In 1856, a series of twenty-five photographs taken from the rooftop of the Rossin House Hotel on King Street West provided a panoramic view of Toronto in its infancy. In a way, recent photographs taken from tower cranes at a number of construction sites in the downtown core (and a few in Mississauga) over a year’s time by urban explorer, HI-LITE, are direct descendents of those earlier Armstrong, Beere & Hime photographs. From albumen prints to the digital age, HI-LITE’s exploits provide a bird’s-eye view few get to observe.
When Torontoist caught up with HI-LITE—who asked that his real name not be used—on terra firma, he compared walking the horizontal jib of a crane, hundreds of feet above the sidewalk, to the experience of scaling the riggings of a nineteenth-century sailing ship.
The comparison, which redefines the legend of the Flying Dutchman, is apropos.
As it is on the high seas, perched on a tower crane, wind is a constant. The entire crane actually sways to and fro. Winter or summer, the air is always chilled. Replacing the scent of salted sea air is the smell of the industrial lubricants used to maintain the crane’s slewing unit.
At night, the crow’s-nest view from the operator’s cab is a treasure trove of glinting city lights. The daytime view is concrete, glass, sunlight, and blue horizons as far as the eye can see.
Considering the heights HI-LITE has to climb, this sky pirate carries as little as possible. Two cameras (one digital, the other a 35mm), a change of lens, a tripod, and not much else. Spending a maximum of thirty minutes atop a crane, HI-LITE will periodically bring along a safety harness.
During the development stage in the darkroom, a few 35mm negatives became contaminated with lint. This explains the eerie, mock bioluminescence of the twilight skies in some photographs.
HI-LITE prefers to keep his crane forays low-key. On a couple of occasions, however, he has been spotted by condo dwellers. Oftentimes nothing more than friendly waves (Ahoy there!) are exchanged. As for traffic concerns, at this height they consist mainly of low-flying airplanes and police helicopters fitted with thermal imaging capability. Through a fish-eye lens, the hooked contrails of a jet plane scar the sky.
While HI-LITE is planning future infiltrations, these breathtaking panoramic photographs offer Toronto a rare view of its growing self. Photos by HI-LITE.