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


The end of the decade has been about finding consistency and refinement rather than big projects and breakthrough ideas. I'm still trying new techniques and returning to old ones, but without the big jumps and changes from previous years. My presentation has almost completely settled in to the 16:10 ratio; camera equipment, treatments and subjects have more continuity. Yet this time period begins with a change that will reverberate for years, if not decades.

As we're coming up to the present day these photos may be familiar to even occasional visitors, but paradoxically this post has been the most challenging to write. Thanks for reading, and hopefully it's still somewhat engaging.

"Day Four."

This little girl is why the chronology of this series breaks in early 2018 instead of following the calendar. Born in May, my youngest niece has brought a number of changes to my life, with bigger ones still likely to come. While my photos of her are intended for a small audience, they're the most important ones that I take. My Capture One catalog is double her age, yet her name is my most frequent keyword – more than the next four most-used combined. We're incredibly lucky that she lives a mere five hours away. Most of her family is in Australia; I do feel an added responsibility to keep the family galleries updated to shorten the distance. I grew up without knowing my extended family – they too are in Australia, and forty years ago that was much farther away.

Having shifted my efforts from the Leslie Street Spit, in July 2018 I made my first overnight trip to the Toronto Islands. Overnight camping is prohibited, but overnight walking around is not, and it's a superb place to go. While it's not as deserted as I would like – Hanlan's and the waterways around Centre tend to be party spots – I can still go hours without seeing anyone during the early morning. As an introvert who lives in a downtown condo being able to swing my arms without hitting someone is a wonderful thing.

It's also hard to overstate how the presence of washrooms and water fountains significantly improve the overnight photography experience. Out on the Spit in the summer I'd start the walk carrying three or four kilograms of water; on the island I carry a bike bottle and that's overkill.

That first trip was intense. Over fourteen hours I never stopped – dinner happened during a couple of eight-minute exposures, and I kept taking photos until the boat touched the Toronto shore. That's a good thing, too: these sunglasses, sitting unattended on the first ferry trip of the morning, made the best photo of the night by far. It was taken with my XT2 and 16/1.4 lens, with a basic 10-stop ND filter but still shot at f/dark to stretch the exposure as long as possible.

"On his pilgrimages to places that are sacred to someone else, he takes brilliant pictures of filtered sunsets."

In the middle of August 2018 I was back at the Islands for a much better revisit – I've learned not start at Hanlan's Point. This is the skyline from Centre Island, which is a powerful camera-trap for me, shot as a sequence of long exposures over half an hour. I wish I could say that this let me get the skyline out of my system and move on to other things, but that's not the case. The city is constantly turning photos like this into historical documents; it was recorded only fifteen months ago, but new buildings have already found gaps to occupy.

And it still blows my mind that I was able to capture star trails over the city. This was almost sixty separate exposures stacked together, because I knew I'd need shorter exposures to catch the lights of the harbour traffic. That was itself made possible by my mighty Jobu Algonquin tripod, made in Toronto, that was firmly wedged among the rocks and close enough to the shore that the camera got splashed by rogue waves.

The long and elaborate title for this image is a quotation from "The Road Home" by Ethan Nichtern. I value it as a reminder that this is indeed a scared place that I am merely visiting, and that being clever should never be the point of a photograph.

Now we skip the winter and arrive in May 2019, when the weather has finally improved enough that I'm outdoors again, even if it's still too cold to stay out overnight. This is at the Spit, taken when I was walking back to the city at 9pm. That's the full moon, not the sun.

Over the winter I've picked up a Fuji XH1 and 16-55, which was an expensive way to realize how much I like the 35mm-e focal length, and I had finally taken the plunge and got a set of square NiSi filters. Having the polarizer, ten, six, and graduated neutral density filters that all work together changes things. This was recorded with the polarizer controlling a sheen on the sign, and the ND Grad to bring down the evening sky.

The filters also open up a lot of daylight long exposure options, which I used extensively on three day trips to the Islands during this same month, and several more after that, as well. They cost as much as a good lens, and they're worth it. Critically, they work across any lens that I care to put them on, and I'm coming back to emphasizing gear that's outside of the camera and lens iteration cycles. That's a significant shift, and it's the kind of thinking that had be buy a new film rangefinder back in 2010. If you're into foreshadowing then the "Jaws" theme is probably playing in your head right now.

The end of summer, traditionally marked by the Canadian National Exhibition, is finding me enjoying a certain stricture. When I take a photo I know it will be presented as a 16:10 crop, so I compose with the video frame guides enabled to let me visualize the composition. That ratio works well for screens and makes nice 40x25cm prints, so I never need anything else. Another self-imposed restriction is that I will no longer feature an identifiable person whose name I don't know, and since I'm not about to ask complete strangers what their names are, that tells me how I'm going to handle a crowd scene at the Ex. Fortunately I really enjoy the unpredictability of long exposures.

I like rules. I like having restrictions. My three main series from 2012-2014 – Handrail, Horizon, Mechanism – were entirely about setting very specific restrictions and then seeing what happened within them. Long exposures also give me a desirable level of controlled unpredictability. I can point the camera and choose when to trip the shutter, but the next few seconds or minutes are out of my control. Perhaps a Luber driver will park in my composition; perhaps the wind will pick up and there will be just the right gap in the crowd. I still curate and adjust the results, so authorship remains mine, but it's a chance to let go of my ego and expectations in the process.

"Train 647", September 2019.

While I do still take regular photos, I've become so accustomed to long exposures that I even use them when I don't really have to – although I do think this ten-second exposure at a train station outside of Ottawa does add something to the sky. I'm waiting to go home after a weekend with my kid, and thought that this boring, nothing moment was interesting and worth recording. I still find the photo captivating for no explicable reason. But perhaps I was just trying to entertain myself with the camera as a distraction from being alone with myself in a boring moment. As Chögyam Trungpa said, the desire to not have expectations only becomes another form of expectation.

Somehow, quite without noticing how it happened, I have become a tripod person. Only the first and last photos in this nine-image post were taken handheld. My light tripod that I once carried to New York City is still leaning up against my desk as I type this, but only accounts for one of these images. Having moved to the heaviest Fuji cameras and lenses means that I'm back to using a heavy tripod most of the time. But history does indeed rhyme even if it doesn't quite repeat: using bigger cameras opened a role for a smaller machine again, just like it did five years ago. This photo was taken with a Fuji X-T30 and 23/2 lens, with an ø43 8-stop screw-in ND filter, on a tiny Gitzo tabletop tripod. That lens, filter, and tripod were all used for the previous "Candyland" photo as well.

What can I say? I like consistency.

Duration 73

"Duration, number 73", October 2019.

The good news is that, for those with even passing acquaintance with this blog, this is finally an image that hasn't been seen before. The bad news is that there's almost a dozen very similar photos in the project, which I genuinely like. You can't say you weren't warned.

"Duration" is a simple series that brings me back to a couple of things I've touched on before. It's a major project, although not quite as intensive as my earlier trilogy. It's peak white-on-white, which I've had an unhealthy fascination with for years. And it's an attempt for a more meditative, unmediated experience of a common object. This photo, and the entire project, are not high-concept abstracts: they're exactly-as-they-appear photos of plain white plastic bags, taken on Ilford Delta and FP4 film with an SLR that's almost as old as I am.

The project title may be a comment on how long plastic bags last in the environment, or how briefly we use them. Or it may just be my asking that you spend some time looking at them, and their photos, because they can't be seen quickly.

"Moncton to Toronto in Two and a Half Hours". Toronto Pearson Airport, November 2019.

And to end we have a photo that links past to future. It's recorded with the same Zeiss Ikon rangefinder and ZM 35/2 lens that opened the series back in 2010, and it's even a photo of the same type of plane that I took to and from New York City in order to record it. Fairly straightforward, both in technique and content, it’s one of the directions that I want to go in for the next few years.

When I bought that film camera I was trying to spend some time away from the digital upgrade cycle. That didn’t really stick, as the tech changes back then were too big and too tempting, so I’ve probably owned over two dozen digital cameras during the decade. But now I’m wanting to step away again, and I’ve already let go of chasing high-end digital by standardizing on the midrange Fuji X-system. It’s enough for what I do. So taking photos like this is a part of finding out if film can also be a viable alternative for me, and possibly even my long-term photographic home.

In the coming years I might, just maybe, give up the hobby of cameras and take up photography.

Or I might tremendously regret writing those words. Only time will tell.