Full Frontal T.O., a new collection of the photography of Patrick Cummins, reveals hidden tales of the naked city.
The CONTACT Photography Festival runs from May 1 to May 31. We’ll be profiling selected artists and shows throughout the month.
Over time, a city undergoes changes that are almost imperceptible: an updated door, a new porch or fence, or a business that’s here one day and gone the next. Toronto’s constant evolution is the subject of the Patrick Cummins photos assembled in Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto’s Architectural Vernacular, a new book from Coach House, and a photo exhibition this month as part of CONTACT. With assistance from the insightful writing of Shawn Micallef—an editor and co-owner of the magazine Spacing—Cummins casts the urban landscape of the streets we walk every day in an entirely new light.
The method is deceptively simple: Cummins uses photos of the same buildings, taken years apart, to showcase the ways in which architectural layers are added to existing structures and then, in some cases, peeled away again. Quoting architect Brigitte Shim in the introduction, Micallef speaks of Toronto being built “with sticks.” Which is to say, the city is functional, but still malleable enough to adapt to economic fluctuations and the fancies of its owners. In a sense, the book is about people, though their rare appearances in its photos are accidental. They make their presence known by what they do to the city’s streetscape.
The photos are intentionally static and redundant. They achieve a contrast of styles that should satisfy any photo connoisseur, while still appealing to the uninitiated on a superficial level reminiscent of the “spot the difference” photos that sometimes appear in the back pages of newspapers. As noted by Micallef, there is little rhyme or reason to the order of the layout, a decision that lends itself to accessibility. One could easily find the book on a friend’s coffee table, open to any page, and discover something worth looking at. (Or, you could just look at the 23,000 photographs that Cummins currently has on Flickr.)
There are images of houses, and sometimes even entire blocks, that capture the cyclical lifespan of a home or neighborhood. The same vibrant gothic cottage that looked to be someone’s happy abode in one photo is a decrepit, boarded-up eyesore ten years later. Then, a few years later, likely owing to a resurgence in the surrounding area (read: condo developments), the boards have been taken down, and a subtle appearance of domesticity has been restored. The reality is even more jarring when it comes to commercial spaces. Businesses come and go with the passing of time, and if they are not closing up shop, there are always superficial updates, or even dramatic renovations.
While the photos could very well stand on their own, Micallef’s prose helps to point out the minutiae that a reader might miss at first glance. Often, his insights will highlight the significance of a change on display or, at the very least, provide an amusing digression on, for example, how the growth of a tree in the front yard over a decade makes it appear that it has devoured a house.
The title is an apt one for the work. While tourists will be sure to take in sights like the CN Tower that remain forever unchanged, the Toronto examined here is one more honest and representative of the city’s true nature. Sure, it may not always be pretty, but the book effectively captures the changing tides that are endemic to this place.
Photos by Patrick Cummins, and courtesy of Coach House Books.