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.
On my way to a dinner in Yorkville last night I explored a loading bay, found a surface tunnel, and followed it into an alley. This appealingly mysterious portal awaited there.
It took me a long time to come to portraiture as an art form.
I began taking photographs systematically only five years ago or so; equipped with a Blackberry provided by the consulting firm that employed me, I began snapping pictures of interesting things that happened to be on my way between the office and my commuter train. These things were entirely inanimate: buildings, alleyways, clouds, trees, windows. Little by little – and smartphone by smartphone – I followed my growing interest in the physical environment, and in the aspects that fascinated me most. I began to look at textures differently, at materials, at patterns; I began to see how buildings related to each other, and to the natural world they rested within; I began to notice infrastructure and its interlocking parts. There is beauty in rust and concrete, and in the unexpected discoveries waiting to be found in structures built to someone’s rational plan, long ago. Indeed, in the aging of buildings I came to feel a kinship with them. Their barnacles made them fellows to me, all of us travellers in time, all of us heading slowly towards our various ends.
Throughout this development I photographed only a few human faces, and these just casually. I didn’t come to portraiture as natural next step in my photographic journey; rather, we met obliquely, the idea of it swinging in from a separate direction entirely. Or, perhaps, two directions.
The first, an artistic one – although even this one arising from a non-artistic impulse. Roughly in the same period that I began photographing objects, I decided to teach myself to draw. I had reached 40 (again, I say roughly), and my life so far had been dominated by symbols and symbolic logic: reading, writing, editing, researching, strategic thinking, business analytics, speaking. I am good at these things, so I decided to try something I was not good at: drawing – which seemed to me, in its total refusal to be symbolic about anything, the perfect and attractive opposite to all I had done before.
In my drawing practice – which primarily involved working through downloaded instructional books by mid-century illustrator Andrew Loomis – I found that faces were the things that interested me almost completely. Bodies were important, and rather thrilling when drawing them went well, but they also felt like a bit of a chore to a beginner: all those relative proportions to remember, and, usually, to get frustratingly wrong. But faces were different. They demanded attention to proportion too, but when they came together properly an entire person emerged: a character, a personality, a rogue with a hard glint in his eye, a beautiful woman with gentleness in hers. This felt like creation itself.
The second direction was professional and personal at the same time. As a consultant, it had always been a large part of my job to meet a range of new people, both client employees and fellow consultants from my own office or from other cities, and to quickly learn how to work with them. In time I had to sell work to new clients, and so business development (the modern word for “sales”) became part of my daily life – which meant regular networking over coffees and at events. Eventually I took on roles as a recruiter and mentor too. Meeting people – finding them, talking with them, understanding them, becoming friends with the ones who clicked – became a large source of pleasure in my life, as well as a professional imperative.
Portraiture, for me, emerges from the confluence of these two forces: from my fascination with the human face and its power to convey personality and uniqueness, and from my pleasure in getting to know people in real life. And as these forces merged with my interest in built-environment photography – a merger which, I think, partly accounted for my shift from drawn portraiture to photographed portraiture – they picked up some of its attributes, including an attentiveness to structure over cladding, to the relationship of elements to each other, and to the subtle, beautiful details of texture and colour and shape.
Perhaps it’s about mortality too. We all drift through time on a river we have no choice but to travel down. A portrait captures one moment in this journey. In its realness, it connects us to each other though we’re in separate vessels. In its stillness and permanence, it gives us – for as long as we hang onto it and as many times as we wish to look at it – a glimpse of forever.
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
A view of a train from a train, and of the suburban homes standing a road-width behind both.
On my way to a photoshoot this past Saturday, I passed an immense pile of logs on a fenced off street: the remains of trees cut down to make way for a new building. Ashen and grave-like, they seemed to me.
Concrete combines the most wonderful simplicity with the most alluring complexity. A hole is just the icing on the cake.
“Downtown” Mississauga as seen on a Sunday morning from Erin Mills and Eglinton. A city near a city.
Union Station’s reconstruction has been a subject of ongoing visual fascination for me. This is one of my favourite images of it, depicting both its work-in-progress nature and its daily operations. Trains gotta roll.
An ethereal view of the Delta hotel, Toronto.