Tag Archives: Ontario

The Quantum Museum

Typically, once a year, when the weather is hateful, when I can’t muster the will to shoot while standing on a street corner in the rain, I go to the museum instead. I tell myself that what I’m doing is shifting my photographic habits indoors. Street photography inside a big building. Capturing people in the act of being people. But when I get there, I discover that what I think I’m doing and what I find myself in fact doing are two different things. Yes, I find myself watching people in the act of being people inside a big building. But this isn’t any big building. This is a museum. This is a repository for our oldest memories. I find myself watching people in the act of brushing up against their collective memories.

Triceratops in Royal Ontario Museum dinosaur exhibit

I can’t remember the first time I came to this museum—this Royal Ontario Museum. I was born in Toronto, and it seems to me that this museum is part of my psychic bedrock, mixed in with my earliest memories. I remember sitting on the family room floor while my mom played the piano. I remember a Hallowe’en night watching from the front window as all the other kids collected candy while I sat in my skeleton costume and tried not to scratch my chicken pox. And I remember the first time I saw a dead person, the mummy (Antjau) in this museum. I remember the horrified fascination I felt as young child staring at the teeth and empty eye sockets, and realizing that these remains had once been a living person, like me.

Walking between galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum

There are many ways in which the museum is the collision of time past and time present, death and life, stillness and motion. Fossils, mummified remains, taxidermied animals, sit in glass cases and testify to times so remote they scarcely seem real. We gaze into the glass and simultaneously see reflections of ourselves. Grandparents pause to catch their breath while the young grandchildren race ahead to see the next exhibit. The building itself—a mashup of architectural styles—embodies this collision. Century-old Romanesque Revival gets swallowed up or overwritten (or enhanced?) by Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal.

Old and new architecture in the Royal Ontario Museum

Carrying a camera to a museum, I feel a kinship to the curators who develop the exhibits. How do we classify a vase or a bust or a coin? By geography? Historical period? Influences? Provenance? Materials? How does it speak to us? What do we discover about ourselves when we examine it? And how do we think ourselves into the future? Something similar happens with my photographs. I don’t shoot the bare exhibit. That’s mere record keeping. Besides, the museum can do a better job of it, with proper lighting and shooting conditions. But what I might be able to do at least as well as the museum staff is observe the way people interact with the exhibits and the enclosed space of the building. When I get home, I have my own curation to perform. How do organize my photographs? By the location of people in galleries? By their age? By whether they’re active or inactive? Distracted or thoughtful? I ask myself how these people make me feel. I wonder what I might discover about myself as I gaze at their images. And I project myself into our collective future.

Sketching Korean pottery at the Royal Ontario Museum

I have a secret theory that the camera was invented by quantum theorists. Niépce and Daguerre and Talbot where really physicists seeking a way to stare into the deepest secrets of the universe. With their early processes—daguerrotypes and calotypes—they discovered that the world presents simultaneously in more than one state. In their images, we see that the world is both living and dead, both in motion and at rest. It turns out that things we thought were dichotomies belong to the same structure. Though we would like to, we cannot capture photographs and present them to the future as a record of our faded world. That future has already come and gone. Its traces are already in the photographs we present to it.

Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery in the Royal Ontario Museum

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Long Branch Hotel

In May, I documented a visit to an abandoned motel in the small community of Still River on Highway 69 about three hours north of Toronto. I returned there earlier this month and the improbable happened. The owners caught me trespassing. To be honest, I don’t think I’d earn the right to call myself a photographer if things like this didn’t happen now and again.

Entrance to Long Branch Hotel, Still River, Ontario

We’d pulled onto the broad stretch of asphalt in front of the motel, weeds sprouting through the cracks. Tamiko was tired and stayed in the car to snooze. As I pulled my gear from the back seat, I heard car tires crunching behind me. I didn’t pay any attention. Cars pull in and out of these places all the time as people stop for a stretch or to run around back for bladder relief. The driver rolled down her window and asked what I was doing. I’m always puzzled by that question. There I stand with a tripod, a big camera bag, and a DSLR slung around my neck, yet people invariably ask what I’m doing. The woman who spoke was older, maybe retirement age, and a man sat beside her in the passenger seat. The man got out of the car and let a big dog out of the back.

Sign for Long Branch Hotel, Dining Lounge, Truckers Welcome

In a brilliant flash of deductive reasoning, it occurred to me that the woman must be the owner of the establishment, so I asked and she nodded: she was indeed the owner of the Long Branch Hotel. The man grinned and asked if I’d be interested in buying. Or maybe I know somebody. In another brilliant flash, it occurred to me that all she really wanted was some assurance that I wasn’t about to smash windows and spraypaint the walls. I surmised (correctly) that if I chatted her up I’d be fine. Pretty soon, I had the story of the Long Branch Hotel.

Interior shot: Long Branch Hotel, Still River, Ontario

Vacuum Cleaner in lobby of Long Branch Hotel

At one point, it had been a going concern. You can still see the faded letters of the sign: “Truckers welcome” with the image of a cowboy in chaps. There was the motel, a place for truckers to park their rigs, and a restaurant, one of the few places to eat on the stretch of highway between Parry Sound and Sudbury. But then all the big chains set up in Parry Sound. Nowadays, it’s not good enough to have a room and a bite to eat. People want hot tubs and gyms, too. Their modest roadside motel couldn’t compete with the big chains so they gave up the business.

Until a year ago, they lived nearby, but then they moved to Elliot Lake. In fact, they were just driving down from Elliot Lake when they noticed us pulling in. Since they moved away, people had been sneaking onto the property and vandalizing it, though they’ve never been able to catch anyone in the act, notwithstanding the OPP station immediately to the south. I assured the woman that I wasn’t about to damage her property and politely asked if it was okay to photograph it. She asked what I meant to do with the photos. I told her and she said: feel free.

Interior shot of Long Branch Hotel

She and her husband watched me for a bit as I fiddled with my tripod, fiddled with my lenses, fiddled with my filters, fiddled with my settings. Fiddle fiddle fiddle. Watching a photographer capture an image is bloody boring. I guess they got bored of watching me and drove away. I’m just glad Tamiko didn’t drive away, too. It’s a long walk from Still River to anywhere else.

Rear door, Long Branch Hotel, Still River, Ontario

Behind the Long Branch Hotel, Still River, Ontario

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Buildings In Thunder Bay

The last time I was in Thunder Bay, I overheard someone say: “For a city in the middle of so much natural beauty, it sure puts up some ugly buildings.” I’m not sure if that’s entirely fair. For one thing, the place has some serious weather. After a long winter, exterior surfaces can start to look worn. While there are brick buildings, especially in the downtown part of Port Arthur, a lot of houses and smaller businesses are wood frame and painted. To my mind, the challenge is maintenance. The local economy struggles, and where businesses go under, buildings get neglected. Thunder Bay is also a university town with a transient student population and large rental market. Landlords may not have a commitment to regular upkeep. That, of course, is just an impression I get as I pass through. I could be dead wrong about the state of affairs in Thunder Bay. Maybe I’m just photographing buildings as a way to confirm my already-held assumptions.

Red River Road/Court Street - Thunder Bay

The Loop Clothing, Red River Road/Court Street

Algoma Street South at Night - Thunder Bay

Algoma Street South at Night

Dufferin/Algoma Street South, Thunder Bay

Dufferin/Algoma Street South

Wilson/Court Street South, Thunder Bay

Windswept House – Wilson/Court Street South

Secord Street/Cornwall Avenue, Thunder Bay

Church Door, Secord Street/Cornwall Avenue

Algoma Street South near Dufferin - Thunder Bay

Green Garage, Algoma Street South near Dufferin

Court Street South, Thunder Bay

Use South Side Door, Court Street South

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Long Shadows

The light is different in Thunder Bay. That’s someone from Toronto—a southerner—talking. I’m used to the moderate light of Toronto’s gentler seasonal variations. In Thunder Bay, during the summer, the evening light lingers and casts long shadows down to the lake.

But let’s put things in perspective here. While we from down south tend to think of Thunder Bay as somewhere way up in the north, viewed on a globe, it’s apparent that Thunder Bay sits at a latitude between Paris and London. Meanwhile Toronto, way down in the south, is in line with Cannes on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. All of which is to say that although places like Toronto and Thunder Bay are in Canada, that fact alone doesn’t place them particularly north of anywhere.

Even so, the light is different in Thunder Bay. Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with latitude. But I feel it. Me and my camera know that it’s true. We step outside after dinner and the light blazes down from the northwest. It tears straight down Red River Road and throws shadows over everything.





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Sunrise In Thunder Bay

I’m not usually one to post photos that evoke sentiment and tug at heart strings, which is what seems to happen with sunrise images especially over water. Personally, I’m less into sentiment and more into fart jokes. Nevertheless, when a gigantic fiery fusion reactor explodes over the horizon, who am I to argue with a little sentiment? Below are four photos shot from Prince Arthur’s Landing in Thunder Bay. The first two I shot last September. The last two I shot this May. I’ll introduce the photos with some technical info about each of the four different lenses I used. If technobabble doesn’t kill sentiment, I don’t know what will.

For the first, I used a 24mm F 1.4 prime lens (Sigma Art). The wide angle accounts for the distortion to the edges (e.g. the leaning grain elevator). Note that the “bloody sky” is emphatically not the result of colour enhancement in post-processing. What you see is what I saw.

Sunrise In Thunder Bay

The second photo looks a bit like a cropped detail from the first. In a way it is. I shot the same sailboat with a 100mm F 2.8 IS USM macro lens. Who says you can only use a macro lens for close-ups and portraits?

Sunrise In Thunder Bay

I shot the 3rd photo with a 50mm F 1.4 prime lens (Sigma Art). There is far less distortion to the edges than in the 1st shot. I also used a polarizing filter to tame the light a bit.


For the final shot, I used a Canon 70-200mm F 2.8 L USM telephoto lens to capture the grain elevator and its reflection in the harbour while the sky was still washed in pink hues.

Also, I should mention that for each shot, I froze my ass. To be factual, I froze my fingers. Freezing one’s ass is just an expression. My ass was quite warm.


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Katherine Cove

When I drive up the eastern shore of Lake Superior, I usually pull into Old Woman Bay. With its wide vista stretching out into Superior, it’s a perennial favourite with the tourists. However, photographically speaking, she’s a bitch. Maybe not a bitch. She’d be interesting as a bitch. Mostly, she’s boring. It’s all very beautiful, scenic, expansive, colourful, etc. But so what? Far more interesting, to my mind, is Katherine Cove which lies a little to the south on the same shoreline.

I first stopped at Katherine Cove in May of last year. There were chunks of ice still washing ashore, as I documented in an earlier post. This year, I visited at the same time, but the winter had been too warm. There was no ice. In fact, the water was much lower, and more of the granite outcropping was exposed.


As an urban soul, I don’t do a lot of landscapey stuff, not unless it supports my general aim of exploring the divide between the natural world and our cultural accumulations (e.g. Tim Hortons cups discarded in the forest). I think these shots qualify if I anthropomorphize the scenes. The granite (ancient lava flows later worked over by glaciers and waves) has a sensuous quality. Where it’s worn smooth, it suggests a form that’s vaguely human. Where threads of hardened magma remain, they look sinuous, like exposed muscle.



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Pruce’s Motor Inn

At the 1224 km marker north of Sault Ste Marie on Highway 17 there is a small community called Heyden. One of the most notable buildings in Heyden is (or was) Pruce’s Motor Inn, but 3 or 4 years ago it was destroyed by fire. Ironically, the motel stands next to Heyden’s only other notable building, the fire station. I posted images of the motel last September. It wasn’t a hard winter, so there are no great changes since then, only a subtle drift into dereliction. Unlike my previous post, I chose to present this ruined motel in colour. I’m undecided which is a better mode for ruination: black and white, or colour. However, I do think a yellow chair needs to be in colour.

Pruce's Motor Inn

Pruce's Motor Inn

Pruce's Motor Inn

Pruce's Motor Inn

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Still River Motel

A hundred kilometres south of Sudbury on Highway 69 is a small community called Still River. On the west side of the highway, as you breeze through, is an abandoned motel. In front stands a broken up sign that declares (somewhat prosaically): MOTEL. On our drive up to Thunder Bay, this is where my son and I stopped for our first pee break.


For me, spaces like this evoke feelings of sadness. They are haunted. I hear voices. I enter a room and see where lovers lay. Maybe lovers is too charitable a word. I hear children laughing, but mostly complaining. After a long drive, their mother wants to get to sleep. She has no patience for their whining. There’s a tailgate party a few doors down. It goes long into the morning. Someone breaks a beer bottle and the sound of glass on the pavement offers up a hint of violence.

Still River, Ontario

The violence never comes, of course. The only violence here is the slow violence of decay. If we could speed up our observations with a time lapse video that matched geologic time, the motel’s fall would seem the result of a hammer stroke. Edgar Allen Poe could do no better. But we don’t experience time as gods do, and so the motel’s fall is languorous, almost stately.


All the windows are broken. All the doors hang open. Wind whistles down the central hallway. The blinds clack whenever a breeze plays on them.


In one of the rooms, a mystery. Why is there a ladder here? It’s longer than the room is high. You couldn’t stand it upright to use. Insulation lies heaped in the middle of the room. I surmise that the roof leaked, water accumulated in the insulation until it grew so heavy it brought down the ceiling. The ladder lies on top of the insulation, so it came afterward. Maybe it’s decorative, someone following the aesthetics of abandonment.


For me, photographing doorways is a challenge. Ideally, the centre of your lens should be aligned with the centre of the doorway and the camera should be positioned in relation to the door at precisely 90 degrees. Otherwise the door doesn’t look square in the photo. I never get it right. But that doesn’t seem to matter here. None of the door frames is square by any measure. If you find things wrong with these shots, blame the building.


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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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Williams Farm At Sunrise

Note that the shots in this post are NOT shots of sunrise at the Williams Farm; they’re shots of Williams Farm at sunrise i.e. I took them all within a few minutes of one another on either side of sunrise. Although I didn’t intend these shots as an illustration of anything, I do think they stand as an illustration of the fact that when you’re shooting landscape/nature/rural type shots, the best results happen within a narrow stretch of time when the sun is just below or just peeping above the horizon.

For the sake of accuracy, the 3rd photo is not a shot of the Williams Farm. It’s a shot of the farm immediately to the south. The pinky clouds were irresistible so I popped into the next field. Also, since you asked, it’s a composite of 5 different shots blended using the HDR tool in Adobe Lightroom.





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