Tag Archives: Ravine

Under The Millwood Road Bridge

I think our neighbour has killed himself. Nobody who knows will talk about it, but it seems likely.

We drive home around dinner time and have trouble getting into our building. Police cars block the entrance. An ambulance sits on the sidewalk by a stretch of yellow tape. Our building superintendent is talking to the police. The building manager sends an email message advising us of a police investigation on the premises, but we aren’t to be alarmed; there’s no danger. Later, we leave to go out for the evening and three police officers exit the unit across the hall from us. It belongs to an elderly man who has always struck me as lonely and reclusive. Seeing the police, we know what to think. When we return home from dinner, the night concierge is already on the desk. He isn’t allowed to say anything, but they sent the evening concierge home, told him to take some time off.

There must be something in the air. It’s been a long dull winter without the fluffy decorative cheer that snow brings. We hear in the news how a woman stabs the concierge at a nearby building as he helps her move some boxes. She flees and ends up on the balcony of a 27th floor apartment in another building. Police rappel from the balcony above to capture (rescue?) her. The media identify her as an “internationally renowned architect and philanthropist.” It is implied that her outburst is the result of a mental health issue. The woman is held on a suicide watch. The media interview a friend (she’s a “remarkable woman”), a man who, it turns out, designed the Luminous Veil, the Bloor Street Viaduct’s suicide prevention barrier. The woman in question was instrumental in promoting the barrier and raising funds for it.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Fall Colours In Yellow Creek

If I were a nature photographer, I’d be out driving through the countryside to view the fall colours. Maybe I’d stay at a hotel in Haliburton so I could be up early to catch the sweet light. But I live in the city and I’m too lazy to plan a big weekend in the countryside. Besides, if I went out of town to view the fall colours, my wife would want to come. She’d want a nice dinner. I’d drink a bottle of wine. I’d sleep late or, if I did manage to wake up early, all my shots would be crooked thanks to the wine. So I settle instead for the urban countryside, Yellow Creek to be precise, where I can see the fall colours in all their glory without having to drive anywhere. Not all the colours are natural, but they can be pretty in their own way.

The first is the closest to a straight up fall shot I’ve ever taken in Yellow Creek: a soft-focus shot of water pouring over rocks and yellow leaves. I wonder if the fallen leaves are what give the creek its name.

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I Will Never Be As Good As Araki

I like to think of the Japanese photographer, Araki, as (among other things) the grandfather of the modern selfie. Photographers have been taking self-portraits since the camera was invented, but Araki makes a regular habit of including himself in his images, and was doing so long before digital photography became a thing. Maybe he wanted to underscore his assertion that the photographer’s subject is never anything but him/herself. Many of his self-inclusions are benign. Others have been racier–like the shot he took on his wedding night of his bride fellating him.

At the beginning of the month, I drove through Sleeping Giant Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Superior & hiked the shortest trail I could find, Ravine Lake Trail. Still off-season, the place was empty. Once I got into the ravine, I decided to take a selfie. Did I mention that I was alone? I set up the camera on the tripod, took the remote and leaned against a mossy rock. Good enough, I thought, and went on my way. Not until I got home and started processing my photos did I realize that I’d been standing there with my fly wide open. If I’d been Araki, I would at least have exposed myself (photographic pun intended).

Selfie on the Ravine Lake Trail, Sleeping Giant Prov'l Park.

Selfie on the Ravine Lake Trail, Sleeping Giant Prov’l Park.

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The trail to Ravine Lake.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Ice On Yellow Creek

There’s been a lot of fuss in the news about how cold it is in southern Ontario this winter. It’s so cold, in fact, that portions of Niagara Falls have frozen. Surely, if the Niagara River is freezing at the Falls, a piddly little creek in Toronto would freeze solid. Seems logical. So why do many of the creeks in Toronto’s ravines continue to flow? Does the Public Works Department add anti-freeze somewhere upstream?

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Why do they call it Yellow Creek? It doesn’t look yellow at all.

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Under The Glen St. Bridge in Winter

In August, I posted photos from under the Glen St. Bridge which passes over Toronto’s Beltline Trail and Yellow Creek. But it’s worth posting new photos of the same locale. What with all the trees losing their leaves, and the lower angle of incidence for morning light, and snowfall acting as a natural reflector, things look very different at the opposite end of the year.

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Snow Flakes & Long Exposures

Yesterday, I got up before dawn and walked up Yellow Creek in David A. Balfour Park to a place where a small dam has crumbled.

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Low light, flowing water, perfect for long exposures. And then it started to snow. Not hard. Just fluffy white flakes that gave the ground a gentle dusting. Nevertheless, it spoiled my plans or expectations or whatever. Naturally, I complained on twitter. This is what I posted:

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