The Decade: 2016-2018 - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Part Three of a four-part series revisiting my favourite photos from 2010-2019.


The second half of the decade is finding moderation and new interests. There's no correlation between peak image quality and how much I like an image; I'm giving up the big equipment in favour of a goldilocks system.

My approach is also starting a fundamental shift. By this time I've met Stephen, who has introduced me to Miksang: a form of photography that's practiced as a way of connecting to the world, instead of making a camera into the sword or shield that I've held before. What started as a seeing exercise leads me to the westernized Tibetan Buddhism that it's based on, and I've been studying both ever since – sometimes intensively, sometimes less so. But there's no question that my photography, and my approach to life, are shifting.

September 2016: "In Search of Incredible".

I needed a new hard drive – an evergreen situation if there ever was one – so I was walking through the local Best Before to see what they had. I saw this scene up ahead, took out my Ricoh GRDiv, shot one frame without looking, and put the camera back in my pocket. That camera, with its circa-2010 CCD sensor, is my favourite digital for black and white. This photo is almost exactly as it came out of the camera; I've tried straightening it, but it's weaker.

Titles increasingly matter to me – a photo isn't complete until I know what it's called, and that's never arbitrary. Ideally it comes from the photo itself; with a magnifying glass you'll find this one printed on a box that's above and to the left of the man's head.

And isn't that always the way? We're searching for something incredible, but we're at a big-box electronics store with a hundred copies of the same product distracting us from the emptiness of its shelves.

"Line"

Two months later and here's another photo from the Ricoh GR Digital IV – despite owning the "good" one, I keep coming back to the older model, and the GRDiv is still sitting on my desk long after the 1.5-crop GR model has been sold off.

This shot links back to my early Handrail series, being taken with a moving camera on TTC property. It foreshadows my fascination with mostly-white photos, which we get to in a bit, and my interest in dharma art, which comes up again at the very end of the series. I printed this full-bleed on 17x22" paper for the critique group, where it helped further establish my photography as somewhat odd and possibly carrying deeper meanings of some sort. I'm not sure what that would be. One of my friends there later said that I'm "pushing the boundaries of what we think of as good photography", which I've proudly included in my Twitter bio.

Oh, and the photo is of the fluorescent lights flashing by in a subway tunnel. I inverted it to black-on-white and oomphed the contrast, but otherwise it's pretty much unchanged.

Everything in this photo is gone. The streetcars have been replaced, Honest Ed's is a condo construction site, and the businesses that we can see on the right have changed. The only thing that's the same is the Pizza Pizza where Bill and I had lunch that one time. That was a good day.

This photo was taken in November 2016, just three years ago. It's done with a Ricoh Theta camera that sees in a complete sphere, and cropped for printing. (We'll see a different interpretation of its output in a moment.) The Theta's image quality is really not very good, but I doubt my bigger cameras could have done a better job at capturing the city as it was. And that's what I wanted it for – I spent some time finding quirky or characteristic scenes to put on Google Maps, where my 255 pseudonymous images have accumulated over nine million views. This photo has been seen there seventeen thousand times; a couple of my photos have over half a million views each. But it's impossible to predict which ones would break through, making it a fun game to play for a bit.

"She Believes in Light."

This Theta photo, taken at the Women's March in January 2017, was not approved for use on Google Maps. Pity. Here we're standing in the intersection of University and Dundas, with the American consulate visible on the right edge of the photo.

The protester's sign reads "I can be feminine in all my rage. I can be a girl & woman & claws with teeth. Watch me burn." Seeking a title, I eventually noticed the quotation marks and went looking for the source. It's from a poem titled "Sekhmet, Not Pin-Up Girl" by Venetta Octavia. Her bio says "she believes in light, and thinks you should, too."

I learn a lot from photography, and occasionally I even buy poetry collections because of it.

April 2017: "Best Photo Ever".

It had been a couple of years since my last trip to New York, and I missed doing the distance. As a replacement I tried doing several trips to Niagara Falls, and for my first excursion I decided that I'd take the best tourist photo of the Falls in history. The hope was that I'd get the obvious camera-traps out of my system and maybe get a decent photo out of the effort; neither was completely successful but I did have fun. This was taken with my new Fuji X100F, which was thoroughly soaked by the time I was ready to leave the lower observation deck. Waterproof, shmarterproof. It was fine.

I made two more trips to Niagara Falls, but the full breadth of the project that I had envisioned never happened. Instead of exploring different facets of the town I just went to photograph butterflies at the conservatory, with the occasional hotel sign snagged along the way as well. Both of these things are subjects I've learned to appreciate, and I'm trying to use a camera to broaden my interests.

"I, For One, Welcome Our New Concrete Monolith Overlords." May 2017, just a smidge before midnight.

The one rule that I set for myself with this blog is that I would never start a post with the word "i". The original post for this photo is the only time I've ever broken it, and it was worth it.

In early 2017 I had two different problems. First, going to Niagara Falls wasn't quite absurd enough to replace my overnight day trips to foreign cities, which themselves had become too rote to require any interesting planning. Problem number two was that by the time I managed to get out to the Leslie Street Spit, where this was taken, I'd only have a few hours of daylight left. Eventually I realized that these problems had the same solution, and started packing my kit and staying out for the entire night. Spending fourteen hours in an overnight photography outing combines the measured intensity of the marathon sprint, the planning and orchestration of a weekend away, and the sleep deprivation of a night on a bus. All without the hazards of increasingly whimsical border crossings. Perfect.

This was taken with my Fuji X100F, which is a darling little camera that's light and has almost no shutter shock, making it perfect for the light tripod of NYC2 fame. I walked the Spit with it a couple of times, discovering new and interesting things. Conversely, spending one night there with my D800 and heavy tripod was such an unpleasant experience that I divested them both.

But the Spit is a moderately unwelcoming and hazardous environment. Later I'd switch to a different location, but the pattern was set and it gave me something to plan for and anticipate, which is so much of the fun.

"Quiet." March 2018, Fujifilm X-T2 with 80mm macro lens.

We had just repainted our living room: pure white. I bought white daisies, my favourite flowers, specifically for the photos. This is a colour image – there's just a hint of yellow on one of the petals. I took other photos, still wanting to work in series, but for me this single one is sublime.

I'm entranced by white-on-white. I printed this for the Focal Forum, and it's so high-key that it took a few seconds to be able to see it. Our eyes had to adjust. But after a few minutes in the light box, making out every detail and tone seemed completely natural, and it was hard to remember what the original adjustment was like. I completely understand if I'm alone in liking it, but this is probably my favourite photo of all of the non-family ones that I've ever taken.

And more on that little qualifier in the final installment of this series.