There's no way you could capture all of Toronto in a single photograph, but 14 local artists are up to that impossible challenge. This City II, which opens May 4 at Coldstream Fine Art, is among the 200+ projects debuting this week as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. It's the sequel to a similar show held at the gallery last year — gathering photographers from a variety of communities, disciplines and styles, and asking them to express how they see their hometown now, in 2017. Here, a few of the artists share the stories behind their work.
What was happening when you got this shot? What do you remember about the scene?
I took this photo on a very cold night at the beginning of February this year. One of my favourite things to do is wander the city with my camera. I tend to average about 10 km an outing. That night, I had already been out walking for a couple of hours when I met up with some other photographer friends who wanted to do some long exposure shots with Filmores in the background.
As we were standing there, a man came out to have a cigarette and check his phone. I was immediately drawn to the film noir quality of the scene. The lighting created a dark glow that drew the eyes to him. I immediately started shooting as fast as I could — I wasn't sure how much longer he would be there — and with the cars going by, it was hard to try and catch it the way I was seeing it.
"These buildings and the lives that drifted in and out of their doors, are the city. And I think it's our job to make sure we remember them." - Pamela Julian, photographer
What about this photo represents Toronto in 2017?
Toronto is constantly growing. We are surrounded by construction no matter which way we turn. But through it all, there are still spots where Toronto maintains its identity. This street corner is undergoing some major renovations but Filmores is still in the same place, with the same sign, that it's had since the '80s. I love that. I love that they are still advertising and pushing the envelope with their billboard. (Did you know they offered free lap dances to Pan Am athlete medalists? They had to show their medal!) I feel that with this picture, we can see that while we are changing and moving forward, some things will always remain the same.
A lot of work in the show captures buildings and neighbourhoods marked for development. This piece seems to fit into that category. Why is it important to you to capture places like this?
A photograph can show us not just a building — but a place where people found joy, grief, love and despair. Lives were lived in these places, and while the individuals may not be remembered, then the places where they lived, can. These buildings and the lives that drifted in and out of their doors, are the city. And I think it's our job to make sure we remember them.
When did you take this photo of the Don Valley? How did you end up in this spot — with this view?
This particular photo was taken on Sept. 27, 2013 at 7:24 a.m. and is the last in my series called "Views of the CN Tower."
It was an accidental discovery. I was bicycling with my kids, as we often do, along the Don Valley trail, but instead of continuing south towards the Distillery District, we made a detour to Brickworks. It was our first time there. At some point we decided to leave our bikes and climb up the "North Face" — what used to be a hill was over the years excavated for the clay, and became an open pit. It is a very steep climb, muddy and slippery, and more than once we had to grab the branches of bushes to save our necks. I would not advise anyone to repeat our feat of ignorance. The view from above, however, was breathtaking. I decided to come back the next day with my camera.
What was happening when you took this photo? What do you remember about the scene?
I remember huge balls of white fog, the size of five-storey buildings, rolling onto the valley from behind the hill, at about one minute intervals, while I was shooting. The scene was still and silent and almost pastoral, the city so far away. It was exhilarating.
It took six or seven before-the-sunrise trips to this spot over a two-month period to get the result I wanted.
"I embarked on this project with a very clear goal in mind — to show that beauty may be found in your own backyard." - Michael Glassman, photographer
For you, what about this picture represents Toronto in 2017?
I don't see this image as specifically "2017." I see it more as "what could have been."
The history of urban development and architecture of Toronto is very much "what could have been here." If enough people learn and appreciate Toronto's history, get active in the preservation of our architectural heritage against the speed of development and demolitions for the sake of yet another condo tower, I will feel that I made my small contribution to this goal.
What do you love about photographing Toronto — and Toronto landmarks, specifically?
I embarked on this project with a very clear goal in mind — to show that beauty may be found in your own backyard, that it is not necessary to travel to exotic locations to discover it.
How did you find yourself at Woodgreen United Church?
It was a pretty popular spot, I think, for people who are into that sort of work — what's colloquially called "ruin porn. That's basically people who make a point of shooting decaying or decrepit or destroyed or soon to be destroyed architectural edifices around the city or elsewhere. [Ed note: The building, which was erected in 1958, was demolished earlier this year to make way for a seven-storey mixed-use complex.]
I'm not really into that subject matter anymore, but that's where my interest [in photography] started. It's a theme that runs through all my work — nostalgia and history and memory and loss. I'm fascinated by the fact that we can build up all these things, and we can amass all this stuff, and it can be discarded pretty easily.
The interesting thing about the Woodgreen image, and I feel this is something we'll be able to explore more and more and more in the next few years, if not already, is that it's a really commonplace theme with churches and other religious institutions. If you go to Prince Edward County, if you go up north, there are all these churches that are being turned into residential homes and the churches themselves don't really serve a purpose anymore.
The show asks everyone to choose a photo that represents the city through their eyes. What's your connection to this place?
I actually have no connection to the church itself. I'm Jewish, and I've actually never been in a church for religious services. For me, it's what it says about the city. The Woodgreen Church served Toronto for over 200 years. The community that was served by that church, where are they going to go? How are they going to be served going forward? I think that's one really important city-related question that needs to be explored. The other is more related to real estate and the boom in our city — basically how everything is being moved for a condo. I'm not anti-progress, I'm certainly not making a statement, but it's really interesting that we can dispose of these things that are so historically relevant and so important to small or large communities in the name of "quote" progress.
You work internationally as an event photographer. What's unique about shooting in Toronto?
Toronto, as my home market, is the place where I have the best access. I know most of the party crowd and publicists, so it's easier and more familial in that sense. In my opinion, Toronto is the only city in Canada where I could be a full-time, self-employed event photographer. It's a party city. All roads lead to Toronto.
What was happening when you took this photo? What do you remember about the scene?
I was hired to shoot Drake's album release party for his album Views. It took place at a night club in the entertainment district — not my usual scene. There was a palpable energy and anticipation for Drake and whatever special guests he might bring with him. Drake arrived and things became instantly chaotic. I was being pushed and pulled, bouncers were threatening me (meanwhile, I'm the house photographer tasked with capturing this mess). Justin Bieber arrives unexpectedly and things get even crazier. He's sporting a new buzzed head — free, for the first time, from his famous locks. I'm pushed back further from the action. So I raise my camera over the crowd and start firing, hoping to capture something. As it happens, Justin notices me for a split second and looks straight in to the camera. That's the moment that I'm presenting at This City II. Instantly, the scene's composition reminded me of da Vinci's The Last Supper. It's interesting — Justin looked a little worse for wear and lonely, despite being surrounded by a sea of people. Just after this moment, the club starting playing his hit "Sorry." Justin mouthed the words and danced a little in place, stopping occasional to wink and point at female fans.
"Like it or not, Toronto is Canada's social capital." - Ryan Emberley, photographer
So much of the work in the show captures buildings and places. Not your photo, though. For you, what is it about this photo that captures Toronto in 2017?
I'm always attracted to photos that tell stories and I find photos of people tell the best stories. Toronto is more than just the CN Tower or sweeping cityscapes. Like it or not, Toronto is Canada's social capital... in all its forms — high society, celebrity events, relaxed hangs at local dive bars — you name it. Justin's Last Supper is one of those moments.
Where and when did you get this shot?
The photo was shot last summer (2016) at Ryerson Pond a.k.a. Devonian Lake on the Ryerson University campus. The pond is a great skateboard spot in the city, so my friends and I skate there quite frequently.
Who are the people in the photo? And, maybe more importantly, how did they wind up with a snake?
I don't know the child in the photo, but their mom was right there and she was totally cool with me snapping a couple photos. If she sees this I'll print her an 8x10 for free! (laughs) The guy with the snake is just a guy that walks around that area every once in a while with a few massive snakes hanging off him.
"Toronto in 2017 is a pretty diverse place to be, and the people seem to be pretty fearless to express how they feel or what they want — I love that." - Adam Reid, photographer
What about this picture represents Toronto in 2017 to you?
I thought it represented the city due to the diversity, and spontaneity of the scene. It's kind of all over the place — innocent yet dangerous. Toronto in 2017 is a pretty diverse place to be, and the people seem to be pretty fearless to express how they feel or what they want — I love that.
My photos mostly involve people, and I thought that the people of the city are what make and define it. I mean, the Gooderham (flatiron) Building is super cool, but do we need to see another photo of it?
You were recently based out of Montreal, yes? What brought you to Toronto?
I moved to Toronto at the end of October 2016 after showing eight of my Guardians at Nuit Blanche. I spontaneously decided to move here and see what the city had to offer me.
[Ed note: The Guardians is Antaki's ongoing art project about shopkeepers around the world. Since beginning the series, he's photographed more than 300 business owners inside their stores — "guardians of urban temples."]
What's your connection to Honest Ed's?
I took this picture on Friday, Dec. 30 2016, the day before Honest Ed's closed for good. It's part of my series The Last Days of Honest Ed's.
Earlier that month I was greatly encouraged to submit my application to a call for submissions that Toronto For Everyone was doing. They were looking for artists willing to help them co-create the last magical experience at Honest Ed's.
I spent some time in Mirvish Village, meeting with some of the shopkeepers who were to be relocated, and took some pictures during Honest Ed's last 48 hours of business. I wanted to pay one last tribute to this iconic landmark of Toronto and offer an image that was really different from what people have in mind when they think of Honest Ed's.
I never got a chance to shop there but I have a lot of respect for what Ed Mirvish has accomplished and for his legacy of community. I was very honoured to be part of this emotional tribute.
What about the picture represents Toronto in 2017 to you?
One of the predominant themes of my work is the duty of memory. I am profoundly moved by the progressive disappearance of these places filled with history and memories. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, a time where people would give business to their local shops. I kinda miss the pre-internet era. I'd choose analog over digital anytime. Nowadays everyone is in a hurry, or at least they project the idea of being. No one has time for anything. The internet makes everything go fast, but it also de-humanizes our interpersonal relationships.
It is important for me to capture as many as possible places like this one before they all vanish.
Gentrification is happening very significantly in Toronto. The housing market is ridiculously out of control, and this picture is very symbolic of this transformation with a bittersweet after-taste. The end of an era, indeed.
(These interviews have been edited and condensed.)
This City II. Featuring Shlomi Amiga, Vladimir Antaki, Bret Archangel Menezes, Cosmo Calisse, Ryan Emberley, Michael Glassman, Aneta Iwaniszczuk, Pamela Julian, Michael Libis, Mike Morris, Jordan Nahmias, Adam Reid, Scott Ross Talbot, Andy Smith. May 4 to June 3 at Coldstream Fine Art, Toronto. www.coldstreamfineart.com
The 2017 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. To May 31. Various locations, Toronto. www.scotiabankcontactphoto.com