Tag Archives: Toronto

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.

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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

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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

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Chat With Rat Boy

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Tourists in their safe red bus.

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Toronto Pride Parade 2016

As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve decided to present all my images from Toronto’s Pride Parade(s) in black and white to mark the black and white terms that seem to have corseted the Pride/BLMTO conversation. I’m not sure representatives of either group speak for much beyond the right to make themselves the targets of corporate marketing in heavily sponsored parades. I get tired of the polarized terms of public conversation and the acrimony they engender. So I go for the photo-ops and leave the acrimony to other people. I get in close. I guess it’s a species of street portraiture. Make what you want of my images. I decline to interpret them.

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#BLM & the Toronto Dyke March 2016

Once, Pride was Protest. Pride was Social Action. Pride was a Play for Justice. The whole Loud and Proud and Out in the Streets thing was a strategy to draw our eyes from the centre to the margins. Now it’s a party. It’s a celebration. It was one thing. Now it’s something else. Each thing lives inside its own neat box. One sits on a shelf with a label: Historical Pride. The other dances in the street.

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#BLM came to Pride and put its Protest, and its Social Action, and its Play for Justice into the party box. Oops. That would be bad. People shouldn’t get angry at parties. It’s against the rules. We need rules. Without rules, our boxes would get full of crap that doesn’t belong in them. I don’t know about you, but when my orderly boxes get filled up with crap that doesn’t belong in them, I start to feel uncomfortable.

When the people from #BLM brought their anger to the party, it made me feel uncomfortable. I just want have fun. Don’t ask me to think, especially on a weekend. Worse yet: don’t ask me to empathize with your situation. For me to empathize with you would take a lot of imagination and emotional maturity. I’m not up to it. Just leave me with my doobie (is my age showing?) and let me shout incoherent shit at nobody in particular. That’s all I ask of the world.

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The curious thing is that, after a smooth time at the Dyke March, the next day #BLM got its own boxes all mixed up. At the Pride Parade (I’ll post photos tomorrow), it held things up for half an hour and made demands of the Pride organizers not least of which was that Police should be prevented from marching in next year’s parade. People (mostly white?) went into conniptions, pointing out that the Police box has a lot of other crap in it, you know, police who are LGBTQ, police who are Black, police who are LGBTQ & Black, etc.

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My impression is that everybody would like their boxes to be neat and orderly. The Pride organizers would like their boxes to be neat and orderly. #BLM would like its boxes to be neat and orderly. I’d certainly love it if my boxes were neat and orderly. There’s a phrase that describes this propensity to keep boxes neat and orderly: black and white thinking.

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To mark all the black and white thinking that’s been swirling around the latest #BLM controversy, I decided to post only black and white photographs. I’m sure many of them would show better in colour, but one of the great features of black and white thinking is that denies people a richer view of their own experience.

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To be fair, a moratorium on police in the parade is a good idea. So you know somebody who’s black or gay who serves on your local police force. Don’t try to forward that fact as proof that things are getting better. What kind of “contract” has your black or gay friend entered in order to function within the culture of that police force? Don’t know? Of course you don’t know. That information doesn’t exist. And a complete absence of transparency means that it won’t exist for a long time to come.

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Personally, I don’t think #BLM went far enough. Let’s ban banks. Let’s ban the political hucksters right up to the PMO. Let’s ban that great bastion of regressive taxation, the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corporation. How about Home Depot? Air Canada? They celebrate your Black body, your Gay body, your Oppressed body, but only as a site for marketing and winning votes. Once you strip away all the sponsors and political interests, what are you left with? Maybe five people walking down the street holding hands?

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Do #BlackLivesMatter Anymore?

#BlackLivesMatter was a thing, just like #OccupyWallStreet was a thing before it. And now those things are done. The problem with turning chronic social injustice into a media concern is that once it loses its traction in the media people get the idea that somehow it’s been dealt with. A cause grabs media attention (with its very own hashtag) and people call it “raising awareness” or, if they’re feeling lofty, “raising consciousness”. Something has been accomplished. Progress has been made. We can go home now.

After the tent city at police headquarters had been disbanded, after the march to Queen’s Park, after Kathleen Wynne’s acknowledgment of systemic racism, after push-back from the Toronto Police Association, I drifted past Toronto Police Headquarters and noticed something odd. There’s a bronze sculpture by Les Drysdale out in front. A woman in police uniform holds a trowel and leans in as if spreading mortar for a new brick. Someone had left a fresh slice of watermelon on the trowel. It looks as if the (Caucasian) police officer is serving up watermelon to the ghosts of the Black protesters.

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How are we supposed to interpret this? Maybe it’s a straight-up racist taunt. Or maybe it’s an ironic comment from someone frustrated with the (fairly typical) “What? Me racist?” response from respectable men like Mike McCormack. Or maybe it’s the work of an agent provocateur who wants to throw gasoline on the fire. Or maybe it’s a prank by kids smoking weed in the alley near Fran’s. Or maybe it’s radical art by students from OCAD.

Then, of course, there’s a second-order question of interpretation. Once I record the watermelon on the trowel as a photograph, how should viewers interpret the image I’ve made? I don’t think it’s for me to say. However, I do want to point out that this was not a fortuitous capture in the moment. I spent maybe 20 or 30 minutes photographing the sculpture with watermelon and thinking about what I was looking at. I shot from different angles. With and without a polarizing filter. With a variety of people walking through the scene. Ultimately, I settled on a shot with the streetcar in the background. I like the play of red between the streetcar and the watermelon. I also like the fact that the streetcar places the scene unequivocally in Toronto where, as everybody knows, we don’t have problems with racism.

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Religiosity On The Streets

There’s a breezeway between St. James Cathedral and what I presume to be the admin building for the Anglican Diocese. Photographically speaking, it’s interesting because it has a glass ceiling (for the men to walk on?) that produces good reflections when you shoot from underneath it towards the street. The other evening, I was standing there, amusing myself, when someone nearby started picking a guitar and singing. I poked my head around the corner and found a man sitting on a stone bench. The church’s exterior wall has a lot of angles that provide secluded alcoves. I asked the man if he was practising. He said yeah, he had a gig across the road, just one song but he wanted to get it right.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I asked if he’d mind me taking shots of him while he practised. He said sure, but he figured it was probably worth the price of a beer. I said I figured it was, so he did his thing and I did my thing and we both were happy. Mike speaks with a bit of a twang so I was expecting him to sing in a nasal Willie Nelson voice. Mercifully, he’s sings much better than that and his picking is fantastic. You can see from the photos that he plays a mouth organ. I grew up calling it an organ, but he calls it a harp. He plays a Lee Oskar. He doesn’t like Hohner; he says they just don’t hold up.

When it came time to make good on my promise, I realized I’d made a mistake. Normally, when I go out, I load my pockets with twonies. But this evening I’d forgotten. Well, I thought, a deal’s a deal. I held up a twenty dollar bill and said it’s all I had. Mike turned all obsequious on me and it made me feel awkward. He pressed his hands together like he was Gandhi. “Oh man, all I wanted from you was a twonie for a beer. Tell me, are you a Christian?”

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I hate when people ask me that question. I don’t want to disappoint them. At the same time, I don’t want to be taken for a bigot or an asshole. To be honest, I don’t know what I am. I suppose I’m happily in limbo. I ended up telling Mike that I grew up in the United Church of Canada but I’m a bit lapsed these days. “Lapsed” describes most people who grew up in the United Church of Canada. “Well bless you anyways,” he said.

One day, my photography habit is going to turn me into a bona fide sociologist. I’d love to conduct an investigation of religiosity on the streets. While mainstream media keep harping at the secular/humanist/agnostic shift of the mainstream-cultures/middle-classes/people-who-pull-twenty-dollar-bills-from-their-pockets, that shift doesn’t appear to have touched those who live in the margins. In part, it may have something to do with the fact that a lot of front line services are run by notoriously evangelical Christian organizations. But nowadays even those organizations are under pressure to keep religion out of it. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, but leave their souls to the great whatever.

So where does it come from? Does it ooze up from the pavement? Is it prompted by the simple fact of poverty? Is it (consciously or otherwise) a way for those living in the margins to distinguish themselves from the secular lost and their barren normativity? Does my vocabulary and academic/investigative posturing merely underscore the barrenness?

Shut up and shoot, Dave. Shoot like it’s a prayer. Share like it’s a sacrament.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

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