Tag Archives: Animals

Chat With Rat Boy


Walking up Bay Street from King, I saw two guys sitting on the sidewalk. It was rush hour and people were pouring from the buildings to make their dash down to Union Station. At first, I didn’t think anything of it: two more kids begging on the streets. But as I passed, I did a double-take. A rat had climbed onto the one kid’s shoulder. I stopped and knelt beside him: “Is that what I think it is?”

He smiled and confirmed that it was a rat. But he was quick to add that rats make good pets. They’re intelligent and loyal. Easy to care for. They’ll eat anything humans eat. Except potatoes. Don’t feed them potatoes. There’s something in the skins that’s poisonous to rats. The only downside to rats is that they eat a lot, almost as much as dogs. As he spoke, I had visions of Willard in my head.

He bought his rat at PJ’s Pet Store. He boarded all the way up Yonge Street to the store north of Lawrence. He’s had his rat for more than a year now. Before that, he had another rat that he bought at the PJ’s in Barrie, but somebody stole it.

“Somebody stole your rat?”

“Yeah. I think because it was black and white. So I bought a brown rat instead. Nobody wants a brown rat. They look dirty.”

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

Algae & Seaweed

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


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


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


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


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Gizmo The Dog

I met Gizmo near the southeast corner of Yonge & Wellesley. Didn’t have much time to interact with Gizmo’s owner because I was crouched on the sidewalk and blocking pedestrians. Plus I rolled back on my heels and ended up on my backside when Gizmo took a run at me. An unlikely attack dog. There were a bunch of guys near the corner with their dogs. Wonder if they meet there every day.


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Boiling Sap @Williams_Farm

Sap runs when it runs and nothing–not even an Easter dinner–can keep a maple syrup man from his work. Here are some shots from last weekend’s maple syrup boil.


Above, John Williams inspects the sap lines for leaks. The sap is “encouraged” by a vacuum pump and, if there are leaks, the suction, uh, sucks. This is a Brigadoon moment. Typically, the stream flows only once a year as the snow melts. Because of erratic weather this year, there have been two Brigadoon moments.


After Easter dinner, John goes out to the barn and fires up the evaporator. They’ll be boiling long into the night.


Deer know that something’s up. They appear by the barn’s open door.


Liquid gold! Maple syrup pours out from the evaporator.


John’s father, Howie Williams, gives his nod of approval. He’s the man who first got the family into this.

CTV Barrie’s regional news does a clips on local maple syrup producers, including statements from both John & Oliver Williams.

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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.


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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Dead Animals

In the film, American Beauty, Wes Bentley plays the teen who moves in next door. He sells pot from his bedroom and uses the money to finance his obsession—video equipment. He loves to shoot video and produces a visual diary of the things he sees each day. In particular, he tries to shoot dead things—pets, wild animals, and ultimately Lester Burnham—focussing on their eyes to capture that decisive moment when they hover between life and death.

I’m reminded of Henri Cartier-Bresson who applied the phrase “the decisive moment” to the art of photography. I think he was writing about how all the elements of composition come together (as in a painting) and are captured in the decisive moment when the photographer releases the shutter. And yet it seems to me that his decisive moment in the art of his work is not all that different from the teen’s decisive moment at the cusp of death.

There is a sense in which releasing the shutter rails against death. We want to freeze moments that will never again happen in precisely this way. Convergences, collisions, coincidences. We try to preserve these moments and offer them to the future. At the same time, we try to interpret them. We don’t offer them as raw moments; we wrap them in our aesthetic sensibilities. The moment is decisive, not simply because it freezes time, but also because it draws into a single frame all the considerations that make a good photograph.

I find myself channeling Wes Bentley’s character. When I walk in Toronto’s ravines, it’s common for me to stumble upon dead animals. I feel compelled to photograph them, not out of a ghoulish fascination, but because—somehow—that is what a camera is for. The camera prods me to take this raw visual stuff and make sense of it, both rationally and aesthetically. Shooting dead animals is easier in the winter. The corpse is literally frozen in time and so I have the luxury of extending the decisive moment over minutes, or even days if I choose to come back. I don’t need to cover my face. I’m not repulsed by the smell or by the insects.


I see a cat (or what I presume to be a cat) but I see no tag so I wonder if it was a feral cat. Otherwise, if it was a pet, where did the tag go? It’s lying in the snow by the side of the Don River. I’m no pet CSI, but this one looks like it’s been dead for some time. Again, I’m no pet CSI, but this one looks like it’s been skinned. It’s lying on top of the fur which has been detached from the body. What happened here? Now, it lies eyeless with its nose submerged in the melting snow. How will I position myself to best capture the scene? I use a tripod and 100 mm macro lens. ISO 200 f/11 1/20 sec.


I see a raccoon drowned in Yellow Creek. It hasn’t been a cold winter so the water keeps flowing. Animals must drown here all the time. I find something compelling about the saturated colours of the fur, the washed out reflection of the trees, the digits hanging below the surface of the water. I use a monopod and 100 mm macro lens. ISO 400 f/5.6 1/100 sec.


I find a dog trapped between rocks in the Don River. Probably a pet that got caught in the current and swept downstream. There’s something pathetic about the way the back is arched and the forelimbs raised over its head, as if pleading. I shouldn’t anthropomorphize these scenes; the limbs are in that position courtesy of physics. I shoot with a tripod and 50mm Sigma Art Lens. ISO 400 f/11 1/4 sec.

On reflection, I wonder if there’s anything at all decisive in any of these moments. Does life in the city—forget the city—does life in late modern global culture trivialize the concerns that drove Cartier-Bresson? Am I losing my ability to distinguish the value of an animal’s life from the value of an iPod? Are all moments of equal (i.e. equally meaningless) weight whether we capture them in the past or give them to the future? Are moments neither decisive nor indecisive but simply part of that stream in which commodities are rendered unfashionable or obsolete? When I see something dead, instead of making a photograph, maybe I should shop for a new camera.


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The Toronto Zoo

Spent the day at the zoo, the only person there (or so it seemed) who didn’t have little kids in tow. Wandering around with my long lenses, I had to be careful not to be taken for a pervert stalker. The proof is in the photos, which aren’t pervy at all.


The first image is the result of a happy accident. Bird and child crossed their legs in tandem and I was there to capture it.

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Victoria – Animals

The 7th in a series of 10 posts featuring photos of Victoria, B.C. This time: animals. (It was too wet for whale watching. Maybe next time.)


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Tracking a Buck in Midtown Toronto

Here’s a photo that nicely states what I’m trying to do:


It’s a buck crossing the abandoned railway tracks that pass over the Don Valley along the trestle on the north side of the Evergreen Brickworks. In the background is one of the arches from the Prince Edward Viaduct.

On the splash page for this web site I write: “I vacillate between wilderness and city, between landscape and street, between wildlife and urban living. I think most of us experience a consciousness divided between the natural world and our cultural accumulations, between innocence and experience, heart and mind. I take my camera into that divide to see what it reveals.”

Earlier, I shot the buck head on in isolation from his context:


I prefer the first shot. It’s more in tune with my personal mandate.

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Birds: Pretty/Disturbing

Photos of birds are supposed to be pretty, right? The bird sits on a perch, soft light, blurred background. We sigh at the beauty. We say: awww. Take, fr’instance, this American tree sparrow I shot in Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks:

American Tree Sparrow

But sometimes the natural world defies our expectations. Certainly that was the lesson from a hike through Tommy Thompson Park when I saw something hanging high in a tree. Zooming in, I discovered that it was a cormorant, neck broken, head wedged in a forked branch.

Dead Cormorant

How does something like this even happen? Does the bird get depressed and decide one day to end it all? Life’s such a puzzle.


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