This artist spent the year photographing an iconic Canadian discount store

Sara Heinonen's new photo book is a love letter to her neighbourhood Giant Tiger.

Sara Heinonen's new photo book is a love letter to her neighbourhood Giant Tiger

(Sara Heinonen)

She noticed the colours first. For a modest concrete box of a building, the Giant Tiger in Sara Heinonen's neighbourhood sure came alight in the late afternoon. When the sun hung just right, its yellow burst marvellously against the blue sky. She had to take a picture.

The Hamilton-based artist uses her camera to explore the ways the urban environment feels. Heinonen walks downtown (the sidewalk is the truest experience of a city, she says) with her eyes peeled for interesting confluences of colour and form. After that first golden moment, the discount retail store became a regular photo stop along her route. She returned to capture it from new angles and under different light conditions. It offered her a challenge: "How many pictures can I get before I start to repeat myself?"

Last month, after visiting routinely from summer through spring, Heinonen published a selection of the images in a photo book, titled My Year with a Giant Tiger. What began as a formal mission to investigate colour, shape and light through this seemingly mundane subject inadvertently became also a reflection of her neighbourhood coping with this most difficult year.

The Giant Tiger at 33 Cannon St. E is a well-used store, Heinonen says. Its customers make up a fair cross-section of the community: seniors, families and young professionals, neighbours of every income level, area retail and office workers. "Anyone looking for a bargain," she says. For many, it's the most convenient place to get groceries, household goods or cheap clothing.

The artist, however, doesn't picture the shoppers — not centre frame, anyhow. "When people start to populate the image," she says, "they steal the show." Her focus, rather, is the building itself. And like any artist who's spent considerable time studying their subject, she knows its features well. The Giant Tiger is most photogenic, she says, in the early morning or just before sunset (though it can be quite handsome at night, too). Its west side is its "good side" with a view of the sky unobstructed by towers and a jog in the footprint that provides some dynamic angles. Next best is its east side, which sports the marquee sign for weekly promotions. She's less fond of its "messier" southern side, covered in ads and the normal graphic business of a department store. The shop doesn't favour any particular season, which you might discern from its snowy lot, the barren trees in the backdrop, a rolling rack of garden plants or a ragtop convertible parked outside. "It is a pretty stellar building year-round," she says.

Its next-door neighbour, PartSource, is a giant red box, while the service centre across the street is perfectly green. The trio pictured together with the blue sky overhead make a startling primary palette amid the greys and browns surrounding. It is an "appealing happenstance," Heinonen says; each store developed its branding long before the three were made neighbours. She has photographed their arrangement extensively. One commenter on Instagram, where the series has developed a bit of a following, called it a traffic light: an intersection where you'll find a red, a yellow and a green.

Heinonen visited so often she learned the rhythms of the store. She would hurry over on Fridays, for example, because that's when the sales sign was updated. She tried to capture every one: "Stampede ribs $4.99," "Scary low priced candy," "Happy New Year Folgers Coffee $6.88." When "peanut butter" was too long to fit on one line, the signmaster rendered it "peanut butt" with the "er" trailing a line below. There was a certain humour in their terse, unpunctuated style. And Heinonen appreciated their subtext, the messages they communicated implicitly: "It's important to get a good deal; it's important to save money."

Partway into the project, the pandemic hit, quieting the city. On her walks — one of the few safe and permitted outdoor recreations — Heinonen found the streets mostly abandoned. But her Giant Tiger was as busy as ever. New restrictions meant a small line sometimes snaked around it. The store's mundanity was raised right to surface; it was now an essential service. Its sign no longer advertised sales, but instead communicated capacities and safety protocols. The subtext was suddenly "social responsibility" and "community health."

She returned one day to find it hadn't been updated recently. The message remained: "Letskeepeachother/safe/mask required/bylaw in effect." It paused on this for months, echoing the limbo felt by all. The sign was stuck just like the rest of us.

Then, it sprang back to life in mid-December — on the very same day, by strange coincidence, that Heinonen released her book. "Maximum 46/customers in store/mask required/bylaw in effect," read the sign.

The concurrence didn't contain any grand poetry from the universe — it was more of a discount serendipity. If there was any hidden meaning, it was that there may be a few more rules, but life, like business, continues. And so does the artist. Though the book is complete, she still visits her modest, yellow muse for the occasional photograph. One year with her Giant Tiger, and Heinonen hasn't repeated herself yet.

My Year with a Giant Tiger by Sara Heinonen is available from The City & The City Books and through the artist's website. $3 from each copy sold will be donated to St. Matthew's House in Hamilton.

(Sara Heinonen)
(Sara Heinonen)
(Sara Heinonen)


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now