As a writer and photographer I travel between my life in Toronto, my life in Antigua, and anywhere else my wanderings may take me ... writing my books and enjoying local arts and adventures along the way.

Toronto’s Quiet Flair for the Extraordinary Statement

Photographing the City with Michael Beckley

I’ve been looking forward to today. I’ve been in Antigua and Barbuda for much of the summer writing my book. After returning to Toronto to bring my kids home, I expected to be busy before I could return to Antigua to continue my book about Antiguan artists. But I didn’t expect quite so many things to require my attention. Computers needing to be sent in for repairs, proofs of books needing to be inspected, passport needing to be renewed, work of various developers and graphic artists to inspect, functions to attend and a whirlwind of other little things which together created a vacuum that sucked away all the oxygen from around me. I’ve had no air to breathe freely. But this afternoon I had planned the short break of meeting up with fellow photographer Michael Beckley to compare notes on one of the things we love to do best … and that is shooting anything that catches our eye just for the hell of it.

I was happy as well that Michael consented to me writing a blog post about him. I’ve fallen behind in my posting and this was a welcome opportunity to strike a blow against the growing absence of posts in my blog. We ordered beer and a plate of succulent breaded and fried calamari. In spite of usually making a point of eating in a fairly health conscious way I relished the oil and salt I could taste in them. I revelled in this simple pleasure while enjoying hearing Michael tell me about his approach to photography.

“A good photographer makes the event” he said. “A year can go into planning something that goes down in six hours. After those six hours is up all they have to remember the event by are your photographs. I’ve been to some awful events, but I’ve taken some great pictures.”

Michael and I have never reviewed each other’s photography, but we do often talk shop. Often in the past when speaking to Michael he has mentioned an upcoming wedding, bar mitzvah, or bat mitzvah shoot. Listening to Michael speak I could see there seemed to be a genuine fascination with such formal events and his role in them as a photographer. Where some photographers are compelled to capture people during gritty and often difficult moments, Michael smiled when he talked about the magic of “catching people at their best”. A groom in a well tailored suit, a bride in elegant wedding dress, and perhaps even a celebrity with an entourage … all of the subjects and situations calling for soft even lighting to create a pleasing public profile. No brooding shadows to point to private demons. I imagine the majority of brides everywhere would object to demons of any kind in their wedding pictures.

He described himself as a little bit of a control freak. “You don’t need to be in a studio to control lighting” he said. “You can use available lighting to create interest. The entire mood of a room can be changed by opening the blinds” he continued. In addition there was his ever present flash. I admire anyone with enough of a knack for making use of a flash to fill in shadows left by ambient lighting that they can  avoid lugging around heavy lighting equipment to deal with shadows that are unacceptable in any form within the corporate headshots, and formal events he so often shoots.

Mike was quick to point out that he didn’t see this type of photography as confining. With his high energy style he seemed to thrive on the intensity and challenge of it. In fact, where other photographers sometimes felt put upon, he confessed to feeling charged up when given lists of people to photograph at events or weddings. “I don’t look at it as being confining. If you’re given a list then put your own spin on it” he told me.

For Michael part of that spin happens on the computer. “I find myself becoming more of a digital artist” he said. “A lot of people bring in their photos for me to work on. With the amount of post-production these days it’s even becoming hard to forget a face. You stare at an image long enough and it etches itself into your brain”. In a city that is rapidly growing to the point of making its citizens anonymous, the fact that he remembers so many faces seems to make the city smaller for Michael. “I’ve been to over 400 weddings, 300 bar or bat mitzvahs, and countless events. I can’t make it a couple days in Toronto without seeing someone I recognize”. This is of course in addition to seeing his regular acquaintances and collegues.

But smaller things rather than larger more high profile events seem to be catching Michael’s heart right now. “I’m passionate about photographing insects” he confessed. “After years of shooting people and dictating how someone looks and presents themselves … you throw that out the window. You’re at the mercy of something that can’t be controlled. This is a change for Michael who appears to have gotten his start being trained at a very young age through working with photographers who in his words espoused the view “if you’re a good photographer you dictate the way everything looks”. He still holds that view today. For someone who holds on to the perception of control so tightly, the pursuit of such uncontrollable creatures is indeed an act of seeing with unfamiliar eyes.

Back to our shooting today. It wasn’t yet dusk. We finished our beers and set off to take pictures. After speaking to Michael I had no idea what he would shoot.

The yard is an eerily forbidding place at night.

The yard is an eerily forbidding place at night.

Toronto is a city of diversity with a lot of artists. People express their artistic perspectives in all the polite Canadian ways that are reflective of the many cultural and ethnic backgrounds that make up Canada. I was curious to see what Mike’s artistic inclinations would be. Michael mainly photographed people and things. Almost invariably I photographed Michael while he was in the act of doing so.

Not quite from cover. More accurately steadying the camera from a vantage point.

Not quite from cover. More accurately steadying the camera from a vantage point.

With the photos he took as well as with the reactions he generated, he was a study of calm and patience. One man asked to pose for Michael to take a picture of him. After taking his picture Michael listened attentively and sympathetically while the man described his plight. The man explained that he was the only one of a particular tribal nation in a city where he said all the other native peoples were different. He was in effect an Indian who had lost his tribe. When Michael shook the man’s hand I could see the man felt better for having talked to Michael.

Mike is always easy going. People seem to find opening  up to him very easy.

Mike is always easy going. People seem to find opening up to him very easy.

Another older man saw Michael with the imposing looking camera gear and told Michael that his camera gear must be old because it was so big. Neither of us explained that all professional photography gear tends to be sturdily constructed so as to hold up to heavy use. The man said he had old camera equipment and film as well and whether Michael could help him to sell it. Michael stopped to tell him how. Later Michael was photographing a large dog that looked back at him from the open window of a parked truck. Despite Michael’s attempts to get the dog to look towards him the dog’s eyes wandered with a vacantly peaceful expression until it suddenly began snarling and spitting savagely at a passing dog. The window was more than wide enough for the dog to jump through. It was so agitated that it nearly did despite it’s best efforts to stay in the car. Michael waited calmly. When the other dog passed Michael got his shot.

The last time I had such a great time photographing with someone was during Antigua’s carnival with photographer Linden Joseph. Michael doesn’t have a website and relies on word of mouth referrals as well as associations with studios. For weddings and events Michael can be contacted at: michaelbeckley@hotmail.com.

Other Sites in the City

After parting ways with Michael for the evening I began to walk. I wasn’t driving today so I was walking to take public transit. Due to heavy construction streetcars weren’t running their usual routes along the street I was walking on … which was Queen St. West. Therefore was no public transit to catch on this street. I was walking in the general direction of the subway system, but I was walking with no particular plan in mind of how I would get there. I assumed it was too far to walk.

A Toronto street artist literally draws on the street in chalk. The chalk washes away with the rain.

A Toronto street artist literally draws on the street in chalk. The chalk washes away with the rain.

BMX Stunt Bikers

I happened upon a group of street stunt bikers. They were sizing up an ambitious jump for another day. None of them seemed to have the gumption to do it today though. They had, they told me, just finished putting … to recreational use and all their gumption to try such stunts had gone up in smoke. But one guy named Spencer, who his friend said was one of the best stunt riders in the city, consented to do simple a few simple tricks. I was glad the tricks were simple because I wasn’t looking to catch any live action of bone fractures popping through flesh in order to post the video on Youtube. I admit to not seeing well at nights. He caught way more air than I anticipated and I cut his head off in many of the shots that did his aerial skills justice.

Referring to the beers Mike and I had earlier I could as the song says "blame it on the alchohol". Or perhaps he jumped the bike too high and was moving too fast in a park that was way too dark for me to have caught good shots of those aerial maneuvers.

Referring to the beers Mike and I had earlier I could as the song says "blame it on the alchohol". Or perhaps he jumped the bike too high and was moving too fast in a park that was way too dark for me to have caught good shots of those aerial maneuvers.

The “Fly with the Cage” Exhibit in Support of Political Freedom in Iran

Next I happened upon an art exhibition called “Fly with the Cage”. I spoke to Peyman Soheili who was one of the organizers. He said that the name of the exhibition was a reference to a Sufi proverb “if you can’t fly out of the cage, then fly with the cage”. It was an exhibition, he told me, in support of the recent green movement in Iran. “People in Iran are demonstrating for human rights against a brutal government that imprisons them”.

The show wasn’t limited to Iranian artists. “We are inviting all artists around the world to let their voices be heard”. The show is in its second year. So far it has included a four day show at the Lennox Gallery, a well known Toronto gallery. One hundred and twenty different artists took part of that larger show. Now they have moved on to continue the exhibition for another month at a smaller gallery. Until September 6 seventy selected artists associated with the exhibition are showing their work at this gallery. Somewhat like my book (with the exception of music) the art included is comprised of visual art, literature, and music. A large number of artists in Iran are on strike he says, so the exhibition here is done in solidarity with those artists.

Peyman Soheili (in the beret), one of the organizers of the Fly with the Cage exhibit chats with a visitor.

Peyman Soheili (in the beret), one of the organizers of the Fly with the Cage exhibit chats with a visitor.

Fly with the Cage Exhibit to raise awareness in support of the Green Movement for political freedom in Iran.

Fly with the Cage Exhibit to raise awareness in support of the Green Movement for political freedom in Iran.

Young Couple

I caught this young couple gazing contentedly out towards the street from one of Toronto’s charismatic streetside restaurants. When I think of what is most wonderful about the city I think of Toronto’s many pocket’s of neighborhoods in which you can find food, decor, and musical ambiance that all show an attention to quality along with a flair for creativity while being first and foremost welcoming and comfortable. Our paths intersected briefly when the couple posed for me to take a photograph. We enjoyed the exchange of greetings before I moved on.

A young couple I met along the way.

A young couple I met along the way.

Street Party

I walked further than I intended to but since the walk was calming I think I walked exactly as much as was needed. I ended up at Yonge and Dundas where there was a big street party going on. It was sponsored by the candy mint manufacturer Mentos. I asked one of the organizers what the occasion for the street party was. One of them said it was part of a promotion described on their site maketheworldrounder.ca.

Two of the staff at the Mentos maketheworldrounder.ca street party poised to start making the world rounder staring out with a good round of thumping.

Two of the staff at the Mentos maketheworldrounder.ca street party poised to start making the world rounder staring out with a good round of thumping.

Most of the games were getting packed up just as I arrived. However I was able to take a picture of two event staff members taking the opportunity to box blows on each other with the heavily padded sparring equipment. The first blows were for my camera. After each of them got a couple good ones in the blows after that seemed to have nothing to do with my camera and more to do with establishing pecking order and addressing what each of them must have seen as a requirement in their opponent for a much needed attitude correction.

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One comment on “Toronto’s Quiet Flair for the Extraordinary Statement

  1. Affiliate Network on said:

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