Photographer Peter MacCallum on Toronto architecture's excitement, 'rough edges'

New collection of black and white photos shows workplaces of 'culture industries'



Toronto is still working on shedding its reputation as a tightly buttoned, staid city. Although music, strong food culture, and ethnic diversity lend to its character,  it has a ways to go before it can compete with Montreal for the title of Canada's fun city. But one photographer's work shows a side of Toronto that he would argue is even more exciting than that global capital of good times, Paris.

In his new photobook, Peter MacCallum Documentary Projects 2005-2015, Canadian photographer Peter MacCallum juxtaposes the uniform look of Paris' aged boulevards with the still-evolving identity of downtown Toronto streets. His collection  comprising a decade's worth of black-and-white photos features several notable streetscapes and cultural institutions, including the formerly happening downtown stretch of Yonge St.

Its buildings show "that Toronto is still a very young city that has not had its architectural rough edges smoothed over." Toronto, he says, has possibilities.

The Toronto-born photographer started shooting in 1968 after finding inspiration in the classic book The World of Henri Cartier Bresson, by the photographer whose iconic shots helped define the Parisian aesthetic. "I still have that book in my collection," he says. He's mostly self-taught, but he developed his technical skills during a year-long apprenticeship at an old-fashioned commercial photography studio. There, he learned large format photography, a medium that has been described as a "contemplative" or analytical way of capturing a subject thanks to its relatively slow exposure time.

During the 1970s and '80s, he began photographing local artists and galleries in the downtown core. It was around that time, in 1984, when he was commissioned  to capture Toronto's Spadina Avenue for a photo-historical exhibit, that he developed his interest in "architectural interiors and streetscapes."  This inspired him to explore store interiors and document the surviving small garment shops on lower Spadina, which have since vanished.We can see the influence of this earlier experience in his latest photos of Massey Hall, Theatre Passe Muraille and downtown guitar stores like Paul's Boutique.  He says these photos "all came from the idea of showing typical workplaces belonging to our so-called 'culture industries,'" much like the "artisanal garment factories" from his Spadina Ave. projects.

Walking down Yonge St. with fresh eyes after a four-month residency in Paris, MacCallum noticed that "major streetscapes are composed of separate elements that compete for attention." Compared to the French capital, where streets "are monolithic, composed almost entirely of limestone,"  Toronto is chaotic. "One energetic aspect of Toronto's commercial architecture is the use of a wide variety of materials," he adds, whereas in Paris "the buildings all tend to tell the same story."

For all the attention MacCallum pays to the architectural aspects of the settings he shoots, they aren't his sole focus. "When photographing buildings, I am as much interested in what the subject resembles or evokes as I am in its superficial architectural qualities."

Peter MacCallum Documentary Projects 2005-2015, by Peter MacCallum. Goose Lane Editions, 208 pages, $45.

Constructed With Light: The One Spadina Project, with photos by Peter MacCallum, opens Tue, Feb. 9. Larry Wayne Richards Gallery, Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, University of Toronto. 230 College, Toronto. To April 6, 2016. Opening reception Feb. 9, 6pm.

CBC Arts wants to hear your feedback

More On This Story

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.