Tag Archives: Reflection

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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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:


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:


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:


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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6ix in the city

I don’t know if it’s official, but Toronto seems to have been renamed. Now, thanks to Drake, I live in The 6ix. According to the Urban Dictionary, the new name refers to Toronto’s original area code—416.

Before I read that explanation, I had come up with other explanations that struck me as perfectly reasonable. One is that six is the number of former municipalities that amalgamated to form the current city—North York, East York, Etobicoke, Scarborough, York, & City of Toronto. We live together as The 6ix.

Another is that it has something to do with sex i.e. 6ix is a way to write about sex without actually writing the word sex. Another entry in the Urban Dictionary hints at this. Under the second definition of 6ix (“A post modern approach to spelling the number 6, versus the traditional six.”) we find the following usage: On the Facebook wall, “Dude I had 6ix last night and I was GONE!”

Apart from the fact that the numeral 6 is one half of a simultaneous mutual oral sex act, the written 6ix often incorporates one of the city’s great phallic landmarks. The “i” in 6ix is represented by the CN Tower. Skyscrapers and ravines. Male and female. The modern ankh.


Toronto long had an inferiority complex. How can we possibly have a decent city when a) we aren’t in the US, & b) we’re so fucking polite? So we (or our local politicians) overcompensated for their feelings of municipal inadequacy by authorizing a massive erection. And so the CN Tower was born.

Toronto Skyline viewed from Governor's Hill.

Toronto Skyline viewed from Governor’s Hill.

Whenever tourists come here, they feel compelled to take photos of our massive erection. But typically they haven’t time to take more than a basic shot in midday light. One of the privileges of living in a place is that you have the time to get atypical non-touristy shots. You can scout different locations and can keep going back, day after day, in different light conditions, until you get what you want.


CN Tower reflected in puddle on University Avenue.


CN Tower viewed from Varsity Stadium.

CN Tower viewed from the Don Valley.

CN Tower viewed from the Don Valley.

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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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Splashing through Nathan Phillips Square

What a difference seven weeks makes! After February’s Icefest 2015, I walked south to City Hall and shot people skating on the ice rink in Nathan Phillips Square.


Seven weeks later, I caught a little girl splashing in the water that remains after all the snow and ice has melted. City workers were cleaning things up before they set up the fountains and fill it with water. In the spring, they fill a rink with water. In the winter, they freeze a pool for skating.


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Brick Road Beside St. Lawrence Market

I shot this in the morning as people were going to work. I’m looking south from Front St. beside Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. They’ve recently replaced the pavement with brick and when it’s a little wet, it produces a lovely reflection. It would be nice if the city introduced more brick and cobblestone. As a practical matter, cobblestone might introduce a traffic calming effect. As an aesthetic matter, it would provide an antidote to some of the brutalist modernist monstrosities that are springing up like krakens in the downtown core.


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Frozen Playground

This is (I hope) my farewell to winter for this year. I took these shots a couple weeks ago, but haven’t got around to posting them until now when the snow and ice are thoroughly melted. I took these shots early one morning in East Riverdale. I liked the way the colours of the play equipment reflected on the ice. The ice isn’t as solid as it looks and I got a good soaker trying to shoot from just the right angle. Ah, the sacrifices one must make for the sake of the shot!




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The many faces of Great Blue Heron

First up is classic great blue. He (she?) just stands there doing nothing. Classic great blue is vaguely narcissistic, hoping passers-by will say “Ooo, awww, isn’t he (she?) beautiful?”

Great Blue Heron

Next up is reflective great blue. This is a little bit like classic great blue in that he (she?) is doing that narcissistic posing thing. But don’t be fooled. Great blue has one eye on the water, hoping to catch sight of food.

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Victoria – The Inner Harbour

The 2nd of 10 posts featuring Victoria, B.C.

While the rest of Canada descends into a deep freeze, things stay balmy in Victoria. There’s a calm that settles over the waters of the inner harbour, broken from time to time by the sea planes, then still at night.


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Hanging Outside the ROM

The entrance to the ROM – Royal Ontario Museum – is a great place to go people watching. People are drawn to the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, so there’s a lot of tourist gawking going on. But it’s also a nice open space, with benches, food vendors, pigeons. It feels piazza-ish.


The building is interesting. But everybody and their dog takes photos of the building. The building never changes. Shoot it at night. Shoot it in the morning. Shoot in the rain. Shoot from a low angle. Whatever. The challenge is to find fresh ways to see things there. One way is to shoot the people as they interact with the space:

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