Handrail: Photos - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Please Hold Handrail has the distinction of being a work-in-progress for longer than any other project I've completed. The first photos were taken on a lark four years ago; I had an Olympus XA in my pocket and wanted to see what it would look like if I held the camera on the handrail of the escalator I was riding. This became something of an ongoing game for me, and I would do it for almost any escalator, and with almost any camera. But the core photos were always from the subway's escalators, as that first one was, and I made several trips throughout the system specifically to record them.

Five different cameras account for the photos in this project. The Olympus XA handled most of the film, although the opening image (above) from Queen station was taken with a Fujifilm 645zi; my long-gone Canon S100 also contributes a single image, besting the D800 which had all of its submissions cut from the final project. But the bulk of the images come from my Ricoh GR and Sigma DP2 Merrill as I did one final excursion to complete the work.

Some of the photos are relatively straightforward, while most have been modified beyond basic corrections. Some of the negatives were intentionally scratched before scanning (as below), and many of the too-clean digital shots have been adjusted to match the character of the film photos. At least one photo is probably a toned black and white, but I couldn't say which without checking.

Please Hold Handrail, as a project, probably isn't that significant on its own merits. That's fine – not every body of work needs to be an enduring opus. What makes Handrail important is that it's where I found two keys to making my favourite work.

The first is specifically incorporating time into the creation of the photos. That started here, and my favourite projects have all involved the passage of time and movement in their creation. Horizon, the series which is essentially Handrail done right, was daylight long exposures of a moving landscape, often also incorporating lens movement that was a direct riff on Handrail. Mechanism has images that were drawn on a scanner bed by moving objects as the scan progressed. Even Lakefill, although intentionally very static, is about the passage of time and the effect of movement on objects.

Horizon and Mechanism were also the results of the conceptual method that I figured out with Please Hold Handrail: to create a structure and then allow chance the opportunity to happen within it. My best results often happen when I understand what I want to create but relax my grip on the process. It seems fitting that I had a cat named Serendipity when I was growing up. She was a great cat.

My framework for Handrail was that the photos would all be long exposures on TTC escalators, taken with wide-normal lenses, with the camera facing directly across to the adjacent wall. But that leaves so much open to happy accidents: how the camera moves, what colours it records, how advertising and design elements interplay, changes in lighting from beginning to end of the exposure – all of this was fundamental but uncontrolled. This resulted in a lot of spoiled shots, which were not quick to take, though the end results were enough.

But as I mentioned earlier, this long and lingering project was only finished after an intense final push to get it done. What drove that sudden effort was that I have recently accepted that the humble and often-denigrated slideshow may be my favourite form of finished work, and that Handrail would be perfect for the medium. And of course that means needing audio – which is where most of my efforts have been recently. I’ll have more to say on that elsewhere.


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