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Flow

Among other aspects of the urban environment I’m also fascinated by traffic flow, and by the attempts made by cities to smooth, maximize, or minimize it. In this photo, I see the basic problem of complexity meeting rigidity.


Summer ends

It’s August as I post this, so “summer ends” is meant only in the most tongue in cheek way. (Though it’s true.) I shot this over a year and a half ago, and I’ve always enjoyed the starkness of ice meeting cold, dark water – it’s probably the 19th-century romantic in me.


Identity

There are a lot of subject categories in photography: portrait, street, landscape, and so on. But there are a lot of photographs – at least a lot of mine – that don’t fall into one category or another. I took the photograph above while waiting for a meeting west of Toronto’s downtown core, after noticing an interesting alley at the back of a nearby parking lot. Is it “street”? There are no people in it. “Architecture”? Well, one can make out a couple of walls, so buildings are involved – but I’m not sure it’s about architecture per se. “Urban”? Maybe – if we treat “urban” as a catch-all for any photograph taken within a city. Not much of a category, that.

So much for categories.


Looking back

Almost every photographer will admit to getting pleasure from opening up a collection of raw shots they haven’t looked at in months, and discovering new beauty with the benefit of fresh eyes – or, indeed, of eyes that have gained in discernment and acuity as the photographer’s own practice has matured. I love this picture of Maude from last November, found this morning and looking as if I had just shot it yesterday.


Colonnade

This is not, actually, a colonnade. But the simplification makes a better title than the more accurate “half-colonnade”, “demi-colonnade”, or “colonette” – this last being a word I thought I had made up just now, but then, upon Googling it, discovered that it’s a real word that actually describes exactly what this photograph shows. So let that be a lesson for us all.

Oh, and this is a night-time view of, again, my favourite transportation hub, Toronto’s Union Station.


Traces

In case you haven’t concluded this already, I’ve got a bit of a thing for concrete. I think it’s because it’s the “skin” of a city, and shows traces of everything the city is exposed to: water, dirt, chemicals, soot, bird droppings. In it’s way, it’s as endearing as a person’s own wrinkles.


Bella and the light

An image from a really enjoyable portrait session with Bella Fisker. I thought that it would be interesting to surround her with white sheets flooded with light, so like kids we built a tent-fort and started experimenting. As it turned out, the most beautiful results came from suffusing the sheets with light from the outside, rather than illuminating the space from within…


Christmas Eve at twilight

Glance at the date of this post and you’ll see I’m a day short of four months late on this picture. This past Christmas Eve I decided to treat myself to a photographic tour of Hamilton’s industrial waterfront, an area I had passed on the Burlington Skyway time and again over the past decade. Frustratingly, much of the waterfront is sequestered behind gates and guardposts – a practice that makes some sense, given the value of the metals and equipment to be found in the factories and storage yards – but even so, I managed to capture some chromatically beautiful images of the sunset playing on polished surfaces and complicated pipework.

Happy Holidays, post facto.


Aqueous

I’m often attracted to scenes that have a kind of potentiality to them, without revealing at first what that potential is. I take the shot on instinct, and then later spend time with it, working at it like a sculpture, until what it wants to become is finally revealed.


A glimpse of beauty

Last weekend my friend Stephanie and I went out for evening drinks, before which we did a forty-five minute twilight shoot on the sidewalks of Toronto’s Esplanade and in the alleys leading off it. Perched on a concrete outdoor staircase as I took pictures of her, Stephanie at one point looked at me curiously and asked what my “vision” as a photographer was. This essay is an extended and more thoughtful version of the answer I had to construct for her on the spot.

In fact, there’s not always a single answer to a question like that. Photography has many possible purposes, and a photographer may have a separate vision for each of his or her purposes – or even a vision for each particular shoot. But for the sake of brevity and conceptual clarity, I’ll focus only on my vision – or at least my underlying intuition – regarding the style of photography that Stephanie and I happened to be shooting at that moment: something which I might call “urban faux candid”.

My intuition concerns the meanings we assign to the sight of another human. In the world of villages and small towns where almost everyone knows each other or at least recognizes each other, a sighting is full of background knowledge: the person you see is so-and-so’s daughter; she goes to your church; she is two grades ahead of you in school. If she sees you too, a wave and a hello is mandatory and natural. Our glimpses of each other are embedded in a pre-existing, invisible bedrock of actual relationships and known history.

Not so in a big city. The randomness of a metropolis should not be overstated, mind you – after all, commuters pass through a limited set of locations on a daily basis, and it is typical to see faces repeated over weeks and months as one makes one’s way to work and back. But familiarity is not meaning. A second glimpse of a beautiful woman that one may have seen once before does not make her any better known to you. However much you may attempt to deduce from her clothing, her age, her hair, her way of standing, the presence or absence of polish on her nails, indeed whatever observations you may have captured from that glance and then filtered through your almost certainly inaccurate mental model of demographics, neighbourhoods, and character types… after all that, you don’t really know anything.

And then the subway doors open and she disappears into the crowd on the platform.

The wonder of that moment lies in both its impermanence and its indifference. She was there, and now she is gone. You may never catch sight of her again. For a few seconds afterwards you may even feel a small, instinctive ache in your heart – but your heart is worldly-wise and moves on quickly, letting your busy mind distract it from its focus of a moment before. The moment’s indifference touches you next, as you realize that it was subjectively yours – you felt it, fully, and no one else did – and at the same time, objectively, it had nothing whatsoever to do with you. The woman didn’t notice you, didn’t realize you’d noticed her, and wouldn’t have cared that you did, if she had. All through that moment (of yours) she remained concerned, naturally enough, only with her own purposes and her own thoughts.

Somewhere in this combination of the fleeting and the self-purposed, I think, is an echo of the old aesthetic concept of the sublime: the perception of beauty as an aspect of something that transcends us as individuals. The nineteenth-century Romantics saw the sublime in stormy oceans, and in sunlit mountain peaks. To them, the natural world was awesome and beautiful at the same time, and it didn’t care whether we observed it or not. It had its own purposes, its own mechanisms. Someone afforded a glimpse of the sublime was simply lucky; their personal merit had nothing to do with it. And luck has a magical feel to it that is close to grace.

It’s not really about sunlit peaks, of course; if it was, I’d shoot those. But I am attracted to this style of photography in large part because the final image doesn’t seem to assume its subject has been placed in front of a camera solely for the viewer’s pleasure. Urban faux candid (the faux is what separates it from traditional street photography, in that my subject is knowingly participating in a photosession) seeks to create an aesthetic in which beauty is apparent or discoverable – glimpsed – but not prioritized as the point of the picture. The subject is in the midst of getting things done. She (or he) has a life, and her own plans. You’re lucky to have seen her – and no, she doesn’t care that you did.

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