Tag Archives: Street Photography

Open Streets TO 2016

Yesterday was the year’s 2nd Open Streets TO. Bloor Street from Broadview to Dufferin, & Yonge Street from Bloor to Queen, were opened up to pedestrians, cyclists, longboarders, unicyclists, etc. while the city took a much needed rest from the rumble and rush of vehicular traffic. It was also a good opportunity for photographers. I got to take shots from places that, ordinarily, might cost me my life. Here is a selection:

Barefoot in a suit on Bloor Street

Look closely: the barefoot guy is playing a harmonica.

Texting on a Segway

You can’t drive and text, but I assume it’s ok to Segway.

Filming video from a bicycle

A drive-by shooting. This guy seemed delighted that I was shooting him as he was shooting me.

Ball hockey on Bloor Street

On any other day, this stretch of road is clogged with trucks and cabs.

Posing in front of Louis Vuitton

You can look good without help from Louis Vuitton.

Playing piano on Bloor Street in front of the RCM

I love the longboard propped against the piano.

Posted in Heart Also tagged , , |

Chess in front of Metropolitan United

Fall is approaching, and the weather is glorious. The men who play chess in front of Metropolitan United Church are taking full advantage of the situation. Fueled by pop, they battle through the afternoon. I watch a couple guys play for a time. There’s a break in the play so I ask if they’d mind me taking some shots. I do my best to shoot when it won’t disturb their concentration. I’m not sure it matters. They’re incredibly focused. The play is fast. These guys are good.

Playing chess in front of Metropolitan United Church in Toronto

It’s hard to believe only five months ago the table where they are sitting was covered in snow. Do they play in the winter? Where do they go? I wish I’d thought to ask. Given their obsessive approach to the game, I assume they play year-round non-stop. I expect they see chess boards in their dreams. You don’t get as good as they are without a lot of practice and a lot of reading.

Snow-covered chess table in front of Metropolitan United Church in Toronto

Looking north away from the chess tables is the church entrance. The square bell tower rises above it and watches over the park. How long before the land is parceled off for condos that watch over the bell tower?

Front door of Toronto's Metropolitan United Church in winter

One of these days I’ll shoot a chess game with a tripod and a neutral density filter. I’ll slow the whole thing down so it looks like a sports shoot. A man reaches for his knight and his arm blurs across the board. His opponent answers with his queen. I’ll shoot low from the board like I’m one of the pieces. The queen will land on me in a flash and stomp all over me. Chess as a full contact sport. Mixed Martial Chess.

Playing chess in front of Metropolitan United Church in Toronto

Posted in Heart Also tagged , |

White Men In Business Suits

Why do street photographers do so little work with white men in business suits? Why are they so preoccupied with “grittier” themes? After all, if street photographers ignore white men in business suits, they might feel left out. Who knows? They might even feel discriminated against.

If you take the time to talk to white men in business suits, you’ll discover that they are people too. I should know. Once or twice a year, I put on my armour and go out into the world as a white man in a business suit. It can be an alienating experience. It makes me feel lonely. I want people to hold my hand and to comfort me.

Man in suit climbing stairs

I took the photo above while wandering through Toronto’s financial district. During rush hour, a lovely late-afternoon light was streaming down a west-facing staircase. I positioned myself at the foot of the staircase and waited. Being a white middle-aged man means I blend right in. Okay, I have a mustache, but apart from that, I blend right in. Every now and then, a person would veer from the standard rush-hour course and climb the stairs. Click, click, click. And then I’d wait for someone else to pass.

This photograph (and my cheeky remarks at the opening of this post) point up a conflict inherent in street photography. There is a conflict between street photography’s professed claim to be a documentary discipline (maybe even a species of photojournalism) on the one hand, and its aesthetic aims as a photographic art on the other hand. Ethics and aesthetics.

As a documentary discipline, street photography aims to capture the world as it is. But it would be naive to believe that the world presents itself to us as it is; the world is mediated to us through our interpretive lens even before it passes through the camera’s lens. The world as it is includes white men in business suits, but street photographers make a decision to weight the world as it is in favour of less well-dressed subjects. At its best, this is the photographic expression of a liberation theology with its preferential option: photography becomes a radical approach that casts light into the dark corners of marginal lives.

This is high-minded language, and something worth aspiring to, but I don’t always trust photographers who use such language to justify their encounters with the world as it is. It’s telling that photography deploys the language of mastery to describe the mechanics of image-making. We capture moments in time. We frame the subject. We take photographs. The flavour of our language is distinctly colonial. Do photographers care about their disenfranchised subjects? Or do their actions merely fetishize the homeless and people of colour? Maybe this is just another species of poverty porn.

As an aesthetic discipline, street photography likewise aims to capture the world as it is. But “the world as it is” means something specific within the enterprise. Here, reality doesn’t refer to the world as it is so much as to a set of visual conventions that has evolved over the past 180 years. Elements in a photograph signal meanings just as words in novel. A catch-light in the eye signals a deeper interior life. Wrinkles on an elderly face signal wisdom and lived experience. An upturned gaze signals hope or optimism. In the same way, other elements can certify reality. The graininess of a high ISO, for example, suggests the grittiness of a dirty street. A slight blurring indicates motion, as if the photographer was pursued when the shutter was released. Perhaps the most important element to certify reality is the portrayal of suffering.

In his Poetics, Aristotle said that in order to produce the cathartic effect of tragedy, the poet had to evoke feelings of pity and terror. But in the age of Oprah and Disney, the rules have changed. Our world avoids tragedy the way bats avoid light. Our narrative insists on a redemptive end that’s won through suffering. Like the ancient poets, we are free to evoke pity with portrayals of suffering, but it’s an ironclad rule that we must simultaneously hint at the possibility of hope. If a narrative denies the possibility of hope, it denies everything we know to be real.

Suffering is the nexus where the twin aims of street photography come into conflict. As photojournalism, street photography justifies the portrayal of suffering as a way to expose the consequences of unfettered power and seeks to hold such power accountable. But as aesthetic expression, it forces the portrayal of suffering into the constraints of the prevailing narrative (perhaps invented by organs of that same unfettered power). That narrative trivializes suffering by attaching to it the puerile moral assumptions that are fed to us through social media and airhead news commentators: suffering is the prerequisite to redemption, and if redemption never comes, you probably didn’t deserve it anyways.

Returning to my photograph of the white man in a business suit, I think I understand what’s troublesome about it. While it includes a pseudo narrative of suffering and redemption (man climbs stairs and will eventually emerge into the light where he will go to his club and drink a single malt), it fails to fulfill the documentary convention because it offers us nothing to care about. It resorts, instead, to a faux grittiness. It trivializes the trivial. What could be more au courant than that?

Posted in Head Also tagged , , , |

Ass Detection Software

I have a great idea for a new tech startup and am thinking I could finance it with a kickstarter campaign. Maybe $10 would do. I want to develop ass detection software. A specialized algorithm would scan digital photographs and identify all asses. Once the algorithm had learned the generalized task of locating an ass, it would go on to the more specialized task of identifying the “owner” of the ass. I’m proceeding on the assumption that each person has a unique set of identifying markers: shape, roundness, proportions, depth, that sort of thing. I expect my algorithm could map an ass (make an assessment, if you will) in much the same way that NASA programs have mapped the terrain of Jupiter’s moons, converting 2-dimensional images into 3-dimensional topographic representations of hilly regions and crevices.

ass-detection-software-564-1

Such an algorithm would have obvious applications for social media platforms, allowing users to identify friends from photos of their asses and, of course, allowing advertisers to more precisely target their marketing dollars based on ass identification markers (AIM). Naturally, the details of this procedure cannot be laid bare at this time as they might compromise certain trade secrets.

My project could also have applications for law enforcement since it is the ass that police officers get a good look at as the suspect flees the scene of a crime. Ass lineups at the police station have never been particularly successful. Few eye-witnesses ever say: “Yeah, I’d recognize that ass anywhere.” But an effective algorithm could be a real game-changer.

ass-detection-software-564-3

One impediment to success is the fact that some people prefer to wear baggy clothes and this tends to obscure the contours of the ass. Athletic wear is this project’s friend; hip hop, on the other hand, poses challenges which may prove insurmountable. As for the burkini, don’t even get me started.

ass-detection-software-564-4

However, this challenge is not unlike the issue which has plagued facial recognition programs when people wear masks to parades and scarves to protests. In such cases, the solution has been simple: make up some bullshit about how obscuring faces poses a threat to public safety, then get the legislators to ban it. They could do the same thing in this case. Baggy pants upset the public order; burkinis undermine social mores. Therefore we must outlaw ass-coverings in public places. Force everyone to go au naturale. It might get cold in the winter, but why worry about a consequence that’s way in the future. Who needs to think that far ahead? In situations like this, few people ever do.

Posted in Elbow Also tagged , , |

Instagram Photos & Mental Health

I finally relented and set up an Instagram account. So far, I’ve been posting portfolio quality images and some of the best from my latest street shots. I have NOT been posting selfies with famous people, me getting wasted with friends on a Saturday night, or shots of whatever I happen to order at my favourite restaurant. My aims are simpler. I love photography and want to share it with like-minded people. I hope that they’ll share with me, too.

But today I learned from M2 (New Zealand’s only men’s lifestyle magazine) that “Your Instagram Photos Speak Volumes About Your Mental Health”. So says a study by two researchers who are, like, you know, reputable and stuff. Using a computational diagnostic tool, the researchers analyzed 43,950 photos posted by 166 individuals and compared those results to the diagnostic opinions of human mental health professionals who examined the same photos. The upshot is that the computational tool was more successful than the humans at diagnosing depression based on posts to Instagram. While their finding is interesting, what caught my attention is their methodology, how they analyzed the photos. As the abstract indicates: “Photos posted by depressed individuals were more likely to be bluer, grayer, and darker.”

Should I be calling my therapist? Reviewing my posts to Instagram, I note that I frequently desaturate my images. Citing other studies, the authors state that “healthy individuals identified darker, grayer colors with negative mood, and generally preferred brighter, more vivid colors. By contrast, depressed individuals were found to prefer darker, grayer colors.” Shit, maybe I’m in trouble. Take a look at three images I processed from yesterday’s foray into the streets of downtown Toronto. Although it was a sunny day, I transformed them into dark, even gloomy, scenes.

Man crossing street at Bathurst & Bloor in front of Honest Eds

Then again, I often process my photos while bearing in mind well-established conventions within the genre of street photography and filtering those conventions through personal aesthetic aims. Colour is often a distraction. Typically (but not always), it improves an image to strip away unnecessary elements. Unless colour has something to do with the point of the image, it’s one of those unnecessary elements. High contrast black and white often delivers more impact. Or maybe I’m just making a sorry attempt at rationalizing away my own depressive tendencies. Maybe those at risk of depression naturally gravitate to modes of expression that include conventions that also serve as markers of depression. I could argue with myself all day over this one. I wonder if arguing with myself is a symptom of anything.

Man pulls pallet up Spadina Avenue, Toronto

The study used social engagement as the other major marker of depression. The authors state:

Depression is strongly associated with reduced social activity (20,21). As Instagram is used to share personal experiences, it is reasonable to infer that posted photos with people in them may capture aspects of a user’s social life. On this premise, we used a face detection algorithm to analyze Instagram posts for the presence and number of human faces in each photograph. We also counted the number of comments and likes each post received as measures of community engagement, and used posting frequency as a metric for user engagement.

On this measure, I’m screwed! Sure, I post lots of photos with people in them, but the people aren’t people I know, and the photos can’t be taken as evidence of how socially engaged I am in my life. Quite the opposite. Street photography is an intentional exercise in observation. When I engage in it, I have no life; I hold myself apart from the world and simply observe. The lens often functions as a barrier between me and the world. As for likes and comments, my Instagram account is pathetic. Please go there and heart me. Pretty please.

The authors seem to imply that the more engaged with social media, the better a person’s mental health. They treat online social interaction as if it were equivalent to real world social interaction. I find that premise suspect. Although I’m not a practitioner of the social sciences, I would wager my 5DS that there are a bucketload of studies to support my suspicion. Online social and community engagement is not the same as in the real world. They’re horses of a different colour greyscale.

Man washes cement mixer in Chinatown, Toronto

Posted in Elbow Also tagged , , |

Poem: Extroverted Summer Days

We’re smitten
by extroverted summer days,
effusive skies,
sunlight chattering through leaves.
Soon it’s time
for the weather to turn,
a seat alone,
rain clattering against the pane.

Man walking in sunlight and casting long shadow

Posted in Heart Also tagged , |

Chat With Rat Boy

chat-with-rat-boy-564-1

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.”

Posted in Heart Also tagged , , , , |

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

Posted in Heart Also tagged , , |

Chasing Luck At Toronto City Hall

This is a followup to yesterday’s post. There, I suggested that street photographers can engineer their luck by going to heavy traffic locations when light is good, and then shoot and shoot and shoot. If they persist, they get good shots. Yesterday, I featured shots from the intersection of Yonge & Dundas Streets. Today, it’s the area around Nathan Philips Square at City Hall.

For the first shot, I stood on the west side of the pool with the sun at my back. I kept my head low, gazing down into the rear LCD viewfinder, doing my best to appear disengaged from everything happening around me. Every time somebody passed through the frame, I released the shutter. Back home, I had a long series of identically composed images to choose from. Most were garbage, but I was quite struck (not literally) by this woman who stared at me as she walked past.

city-hall-july-2016-564-1

The second shot follows the opposite strategy. Instead of trying to appear disengaged from everything happening around me, I was very much engaged in this scene. Everybody in the scene knew I was there and knew what I was doing. The girl on the right (cropped at the neck) has just doused the man (her boyfriend? husband?) with water. You can see the water splashed on the pavement. She tosses the empty bottle over the dousee to the man standing on the left. The dousee is reclined on a vent, using it as a giant blower to dry his soaked pants. Strangely, there is another man in the top left corner who is running away from the scene.

city-hall-july-2016-564-2

I shot the third image from above, swapping out my 35mm street lens for a 100mm Canon lens on a Metabones adapter. I was able to isolate the photographer from everything else in the scene. It makes for a clean image.

city-hall-july-2016-564-3

Finally, a man has barely got the chocolate-dipped ice cream cone into his hands before it goes straight to his mouth. He’s well-dressed and carries a Harry Rosen bag. Clearly not a tourist.

city-hall-july-2016-564-4

Posted in Heart Also tagged , |

Go To Where Luck Is

I once had a professor who was the most humourless man I’d ever met. Do you remember Kingsfield from The Paper Chase? My professor was like Kingsfield. He seemed to delight in grinding students into piles of dust through inquisition-sytle interrogations and public humiliations. Yet one day my professor cracked a joke. Apropos of nothing, he said to the class: “As my uncle Max once told me, never marry for money; go to where money is and marry for love.” Most of us were too stunned to laugh. Our jaws fell open and we let out choked gurgling sounds.

I wouldn’t mention the joke except that it illustrates an interesting point that’s transferable to photography. Sometimes, it seems that what makes an image interesting has little to do with skill, and everything to do with luck. A preacher is talking to his acolytes and turns at just the right angle so that the cross dangling around his neck catches the sunlight. It looks as if a holy light blazes from his chest. A one in a million shot, or so it would seem. And yet these one in a million shots are more like one in a hundred shots. They happen again and again. The reason, I think, has something to do with uncle Max’s advice.

street-july-2016-564-4

Street Preacher at Yonge & Dundas.

Except for B & W conversion, this image has not been retouched.

Detail. Except for B & W conversion, this image has not been retouched.

In photography, never rely on luck; go to where luck is and rely on skill. Or, to put it differently, an essential part of the photographer’s craft is to engineer luck. In the genre of street photography, a good way to engineer luck is to place yourself in a heavily traveled public space when the light is good and shoot and shoot and shoot. In Toronto, one of those lucky locations is the southwest corner of Yonge & Dundas Streets. There, it’s easy to shoot people in a crowd (fish in a barrel, as they say). The challenge is to isolate an individual, or a discrete interaction, so that they don’t get lost in the onslaught of people.

street-july-2016-564-1

Man carrying suitcase and garment bag.

People are streaming across the intersection. Every third change of the lights is an all-way crossing for pedestrians. They head north to the movie theatres or the HMV or the liquor store or the Ryerson campus. They head south to the Yonge/Dundas Square or the Eaton Centre or the Hard Rock Café. A break appears and a young man emerges from the crowd. He carries a suitcase and garment bag. More distinctive, though, is that fact that he wears a vest and carries a pocket watch. It’s as if he’s stepped from a time warp and into my frame.

After dark, as I’m walking home from a film, I pass through the same corner of the same intersection. Three men are playing drums. That in itself isn’t particularly interesting. Buskers form one of the many tired clichés of street photography. I’m prepared to ignore them except that the crowd encircling them isn’t watching them. I follow their stares to an older man in hospital garb and blue booties who has set his cane to one side and is dancing to the rhythms. I use the term “dancing” loosely. A teenager drops a coin in the bucket and swings around the old man. What is happening here? Where has the man come from? The drummers call him by name. Is he a regular? And what about the audience? Many of them have smartphones raised to shoot pictures of the old man. Do they care about him? Do they feel concern? Or are they voyeurs? Are they the sort of people who would cheer at a train wreck?

street-july-2016-564-3

Man in hospital garb dances to drummers.

Speaking of voyeurs, I’m fascinated by tourists. They ride around in their red double-decker buses. Here’s the museum. There’s the CN Tower. Look at Casa Loma up there on the hill. It strikes me as a rather sanitized way to view things. At a granular level, things are not so pretty but they are definitely more interesting. Step out of the bus and meet real people! Or are you afraid that would that shatter your pleasant idealized view of the city? Below, a red tour bus passes a man as it pulls to its stop on the southeast corner of Yonge & Dundas. I wonder what they think of this man. I wonder if they even see him.

street-july-2016-564-2

Tourists in their safe red bus.

Posted in Heart Also tagged , |