Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Niagara Falls

Fireworks, Niagara Falls, Ontario, June 2016

THE FAMILY SPENT THE WEEKEND IN NIAGARA FALLS. Naturally I brought along my camera. Did I take any pictures of the actual Falls, Canadian or American side? No I did not. This is the closest I got.

Niagara Falls, Ontario is a strange town, the closest thing Canada has to Las Vegas, though on a much smaller scale and with only a fraction of the sleaze. The tourist area is strange enough, but I've always been drawn to the town itself, much as I'd probably end up wandering away from the hotels and into the neighbouring suburbs if I were ever in Vegas.

Niagara Falls, Ont. June 2016

The most fascinating part of the city is the old downtown, a short drive away from the hotels and casinos, just by the train station. You only see it if you come to town by train or bus, and most people just hop in a cab before they get a chance to notice the half dozen blocks of abandoned or untenanted buildings and shops nearby.

I saw it for the first time almost a decade ago, when I was in town doing interviews for a story about casino gambling. Unfortunately my camera battery was nearly empty while I waited for my bus so I only took a handful of shots and made a mental note to get back as soon as I could.

The photos on this forum were shot around that time, and from what I saw last weekend it looks like there was a brief attempt at urban renewal since then (dangerous buildings demolished, new street signs and brick sidewalks installed, heritage photos nailed into the empty windows of an abandoned hotel) that didn't take.

I was particularly intrigued by one rather banal old building which didn't stand out as much back then when it had neighbours. It looked symmetrical from the front but lost that aspect completely when you wandered around where its rhomboid shape would once have been disguised by adjacent stores.

The sun was high and bright when I wandered around with my camera so it didn't look as melancholy as it would have under low clouds and overcast. Niagara Falls' derelict downtown is no Detroit, though - the decay is quarantined to a few blocks, and elsewhere there are malls and shopping centres and streets full of suburban homes.

I can't help but wonder what it'll look like in another decade.

Niagara Falls, Ont. June 2016

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bernie Worrell RIP

Bernie Worrell, Toronto, April 1987

BERNIE WORRELL DIED THIS WEEKEND. I knew he was sick when I posted my first photos of him two months ago, but as ever we hope against the odds. The world is down one more interesting, utterly unique musician, and one who helped inform my musical worldview. It's been a bad year for that.

I only shot four frames of Bernie with my Mamiya C330 back in the spring of 1987, when he was passing through town with Anton Fier's Golden Palominos. I wish I'd taken more. I posted two in April; here are the last two, sitting at his keyboards after soundcheck at the El Mocambo. Rest in peace, Mr. Worrell.

Bernie Worrell, Toronto, April 1987

Thursday, June 23, 2016


Scale model, Boston Society of Architects, June 2016

I LIKE CITIES. I always feel like a spectator in the country, a witness to the landscape, but in a city there's this sense of participation, a density of setting and a potentially volatile relationship with humans and creatures in front of your camera that makes every shutter click unique. Cities have their own rules and logic and built vocabulary and one of the main reasons why I've taken up travel writing is the opportunity to visit new ones.

I'd never been to Boston before last week, and I have to confess my mental image of the city was vague, at best. There was a colonial town and a college town and a business district and a seaport and for the purposes of the story I was there to write I ignored most of that except for the briskly modern streetscapes of M.I.T. It felt familiar - very much like my hometown of Toronto right down to the construction cranes that announce a development boom in progress.

Boston & Cambridge, June 2016

By my yardstick Boston is a successful town - old and prosperous and full of interesting architecture, both notable and prosaic. I spent most of my time there on foot, wandering between the seaport and SoWa and South Boston and Cambridge. I did my best to avoid the colonial landmarks in favour of those areas where I always seem to find the best shots - residential areas and side streets, alleyways and the fringes of urban infrastructure.

Boston, June 2016

My assignment had me shooting pictures very different from what I like putting up here. This looks to be a permanent feature of my travel shooting for the next while, which makes what I do with my cameras on the job feel a little schizophrenic - looking for clean, happy, travelogue shots on one hand and the usual abstractions and urban snapshots with another.

Boston, June 2016

I let myself include people in my personal shots more openly this time around, partly because I was always looking to fit them into the job shooting, but simply because they really can't be avoided in cities, after all, even if I still set out looking for those perfect "post-neutron bomb" views, stark and unpeopled.

If everything works out, my next job will take me to a very different place, far from the cities. It'll be "God's country," all sky and forest and mountains, and I'm thinking I should challenge myself by setting out to shoot portraits instead of landscapes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Richard Ford

Richard Ford, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I'D NEVER READ ANY OF RICHARD FORD'S BOOKS WHEN I WAS ASSIGNED TO TAKE HIS PORTRAIT over a quarter century ago. He was, I knew at the time, an important writer, heir to the mantle of Raymond Carver (who I had read) and part of a long tradition of American novelists going back to the first sustained flourishing of fiction writing in the U.S. with Fitzgerald and Hemingway (back when that sort of thing actually mattered.) He had a certain gravitas, and I tried to capture that; truth be told, I was more than a little intimidated.

When I found these negatives in my files I decided to read something by Ford, and went for the obvious choice - The Sportswriter, the novel that, just four years before, had made him a literary star. It was the first of what would be four books (three novels and a novella collection) featuring the first person voice of Frank Bascombe, an ex-novelist-turned-sportswriter-turned-real-estate-agent who was frequently misidentified (at least according to Ford) as the author's alter ego.

Richard Ford, Toronto, Oct. 1990

At first it's a bit trying to live inside Frank's head; he's perceptive and eccentric by nature, but striving to escape into normalcy - or at least his own perception of what's normal, which includes his adopted hometown of Haddam, New Jersey, a bedroom community of no particular noteworthiness as Frank painstakingly (and approvingly) paints it. Frank's marriage has recently collapsed in the aftermath of his son's death and his own infidelities but more particularly from what he diagnoses as his "dreaminess," a quiet alienation that cushions him from his own life and those close to him.

At first I kept imagining Frank and his contemporaries as men older than me, and had to keep reminding myself that he's in his thirties in The Sportswriter, and that it would take two more novels set a decade apart for him to reach an age close to my own. Perhaps this has to do with how acceptable behaviour for men has changed in the last three decades; the '80s were probably the last time when grown men newly arrived in middle age were supposed to give up the affectations of youth. Perhaps it's my own memories of the book's '80s setting, when I still considered myself young and anyone older than me by at least a decade seemed part of a different world.

It's not a period novel, as such - it was a contemporary one when Ford wrote it, after all - but one brief passage early in the book brought back the time with a jolt. Frank is describing Vicki, his latest girlfriend, a Texan whose ripe sexiness is matched only by her utterly average mind, the combination of which Frank is hugely drawn to:
"Vicki is wearing black slacks that fit her tight but not too, a white, frilly-dressy blouse-and-scarf combination, a blue Ultrasuede jacket straight from Dallas and shoes with clear plastic heels. These are her dressy travel clothes, along with her nylon Le Sac weekender tossed in the back and her little black clutch where she keeps her diaphragm."
It's two details - the Le Sac bag and the shoes with the clear plastic heels - that brought the early years of the decade back to me with a slap. Those shoes - the heels were often Cuban, and I remember them in coloured tints, particularly orange - were only in fashion briefly, and someone with access to an archive of women's wear catalogues could probably date the precise year when the Easter weekend Ford sets The Sportswriter across happens.

Richard Ford, Toronto, Oct. 1990

The book ended up drawing me in, right through the mortifying Easter dinner with Vicki's family that's the emotional pivot of the book, and the point when you realize that Frank's quest for aggressive normalcy will probably always elude him. It's a judgment underlined by observations like the one Frank makes after Vicki cold cocks him by his car, outside her father's house:
"There is no betrayal like voice betrayal, I can tell you that. Women hate it. Sometimes X would hear me say something - something as innocent as saying 'Wis-sconsin' when I usually said 'Wisconsin' - and turn hawk-eyed with suspicion, wander around the house for twenty minutes in a brown brood."
A man who notices this kind of thing will never be an unreflective passenger on his journey through life, or an untroubling companion to friends, family or strangers.

All this, of course, is a roundabout way of saying that I don't have much of a memory of my shoot with Richard Ford. He was younger than I am now when I took these shots, and barely older than Frank during The Sportswriter. I don't know why that's so significant to me, but it is. What I do know is that I doubt if I'd have really understood The Sportswriter if I'd read it in preparation for my shoot with Ford, and that has to be some kind of recommendation.


Thursday, June 9, 2016


Skellig Michael, May 2016

MY FAMILY LEFT IRELAND OVER ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO and as of last week I was the first one I know of who returned. It felt momentous, and if I wasn't jet-lagged I might have felt it a bit more. I was there for a travel junket to County Kerry and the Skellig Islands, traveling on a bus with an international group of reporters, and if you've ever done one of these things, you'll know it's all a bit whirlwind; these photos are snapshots of things I caught in passing, usually while walking back to the bus.

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, May 2016
Dublin, June 2016

I've returned to travel journalism again after several years away. I enjoy traveling - a lot. I doubt if everything I'll do will be as rich in photo opportunities as this trip to Ireland (our main destination is famous for being visually dramatic - a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a location in the new Star Wars films) but I'm grateful nonetheless for the chance to take my cameras with me to places I'd probably never go if someone wasn't paying for me to be there.

Portmagee, May 2016

The urge to produce postcards is palpable - it's usually part of the assignment - so I try to wander off whenever I can to find the sorts of things I shoot at home; those bits of urban landscape that look the same everywhere except for the dimensions of the houses and the makes of the cars.

Skellig Michael, May 2016

Then, of course, there are the places that look like nowhere else. It's lovely, of course, to point your camera in almost any direction and see something that prompts you to hit the shutter, but it doesn't take long before you start thinking "this is too easy," and start looking for something no one else is shooting.

Geokaun Mountain, June 2016
Knightstown, June 2016

I was definitely wrong-footed by the clear, cloudless skies that persisted for almost the whole week I was in Ireland. I had been told to bring plenty of rain gear (which remained in my suitcase) and had pre-visualized overcast light and low, heavy clouds. From the moment I landed I was greeted with deep blue skies and hard shadows from a relentless sun. I was overjoyed when I woke up in Killarney to see clouds again - wispy and tentative, but clouds notwithstanding.

Ross Castle, June 2016

Some places were drenched in the picturesque, and I'll admit that I dreaded them before I got off the bus. Killarney National Park and the ruins of Ross Castle, in particular, seemed to have been manicured and set-dressed in advance of my arrival. There's a point, though, when you have to just relax into the picturesque, shrug and say that if it was good enough for Constable, it should be good enough for you.

Muckross House, June 2016
Killarney National Park, June 2016

In the end, though, any day spent with a camera is better than a day without one. I probably drank more in that single week than I usually do in a year at home, but the food was surprisingly good and I learned that you can make really good ice cream from Guinness. I'd like to go back again, if only so I can see the place under a cloudy sky, the way I'd imagined it for years before I finally returned.