Tag Archives: Montreal

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:

place-bonaventure-montreal-564-4

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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Urban Scenes: Montréal

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

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

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

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

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

Sidewalk, Rue Saint Pierre, Old Montréal

Sidewalk, Rue Saint Pierre

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

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

Garbage residue flowing down Evans Court, Old Montréal

Garbage residue flowing down Evans Court

View from alley onto Metcalfe St., Montréal

View from alley onto Metcalfe Street

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

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

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

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

Pointe du Moulin à Vent, Montréal

Shadows On Silos – Pointe du Moulin à Vent

Shadow of Stop Sign on Wall

Shadow of Stop Sign on Wall

Exterior of Centre de Sciences de Montréal

Exterior of Centre de Sciences de Montréal

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Street Photographs From Montreal

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

Boy plays piano outside Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History

Boy plays piano outside Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History

Puddle On Cobblestone, Rue St Paul E, Old Montreal

Puddle On Cobblestone, Rue St Paul E

Tourists Off The Bus, Old Montreal

Tourists Off The Bus

Drinking a Coke at the Rue de Vaudreuil, Old Montreal

Drinking a Coke at the foot of Rue de Vaudreuil

Man In Parking Lot, Rue de la Montagne, Montreal

Man In Parking Lot

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

Couple holding hands, crossing street

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

Beer Wine – Poster on Canada Post Box

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

Bicycle Passing Fire Escape

Gripping Smartphone

Gripping Smartphone

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

Intersection At Night

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Photography Betrays God’s Creation

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

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

Pepsi cup in front of Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal

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