city at police headquarters had been disbanded, after the march to Queen’s Park, after Kathleen Wynne’s acknowledgment of systemic racism, after push-back from the Toronto Police Association, I drifted past Toronto Police Headquarters and noticed something odd. There’s a bronze sculpture by Les Drysdale out in front. A woman in police uniform holds a trowel and leans in as if spreading mortar for a new brick. Someone had left a fresh slice of watermelon on the trowel. It looks as if the (Caucasian) police officer is serving up watermelon to the ghosts of the Black protesters.

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How are we supposed to interpret this? Maybe it’s a straight-up racist taunt. Or maybe it’s an ironic comment from someone frustrated with the (fairly typical) “What? Me racist?” response from respectable men like Mike McCormack. Or maybe it’s the work of an agent provocateur who wants to throw gasoline on the fire. Or maybe it’s a prank by kids smoking weed in the alley near Fran’s. Or maybe it’s radical art by students from OCAD.

Then, of course, there’s a second-order question of interpretation. Once I record the watermelon on the trowel as a photograph, how should viewers interpret the image I’ve made? I don’t think it’s for me to say. However, I do want to point out that this was not a fortuitous capture in the moment. I spent maybe 20 or 30 minutes photographing the sculpture with watermelon and thinking about what I was looking at. I shot from different angles. With and without a polarizing filter. With a variety of people walking through the scene. Ultimately, I settled on a shot with the streetcar in the background. I like the play of red between the streetcar and the watermelon. I also like the fact that the streetcar places the scene unequivocally in Toronto where, as everybody knows, we don’t have problems with racism.

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Breitling Bombshell Followup

Last October, I posted a little rant about the Breitling Bombshell that sits in the Canadian corporate headquarters for a Swiss men’s watch manufacturer. The bombshell is a blonde woman with exaggerated breasts and a skimpy red dress who straddles a large bomb. I think the gist of my rant was: what the hell happened to feminism?

I went back one evening for another shot. The store was closed, but a cleaning lady was working around the bombshell. This was just too good. I rushed to capture the scene. The woman looked up and saw me through the window. I smiled and waved. She waved back, then returned to her dusting.

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I think this shot lends a little perspective to my earlier question about feminism. I’m willing to wager my genitals that the bombshell sprang to life from a man’s imagination. It’s a post-war fantasy sequel to Shaw’s Pygmalion: if only the blonde could come to life and keep me warm at nights. Meanwhile, the cleaning lady stares past the unbelievably perky boobs as if to say: for all your fantasies, I still get stuck doing this shit job.

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Shooting at Yonge and Bloor

Reviewing all my Toronto images this year, I discovered that they’re all shot in early morning or daytime. I’ve done no night shooting in 2016. Last night I resolved to remedy that situation, so I set out with my monopod, determined to shoot bright lights and blurry pedestrians. Approaching Yonge and Bloor, I stumbled on shooting of a different sort. My first night out and I come to the scene of a homicide. How am I going to top that tonight?

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According to the CBC, a man was fatally shot in the back near the coffee shops north of the Yonge Street entrance to the Bloor/Yonge subway station. Three suspects fled the scene. A police officer asked me if I saw anything. He was especially interested in my camera, presumably because I might have shot something of evidentiary value. If I’d witnessed anything, I would have happily provided information (and photos). But it’s awkward trying to explain that you’re not there to experience some kind of photojournalistic rush; you’re in it for the aesthetics. When you use phrases like “police tape bokeh” they give you strange looks.

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At one point, I was kneeling (like the 680News guy shown below) when I heard a voice behind me and a tap on my shoulder. I turned and looked up (and up). It was my nephew. Geez he’s tall. Maybe not basketball tall, but tall by our family’s standards. He had just finished his first class of introductory Italian at a place on Cumberland and noticed all the flashing lights at the end of the street. Walks down to see what all the fuss is about and look who he sees on his knees with a big camera.

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When I first arrived, I asked a guy what was going on. He told me he’d heard that someone was shot and that three suspects were on the loose. We looked at each other suspiciously, then I said thanks and he left. Someone asked me what had happened and I said more or less the same thing. And so the game of telephone continued. My nephew and I decided to embellish the story: a drug cartel, a mob hit, a getaway by motorcycle to a waiting helicopter. In truth, the only thing I know for certain is how quickly the narrative impulse kicks in. We absorb the facts into a story line that subtly warps the truth.

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One report quotes a witness as saying: “The strange thing was there was no screaming, there was no shouting, there was no running away – people were just gathering around in front of him and in front of the paramedics that were working on him.”

How is that strange? City living desensitizes us. Last week I was walking along with Esplanade east of Sherbourne and heard screams coming from an apartment building. A man was sitting on a bench. Another was paying for his parking. A woman with a stroller stopped. We all looked up, wondering what unit the scream had come from. We fingered our phones. Should we call 911? But why get involved? Getting involved is inconvenient. We’re busy. The screaming continued. Ten. Eleven. Twelve times. It induced a paralysis in us. We shrugged and walked away. This kind of thing happens all the time. If we got worked up every time somebody screams, we’d be emotional wrecks.

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Homeless On Bloor

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

From The Disposable City:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Geese Over Canada Malting Silos

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

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

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

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

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Modern Singapore

When I hear the word “development” I feel skeptical. Phrases like “structural adjustments” aren’t far behind. I wonder, too, if it isn’t just a case of Western financial institutions trying to make non-Western places over in their own image. When I hear the word “development” in connection with words like “modern” and “modernism” my skepticism turns up a notch.

We might say to a friend: “See the modern-looking building.” But our observation is far from neutral. Modern is not a stylistic quirk or a design decision. It’s an expression of an ideology. It’s a way of being in the world. It assumes the primacy of science, the certainty of progress, the promise of a bright and shining future, the value of democracy, the inevitability of capitalism, the cachet of consumption. Even those of us who turn a critical eye to its assumptions can’t help but note that we ourselves are moderns. We were born into it. We have internalized its values. As a result, we catch ourselves speaking out of both sides of our mouths. We fret for the environment but drift into malls and buy things we know will end up buried in landfill. We point a finger at late capitalism’s unjust distribution of wealth yet run out to play our lottery numbers.

Like all large cities suckling at the teat of late capitalism, it looks like Singapore has thrown its official plan into the shredder. Large construction projects have sprung up everywhere. The demand for cheap foreign labour goes up and up even as local citizenship requirements become more stringent. There’s a whiff of payola in the air. Dirty money in need of laundering. I’m no forensic accountant, but when every mall has a Rolex store, I get the feeling something is strange with the local economy.

Ceiling of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Ceiling of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Take the Marina Bay Sands – hotel, world’s largest atrium casino, convention centre, museum, theatres, shopping mall, 7 celebrity chef restaurants, infinity pool, skating rink, indoor river with gondoliers. With an $8bn price tag, it’s touted as the world’s most expensive standalone casino property. It all seems a bit grandiose. More to the point, it all seems a bit beyond ordinary people. The scale of its buildings reinforces that feeling. This is a place better suited for giants.

Supertrees and Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Supertrees and Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Within sight of Marina Bay Sands are the Gardens by the Bay which includes the conservatories. Shown above is the Flower Dome, the world’s largest columnless glasshouse. You get the impression that Singapore doesn’t mess around. It wants the biggest of this and the best of that.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel viewed from the Flower Dome, Singapore

Marina Bay Sands Hotel viewed from the Flower Dome, Singapore

I’m fascinated by the municipal fetish for waterfront ferris wheels. London has the Eye. Hong Kong has its prosaically named Observation Wheel. Singapore has the Flyer. Toronto’s former mayor, the illustrious Rob Ford, wanted Toronto to have a giant ferris wheel, too, reasoning that we couldn’t be a “world class” city without one. The city dismissed his proposal as the whimsical product of a sad man-child’s immature brain. One wonders if the city would have reacted differently had the proposal come from Toronto’s current and sober mayor.

View of Singapore Flyer, ArtScience Museum, and Double Helix Bridge

View of Singapore Flyer, ArtScience Museum, and Double Helix Bridge

Path alongside the Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Path alongside the Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

One of the problems with modern architecture – or modern anything for that matter – is that it plays to the future at the expense of the past. Old buildings are obsolete or inefficient. Historical concerns and cultural significance get in the way.

The Concourse business tower viewed over the tiled roofs of Arab Town, Singapore.

The Concourse business tower viewed over the tiled roofs of Arab Town, Singapore.

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Graffiti in Singapore

I didn’t expect to find graffiti in Singapore. Given the harsh penalties, I assumed there was enough of a deterrent to keep people from spray painting shit on walls. I was wrong. But most of it is simple tagging. I scratch my head and wonder of the artists: you risked a caning for that?

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I found some murals, but they were of the sanitized disneyfied variety at the Somerset Skate Park. Since there are other skate parks on the island, I imagine there are also other sanitized disneyfied murals.

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Then again, none of this is surprising. There’s an awful lot of Singapore that feels sanitized and disneyfied. It goes in for shopping and spectacle, malls and monuments. In the downtown, there’s little that isn’t for show. But it feels like an H.G. Wells novel. Visitors see the smiling Eloi who play all day in the sun. But we know that somewhere underneath lurk the Morlocks who keep things running. I wasn’t there long enough to figure out where the Morlocks live, but I suspect that’s where the real graffiti is.

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Graffiti in Singapore

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Then and Now – Shoveling Snow

Then:

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

Snow shovelers, Queen St. - December 28, 1922

Now:

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

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

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The Military In Its Proper Place

There’s some food photography I want to do, but I’ve decided I should practise my setup before I undertake anything complicated. So, on an overcast day when the light was soft, I put a table by a window and spread some jelly beans across a sheet of foam-board. I stood two more sheets of foam-board on end to act as reflectors to soften the shadows. Then I went to work with my 100mm f2.8L macro lens.

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Satisfied with the way my jelly beans were looking, I took things to the next level. I’d picked up a few plastic soldiers when I was at Sugar Mountain. Why, you may ask, does a candy store sell plastic soldiers? Good question. Maybe to indoctrinate children. Kind of fucked up if you ask me.

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Happy with my machine gunner doing point in a jelly bean wasteland, I added rice to the mix. You can move rice around to give it shape, geologically speaking. Along with the rice, I added a few more military personnel since my green soldier was all alone and getting anxious. One of the jelly beans could be a mine. Step on a red one and it might blow off the poor guy’s leg.

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Things were looking austere, so I added a dark background to give things a sense of foreboding. Because I’m using a fairly tight DOF, the background is blurred, so you can’t see that I’m using a painting – a drizzle experiment in acrylic – by Ethan Hanzel. A couple years ago, he posted a photo of it on his Facebook page and asked for bids; we won the auction, which means we’re the proud owners of a Hanzel original.

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It’s a jungle out there, and a couple wild gummy worms took out the orange infantry guy. The other military types look on, helpless. With all the gummy worms lurking under the rice, it looks like jelly bean mines are the least of their worries. BTW – does anybody know what kind of a gun the green guy is carrying? It looks like it could do some serious damage, but still no match for a hungry gummy worm.

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For the final shot, I added a glass insulator from a high-voltage transmission line. It’s the blurred thing behind the green soldier. I swapped out the red/orange gummy worm for a green/yellow worm; it was harder to see the downed soldier in the previous image. I gave the red/orange worm to the blue soldier. I also gave the image some “atmosphere” by shooting jets of steam into the scene from a little steam cleaner we use for our floors. I had thought I’d be able to recover all the rice and cook it for dinner. Unfortunately, the steam melted the jelly beans and their colour bled into the rice and made it sticky. I like sticky rice, but not when it’s dyed red and green.

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The whole set up, including foam boards, foodstuffs and plastic soldiers, cost me about $25. In my view, that’s all any military budget deserves.

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