Thursday, October 26, 2017


Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

THESE PHOTOS WERE TAKEN DURING ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SHOOTS I EVER DID. I have never printed them, and this is the first time I have published them anywhere. As these things usually go, it's a long story, and I suppose you kind of had to be there.

For over twenty years, I lived near Sunnyside, Toronto's western beach and once home to an iconic amusement park - Toronto's Coney Island, though long gone before I was born, never mind by the time I lived there. It's a place I still return to time and time again for inspiration or as a location for shoots. Sunnyside, more probably than Yonge Street or either of its city halls, is Toronto for me.

Sunnyside pedestrian bridge, Toronto, spring 1997

On some blustery day in the spring of 1997, I left my Parkdale loft with my Rolleiflex cameras and walked west along Queen Street to the pedestrian bridge where Queen, King and Roncesvalles meet. I don't know just what moved me to head out that day, but my obvious intent, based on the single roll of film I shot that day, was to document the lake and the sky and crashing waves that, on a rare day like this, makes usually placid Lake Ontario seem more like an ocean.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

For most of my career up till that point, I rarely set out to take pictures just for fun. All of my energies were focused on trying to earn a living, and while film and processing cost money, shooting without a paycheque in mind cut needlessly into my paper-thin overhead. Which means that it must have been something strong - some hard to deny urge - that forced me out of the warmth of my loft into threatening weather to take photos.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

While the clouds were heavy and threatening, it wasn't raining, so I made it to the deserted boardwalk and down to the beach to find the waves cresting over the breakwater and rolling heavily onto the shore. I took a couple of photos of the bridge and one of the lake and sky through the branches of a bare tree, just budding. But most of the frames on the single contact sheet I have are of the shore, the waves, the water and the sky. There was something there I was obviously intent on finding.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

I remember being pleased when I saw the results on the contact sheet. I definitely looked them over carefully, but I never marked any of them for future reference, and I never printed a single frame. They might have stayed on my desk for a year or two, but by the time I moved out of my loft they had been filed away. Leafing through my archives, I always stopped and looked them over again, but they remained unseen by anyone but me. Until today.

I have had an intuition for years that most serious photographers have an image in their head - perhaps a few, but at least one - that they're always trying to create or find. When I was given my first camera - a Kodak Instamatic - as a boy, I headed out into the snow after Christmas and tried to take a photo I had in my head. It was very nearly abstract, more full of texture than colour, composed with at least one horizon, and roughly based on what I would only learn many years later was the "rule of thirds."

I had an instinct that I hadn't really got the shot, and in any case no one thought my early experiments were worth sending out for developing or printing, since they weren't a record of a person or an event we'd experienced as a family. But that image remained in my mind for at least another decade, until the day I went into that Church Street pawn shop and bought my first real camera. Lack of money - as an adult, just as when I was a child - meant I didn't experiment much if there was no commercial potential, but that image remained in my mind.

It's only now, when digital has made shooting so cheap and commercial downturns have made my time so much less valuable, that I find myself with a camera in my hand so often, on assignment or not, trying to take that photo I still have in my head. This shoot was really the beginning of something, though I didn't know it at the time, as I was increasingly being overwhelmed by what I would soon learn was actually the end of something else.

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