Friday 11 February 2022

City People: The Joys & Ambiguities of Urban Photography

 February 2022 Blog


Urban photography is my favourite form of photography. As I’ve often said, photographic heaven for me is the corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets in downtown Toronto, one of the busiest, most diverse, and most vibrant intersections in Canada. I can spend hours there with my camera and easily record hundreds of photos in a session. Which is what I’ve been doing for seven years now (alas, less frequently in the last two years). 


During that time, I have never, I repeat NEVER, been challenged or growled at by anyone. Sometimes, I may get a scowl or a raised eyebrow, but nothing beyond that. Mostly, I am completely ignored. After all, what threat can this elderly photographer pose to the public good? I suppose I could get sanctimonious about being marginalized and stereotyped, but I don’t. Being rendered invisible is a gift for urban photographers. Invisibility lets me get away with so much, and not just in my photography. One of the joys of retirement has been realizing just how much mischief I can get away with. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone. Keep it a secret just between us.)


And because I am invisible, I can record the most remarkable faces without self-conscious posing. And if someone does look directly at me at the instant I release the shutter, I am often rewarded with an image that is especially nuanced and engaging. 


Mind you, when I photograph in an urban location, I do keep my urban smarts on high alert. Living in Toronto for thirty years equipped me with a full set of urban survival skills. Also, I am not reckless about my photography. Early on, I learned the value of lowering my camera right after recording a photo, while simultaneously turning away. I avoid eye contact with my subjects. 


I also avoid photographing the vulnerable and those who are clearly struggling. And I never single out a child for photography, beautiful though the photograph might have been. 


I don’t talk to the people I photograph; I don’t ask their permission; and I don’t have them sign a waiver. They are as anonymous to me as I am to them. 


The title of this blog post refers to both the joys and ambiguities of urban photography. The joys for me are self-evident – I am blessed with portraits of hundreds of beautiful, fabulous human beings. When I look at these faces afterwards on my computer monitor, I am often moved to tears. Such gifts they are in my life. 


But I know that there are also ambiguities. I am an uninvited guest in the lives of these people. Here I am, inserting myself and my camera into their personal space without their consent. Not all photographers agree with my approach. Canadian law, however, is on my side: as long as I am on public property, I am allowed to photograph what I wish. If it’s a privately owned location where the public is welcomed (a shopping centre, for instance), I can also photograph what I wish unless there are signs (or security guards) telling me not to. (The situation in Qu├ębec is more restrictive, where people in public have the right to the privacy of their own image.) 


I acknowledge that there is a range of informed opinion about photographing people in public without their consent. Whenever I am doing such photography, I am prepared to respond to those who might object to my photographing them by a) engaging in a respectful conversation; and b) offering to delete the photos in question. And I always carry a supply of my business cards to hand out as needed. So far, I have handed out very few.


At the moment, I am assembling a collection of urban portraits from the last seven years. I hope to arrange a future exhibit of the best photos under the title of “City People”. No details, dates, format, or venue are in place. At this point, I just like playing with the idea!


I hope you enjoy this selection of twenty-five urban photographs that follows.


Some things to bear in mind:


•       All the photos were recorded in Toronto, a city I adore.

•       I love every one of the photos and thank the subjects for the joy they bring into my life.

•       I do not know any of these people.

•       If any of them see their photo online and wish to have it deleted, I will do so immediately.


Until next month’s blog post, I wish you good health and happiness.