Between July 2003 and January 2006, photographer Geoffrey James took his panoramic camera across our city, taking shots of areas as diverse as High Park, Dundas Square, Kensington Market, Regent Park, and Liberty Village. Those photographs are collected in his newly-released book, Toronto, and the shots tell a story of a city in flux, both confident in its history and insecure about where it’s headed. Besides photographs, Toronto also features an expansive introduction by Mark Kingwell and a surprisingly entertaining Notes section (no, really).
Torontoist spoke with James about the city he now calls home, the problems and ugliness that come with a growing industrial metropolis, and why Lethbridge, Alberta, is the easiest city he’s ever photographed.
You were born in Wales, and have spent lots of time in other cities. Do you consider Toronto your home? How is it different?
Toronto is my home. It’s not like any other city I have photographed. It’s kind of like a “jolie laide” – a pretty, ugly woman. The hardest place I ever photographed was Paris. The easiest was Lethbridge.
Lethbridge was easy to the extent that within 20 minutes you could move from one end of town to the other, or down into the coulees of the Oldman river; the light is beautiful, and the structure of the place is so transparent. It’s like Toronto in that it has effaced much of its own history.
Few of your photos have people in them, and if they’re there, they never play a prominent role in the shot – even if the shot is in a residential area where you might expect people to be. Did you go out of your way (waiting at the location, planning less busy times to visit, and so on) to make sure that people weren’t in the shot, or did it just so happen that you visited at less busy times?
Street photography – the attempt to find meaning in the passing scene – is not something I was trying to do. I would have to have taken ten times as many as the several thousand I did take to get the pictures I wanted. It just so happened that when I exposed the film, there were rarely people in the scene. It’s what I tend to do — getting an unpeopled Paris was a lot harder. Although there are people aplenty in Dundas Square or the dog-walking zone of High Park or Kensington Market. I am interested in the notion of “making strange.” It gets people to look at their city.
A lot of the shots also feature development – cranes, building developments, rubble, signs for future building developments – but this seems almost like an unavoidable fact of the city right now, that it’s constantly under construction. One of them in particular struck me: it’s a shot of Philosopher’s Walk from the Bloor St. entrance, and the ROM in the background is about half of the mess of tangled frames than it is now, and even at its former size it’s still quite obtrusive. Did you look for these kind of shots of development, or were they an unavoidable fact of the city as it is now?
One of the things I was interested in is that Toronto is at a particular moment with the absolute disappearance of the light industrial city of the early 20th century. The factories are all becoming lofts. This is something I find greatly interesting. Conventionally “beautiful” subject matter is of no interest to me.
What was so captivating about Liberty Village to you? You have twice as many shots from that specific area than from others.
Liberty Village – and the the development of the railway lands – seems to me emblematic of what is wrong with the development of downtown. Ken Greenberg’s comments on this [that the “unsettling” development is “graceless and limited and suburban”] mirror my own thoughts.
Because the shots are all black and white, the seasons are almost unnoticeable in any of the photographs – except for those taken in the winter. For many locations, you also have some shots taken in the summer and others in the winter. How did you find that the winter changes the city, particularly the places you were looking at?
Toronto can be pretty charmless with leftover patches of snow, and crap everywhere on the streets. I photographed in all seasons, though less in the summer, when the light is harsh, and when it is too hot, since my union, of which I am president, forbids me to work.
Why did you choose to stay mostly within Toronto proper? The suburbs of Toronto are unrepresented in the photos, and there aren’t very many shots of the northern, western, or eastern halves of the city.
I realise I am not an equal opportunity photographer. I quickly came to the conclusion I could not do everything. There are no rich areas, and very little north of St. Clair. The suburbs are another subject I have been exploring separately.
How do you know when you get to a location that it’d make a particularly good ultra-wide shot? Some of these locations are unobvious candidates for one.
I happen to be using a scanning camera with an angle of 146 degrees for this book. One thing I have learned from using panoramic cameras for almost 30 years is that they are not very good at panoramas. They are very good in cramped or complex spaces. I have also used 8 x 10 view cameras, though this seems an increasingly cumbersome, lumbering process.
Why Mark Kingwell?
Because I admire his writing and his mind, and he has done a lot of thinking about cities, and about Toronto.
The Notes section is great too – many of the shots become even more powerful when they’re given some context (the photos of the Bain Housing Co-Op, for instance, are beautiful, and they’re enhanced by Jon Harstone’s explanation of the history behind it – Toronto’s first experiment with social housing). When you were shooting the photos, did you plan to have the notes, or were the photos originally going to stand by themselves?
Making a book like this is a bit like making a film, and as you go along you are aware of every picture you have made. The sequencing of the book is important – the segueing from the Bain Co-op to Regent park for instance, or the juxtaposition of two public works, like the entrance to Union Station and the Metro Hall. I hope that the photographs stand on their own – they are presented without even captions. The notes at the end of the book, which is something I organised and had in mind, allow, I hope, for a richer experience. It’s not just about pretty pictures.
Where are you taking your panoramic camera next?
I am always working on different projects – on a wonderful homestead garden on the prairies, on trees everywhere, and on the Queen Charlotte Islands. I am also exploring the possibilities of the square format. Busy, busy.
Geoffrey James’s Toronto is available in bookstores now, and an exhibit of his photographs continues at Ballenford Books (600 Marham Street) until November 30th.