Bending Willow Creek

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Meandering Through Minesing

It was the summer of 1982, and I’d just finished my first of three years in the Fish and Wildlife Technology program at Sir Sandford Fleming College (since, re-branded as Fleming College) in Lindsay Ontario. I’d been offered a summer job with the Metro Region Conservation Authority – MTRCA (since, re-branded as Toronto Region Conservation Authority – TRCA) on a crew of four that would spend the summer conducting Stream Surveys and Rehabilitation projects along two reaches of streams, located within the M.T.R.C.A’s jurisdiction. I was in heaven.

 

Fast forward to late spring of 2015, and while perusing the various projects that theNature Conservancy Of Canada (NCC).was planning, within a short driving distance of my home base of Toronto, my eyes fell on an opportunity to reprise that wonderful summer. The event was described as River Bends on the Mend, and the waterway requiring our help was Willow Creek, which flows through the Minesing Wetlands. Minesing is of Ojibwe origin, and means “island”, referring to an island located within Lake Edenvale, which encompassed the present-day wetlands and surrounding areas, and is recognized internationally as a significant Ramsar Boreal-Wetland.

 

Minesing’s very existence depends on the careful management of the numerous waterways feeding it’s sensitive ecosystems; waterways that naturally meander as they follow the path of least resistance, flooding depressions, overflowing and hugging contours as they slope toward ever larger bodies of water. Short-sighted alterations to our physical environment, usually impact negatively on natural systems that support a variety of plant and animal life, which have evolved over time to depend on them. It really is A Fine Balance.

 

Our objective for the day was to reintroduce a few curves to Willow Creek, along a stretch which flows adjacent to George Johnston Road, for a few hundred metres. This length of the creek had been historically, straightened, dredged and over-widened, to ostensibly improve drainage of the surrounding area. Unfortunately, it also compromised the geomorphology of the creek, the dissipation of sediment and altered habitat features.

 

Despite the rainy forecast and probability of getting wet, whether in or out of the creek, over a dozen volunteers, eager to contribute their brawn to the effort, met at the rendezvous point, where we were welcomed by Laura Robson, Acting Coordinator, Conservation Biology Georgian Bay-Huronia Sub-region, for the NCC.

 

Together with Shannon Stephens, Healthy Waters Program Coordinator for the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA), Laura described how we would build temporary, artificial, wing-deflectors, at several points along the stream banks, thereby, introducing new curves in to the creek’s flow.

 

The deflectors were constructed from Scots Pine, donated by Somerville Nursery, which had been destined for the Christmas Tree market, but no longer needed for that purpose. The trees were layered, along the river bank, with the stumps pointing slightly upstream at a 45′ angle, and secured in place by driving and anchoring a heavy gauge cable, with a swivel-lock on the end, deep into the riverbanks, and the other end wrapped around each tree and secured with a crimped metal-clip.

 

In time, not only will the intertwined nature of these structures trap sediments suspended in the water column, that would otherwise blanket the creek-bed further downstream, but will also, as a result, provide an organically rich seed-bed, upon which vegetation will take hold. Earlier, I referred to these structures as temporary, because over time, they will become permanent, over-hanging river-banks, a feature that is critically important to fish species seeking shelter from the hot sun, and overhead predators.

 

As these structures gently protrude into the creek, they will gradually, help to narrow the waterway, thereby, increasing the rate of flow, flush suspended solids, deepen the watercourse, cool the water temperature, raise oxygen levels, improve the overall conditions for a variety of invertebrates, and provide a healthier habitat for aquatic and terrestrial life, alike. It really is A Fine Balance.

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This Collection of photographs of Stream Rehabilitation Work was produced along Willow Creek in the Minesing Wetlands in June of 2015

Liberating The Happy Valley Forest From Invaders

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Garlic Mustard, An Undesirable Ingredient

It was a covert ground-assault by a small group of dedicated resisters, led by Thomas Unrau of the NCC, on an invader to the perhaps not so Happy Valley.  I’d signed up to participate in a valiant effort to thwart the relentless advance of an intruder known to choke the life out of native populations, and arrived at our rendezvous point, resigned to the task.  Identified by its common and cleverly disguised name, the Garlic Mustard, (Alliaria petiolata) may sound like a harmless enemy, but sadly, once it establishes a root-hold, it quickly displaces native flowers and ground vegetation.

 

Like many other invasive species, the Garlic Mustard was originally introduced to North America, all be it naively, by early European settlers to the U.S.  As a wild edible, it is a nutritious green, high in vitamins A and C as well as several essential minerals.

 

However, as an unwanted guest, it spreads easily and releases a compound into the soil, that displaces and discourages root growth by other herbaceous plant species.  Native flowers such as Trilliums, Trout-lilies and Jack-in-the-pulpits that have evolved to flourish in the rich soils found under the shaded canopy of mature hardwood forests, find it difficult to overcome the aggressive, colonizing onslaught of Garlic Mustard.

 

Armed with nothing more than work gloves, garbage bags and a commitment to halt the advance of the invader on a few hundred square metres of the Happy Valley Forest, our team of enthusiastic, volunteer weekend-warriors headed deep into what has to be one of the most beautiful deciduous forests I’ve ever had the privilege of walking through.  A true gem on the Oak Ridges Moraine within Ontario’s Greenbelt.

 

The Nature Conservancy of Canada, (NCC) who own several sections of land within the Happy Valley Forest, is a Not For Profit private land conservation organization, dedicated to protecting and rehabilitating significant natural areas, and the flora and fauna species they sustain.  Since 1962, NCC and its partners have helped to protect more than 2.7 million acres (1.1 million hectares), from coast to coast to coast.

 

This may have been my first visit to the Happy Valley Forest, but it certainly won’t be my last.  With camera in hand and tripod over my shoulder, I intend to return to spend time to recharge my soul, to photograph the awesome beauty and to do my part to protect and polish this priceless jewel.

 

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This Collection of photographs was produced in the Happy Valley Forest, on the Oak Ridges Moraine, in Ontario’s Greenbelt.

Minarets And Cupulas

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Where are Minarets and Cupulas not a world away? When you live in a city that is as culturally diverse as Toronto, they’re scattered throughout. We are fortunate to live at a point in history and in a city where everyone is welcome. This city has so much variety in terms of arts and cultural festivals, and cuisine that one might be forgiven for becoming desensitized to it all.

 

As a photographer, I often receive requests for photos of far-off exotic destinations and discover that there’s yet another location that I haven’t visited. That’s when I remind myself of how fortunate I am to have the world in my own backyard. It’s easy to forget that Toronto is an international tourist destination and that we too have wonderful landmarks that others come to visit. This summer Toronto plays host to the 2015 PanAm Games and all those shutter bugs will be pointing their cameras at us.

 

It was a Saturday morning, earlier this spring, when I’d offered to drive my daughter to a location just north of Toronto, to perform in a student film, and the fog was so thick I could barely see down the street. Anyone who knows me, knows that I usually have my camera with me, and this was one time when I’m so glad I did. I was returning home and turned a corner to find myself in Istanbul. Every time, I look at this photo of the Minaret and Cupula shrouded in the thick, early-morning fog, I’m taken far away. I imagine the rising sun filtering through the still streets of a Middle Eastern city and hear the chant of the Islamic call to prayer, pierced only by the shriek of a gull flying overhead.

 

If we don’t want this paradise to become a caricature of itself, in which culture is nothing more than a re-enactment at summer festivals, then we must be accepting, and appreciate that everything has its price. If we want to encourage the variety and richness of all, that the music and food have to offer, than we must accept the people behind the traditions and that which nourishes them.

 

We are so incredibly fortunate to have so much cultural wealth in our own backyard. Open your eyes, point your camera and be transported.

 

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This photograph was produced in Markham Ontario

Architectural details of Jam'e Masjid Mosque in Markham, Ontario, Canada

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Architectural details of Jam'e Masjid Mosque in Markham, Ontario, Canada

Documentary Photography

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So, what is documentary photography?

I was on my way out the door of my parents home, by the time I purchased my first camera, and the reason for purchasing my prized Nikon FE was purely for the purpose of documenting the world around me. Independent of the medium, I always felt a strong urge to be a storyteller and although years later, my first paid jobs as a photographer were as a photojournalist, even as professional photography goes, it was a financially untenable and insecure way to pay the bills, given my domestic situation.

I’ve never regretted having a family, and working from home allowed me to connect with my children in a way that never could’ve been possible, otherwise. However, it meant abandoning all thoughts of trekking around the world as a documentary photojournalist for a major newspaper, magazine or the Holy Grail, the National Geographic.

As a result, I may not have visited conflict zones abroad, but I’ve survived several insurrections and disaster zones, all from within the confines of my own home.

So, before we can answer the question posed above, we should first ask and answer another, at times, confusing question, which is “What’s the difference between Editorial, Photojournalism and Documentary photography?”.

As we all know, languages evolve over time with some words falling out of favour while new ones invade the popular lexicon, sometimes with a fury. Often, the very definition of a word will shift and take on new meaning. Such is the case with the terms Editorial, Photojournalism and Documentary, because it depends, to a great extent, on the context. Are we describing the content, the photographers approach or the usage

Roughly twenty years ago, wedding photography began to move away from the stiff series of family portraits to more of a story telling approach. Candid and minimally directed photographs crept into the wedding album and the Photojournalistic Wedding approach was born.

Similarly, the fashion industry, has long produced photographs of the latest and greatest “creations” from popular designers, not in the studio but on the gritty streets of New York City or the heather filled Scottish Highlands. The location doesn’t change the fact that the purpose wasn’t documentary, but rather for advertising.

One of the characteristics possessed by humans, is our penchant for categorizing. It gives us the false sense of security that comes from the misbelief that we can assign order to everything, thereby, deceiving us to believe that we can predict every outcome. Another characteristic, is our ability to understand that very little is ever Black & White.

For my purposes here, I’ve decided to use the following distinctions between these three terms:

Editorial:
Photographs captured to support the written word, be it either a magazine or newspaper article, which may be produced in or out of the studio. The subject matter can range from a feature portrait produced in the studio or on location, to a staged scenario, again, in either setting.

Photojournalism:
A single photograph or series of photographs that capture events of a relatively short duration, involving human interaction as they unfold naturally, without interference by the photographer. The location is irrelevant, as is the subject matter, but each photograph stands on its own.

Documentary:
A single photograph or series of photographs, in the form of a Photo Essay, which visually illustrate a subject of interest in the human condition or
natural world.

Fine Art Painters have always had the freedom to pick and choose what to include or exclude from their paintings, the hue and vibrancy of the colours they select, even the subject matter. War Artists like Alex Colville, depicted aspects of war through their paintings, and you can bet that they only reproduced what they wanted. Should they choose to, they could editorialize by portraying a battle as more or less gruesome than it really was, change perspective and alter distances between elements.

Dictionary.com defines Photography as “the process of recording images on sensitized material by the action of light, X-rays, etc, and the chemical processing of this material to produce a print, slide, or cine film.” Clearly this definition hasn’t been updated to reflect Digital Capture, but the point is that the process is instant. What one sees through the camera lens, is what comes out at the other end.

For that reason, photography has always been held to a different standard. We’ve always considered the content of a photograph to be fact, believable, trustworthy, and so it should be.

However, photographers today are occasionally criticized for tampering with the content of a photograph in post production, by using imaging software. This is not meant to excuse anyone who is deliberately attempting to misrepresent breaking news or alter the facts of an event, however, photographers have always made creative, compositional decisions by cropping in the camera, to include or exclude content.

The darkroom always allowed the photographer to emphasize or de-emphasize areas of the photograph, and Retouching Artists, in post production, have always been able to remove blemishes from a print, or darken a distracting highlight. Photoshop didn’t introduce nefarious intent into the creative process, it simply provided a new tool, that like any tool should be used with caution and respect. It’s our integrity that must remain intact.

Regardless of the style of photography or the purpose for it’s final use, the photographer will always retain a great deal of control over the content that appears within the frame. We can choose where to situate ourselves within a scene, when to be there, when to expose, and if we’re really good, we can even provide subtle direction to enhance a composition that will help to tell the story.

So, what does a Documentary Photographer really do? They…

  1. Observe
  2. Ignore the onlookers
  3. Try Different Angles
  4. Pick the right time of day… or night
  5. Expose multiple frames

… because, in the end what matters is the content of the photograph and not how we categorize it. Does it inform, enlighten or educate

 

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This Collection of photographs was produced on Akimiski Island, in James Bay, Nunavut

Five Things Photography Has Taught Me…

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Five things photography has taught me, about being a better person. OK, the list could probably be much longer, but I’ve deliberately narrowed it down to the highlights.

Setting oneself up for negative criticism, is not, what motivates any artist to hold themselves up for public scrutiny. Fact is that most of us are somewhat insecure, we want and need to receive positive feedback, and without it we tend to wonder what we did wrong. It’s not unusual for me to deliver a collection of photographs to a Commercial Client or proofs to a Retail Customer and hear nothing further.

We know in our hearts if we did the best we could, given what we had to work with, but any creative worth their salt, still wants to know if they were successful in meeting their patrons expectations. We live and die by word-of-mouth referrals and receiving a cheque in payment for services rendered, doesn’t necessarily imply a satisfied customer.

As a photographer, I’m well aware of the fact that I’m only as good as my last shot. Add to the mix, the ease with which Social Media can magnify any negative comments and my left eye starts to twitch. Still, I wouldn’t have persevered this long, were it not for a certain degree of confidence, tenacity and ability to adapt. Possessing the humility to learn from my mistakes, and the courage to follow through on a unique vision has been essential to developing a self-awareness, without which, I couldn’t have evolved as an artist.

 

1.Tenacity

The Canadian Merriam-Webster Dictionary, defines Tenacious as: “persistent in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired.”

Anyone who knows me, will know that I’m tenacious by nature. When I latch on to something, I find it extremely difficult to let go. I believe in my heart, that with a positive attitude and by focusing on the end goal, almost anything is achievable.

I say almost, only because one has to accept one’s physical, intellectual and emotional limitations. I’m vertically challenged, so work as hard as I could I would never be drafted into the MBA and I knew very early on, that I was not going to challenge Stephen Hawking for the Nobel Prize for Physics.

However, recognizing those challenges and knowing that my strength lies in my emotional depth, I naturally, and completely unconsciously, gravitated toward artistic expression. After settling into photography, the rest was easy. I focussed on learning something new from every roll of film I got back from the lab, and on studying what it was about great paintings and photographs that engaged our unconscious to produce an inexplicable emotional response.

Especially for a small, single, mad-hatter such as myself, it’s very difficult, but equally critical to carefully plan everything, from equipment purchases to marketing efforts, and to methodically implement each of the steps with a clear goal in mind. However, it’s also important to recognize when one should cut their losses and try a different tack.

So, how do we recognize the difference between being Tenacious and being Foolhardy?

In my early teens I began a subscription to the free Monthly Royal Bank Letter, which I continued to expectantly receive in the mail until it’s paper form was retired in the late 1990s and continued on in an electronic format until 2008. Fortunately, the entire catalogue from 1943 to 2008 is still available OnLine. You guessed it. It was after reading one of these essays that I began to question that unsettling grey-zone.

I am tenacious. I’ve learned how important it is to finish what one starts, and those who hire me have benefited from the professionalism that flows from that understanding. Following through on something as mundane as answering E-mails, even if just to acknowledge them, stems from an understanding that no conversation should end abruptly and without a civil punctuation, and that everything matters, always.

My clients can rest easy that I will do what ever it takes to get the job done!

2. Perfection

It’s fare to say that with regard to the arts, there can be no such thing as perfection. Now, within that context, and even though there are clear technical standards with every form of artistic expression, subjectivity plays an essential roll in describing perfection. What might appear to be a mistake, isn’t so, if the deviation is deliberate and repeatable.

Many scoffed at the early impressionist painters for their lack of technique, when clearly they knew what they were doing, and how to deliberately repeat the effects they were applying to their canvases. The same can be said of modern dance, jazz and theatre.

Dictionary.com defines mediocrity as: “of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate.”

I remember spending hours in the darkroom to produce a single print. Using different techniques and tools in varying degrees, striving for that perfect print. Their in lies the motivation for any true artist. It’s in the striving for perfection that we become better at our crafts. That’s why a musician will perform and record two treatments of a piece of music on a single album or revisit the composition, years later. Slowing it down, speeding it up, changing a chord here a lyric there. Why, because as artists, we recognize that there is no such thing as perfection only variations on a theme. Few things grate as much as being labelled a Perfectionist, as if that were a bad thing. I take solace in the belief that its usually delivered by one who is generally indifferent.

However, most of us can also recognize mediocrity. Most of us have crossed paths with Good Enough and are left speechless when we see the Best… for now. Even though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I am often baffled when poking around the web. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, when I stumble across photographers’ websites that are little more than a collection of mediocre snapshots, as if inundating the visitor with quantity, will distract them from the quality.

When asked how I’m doing, I will typically answer, “There’s always room for improvement.”

3. Problem Solving

The Photographers Bible defines Freelance Photographer as: “Problem solver capable of maintaining composure, while under pressure.”

OK, I just made that up, but if you’ve ever put a roll of film through a camera, but it didn’t, you know of what I speak. I’ve never met a photographer that hasn’t had the experience of mis-threading a roll of film, mis-loading a sheet of film, or forgetting to charge the batteries, at least once in their careers. What matters, is how we recuperate from our oversights without freaking out, all the while smiling and continuing to direct the players involved.

As much technical experience as I’ve acquire, from years of photographing everything from Food to Architectural Interiors, or priceless Museum Artefacts to documenting Development Aid projects in the Andes; as a Professional Photographer, I can rest assured that I’m bound to find myself in situations in which unexpected complications threaten to scuttle a photo shoot.

Whether its an unruly child or an uncooperative CEO, these are the opportunities to exercise my social skills. Knowing how to relate to people on their level is just as important to being a successful photographer as knowing the difference between an f-stop and a bus-stop. Diffusing a tense situation by seeking first to understand what the subjects’ needs are, and finding a way to satisfy them, while accomplishing the task I was hired to complete, is an invaluable soft skill.

I spent several years working with Chris Freeland, a gifted commercial-photographer that I admired for his ability to marry the art and the science of photography. Many were the days, pre-digital, where we had to jimmy together some contraption, to suspend objects in mid-air, cast shadows from non-existent objects and reflect light around corners. The challenge was to capture these wonders without the assistance of any digital gimmickry – to get it in the camera – while bearing one single objective in mind, to satisfy the clients vision.

Countless times, I’ve called to mind Chris’s ability to visualize solutions, and reached back into that bag we stuffed full of tricks.

Believing that every challenge is simply an opportunity to conjure-up an imaginative solution, is a sure sign of a creative photographer.

4. Patience

Patience has it’s origins in the Latin word for suffering – pati, and in varying degrees, to exercise patience implies that we are enduring a provocation, annoyance, misfortune or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like.

What’s the difference between a photographer and someone with a camera? Not an easy question to answer but one absolutely, necessary, character-trait, is patience. It’s not just the patience to wait for the perfect shot, it’s the patience to understand what the desired result, truly is. It’s the patience to discern between what I can control, and what I can’t.

I’ve had my share of photo assignments involving children, and more often than not, it’s the parents that I have more trouble with. I approach every Portrait as a gift. I’m about to immortalize someone and helping them relax by distracting them from their inhibitions, is a challenge that I take very seriously. It’s impossible to accomplish that in a Drive-Through setup and I’m less interested in perfection, what ever that might mean, than I am in sincerely capturing the thoughts and mood at that moment. Take-away… there’s a huge difference between a snapshot and a Portrait, and the later can’t be rushed.

OK, so I’ve publicly admitted to not being perfect and to believing that the my film was being pulled through the camera, so it’s time to discuss forgiveness. Working as a freelance photographer has taught me that stuff happens. Unfortunately, there are too many among us, that would like to believe that our human experience can always be reduced to simple right and wrong, that one is either competent or incompetent, negligent or careful.

Basically we’re talking about humility. No one’s perfect. We all make mistakes and as inconvenient as that may be, that’s just life. In the absence of indifference or deliberate malice, I must extend to others the same degree of patience and understanding that I wish to received.

The client on the other end of the phone asks “but what if we go over the half-day?” to which I reply, “Be fair with me, and I’m not going to nickel and dime you.”

5. Perspective

Lets’ face it, no one died and I’m not curing cancer. Not to dismiss that many photographic assignments are date and time specific, as in the case of a Corporate Event or Wedding, but many others are not. Some things, like being punctual, are to a large extent within our circle of influence, while others, such as the weather, are not… although we are making a mess of that.

Google defines perspective as: a particular attitude toward, or way of, regarding something; a point of view. Our perspective on unforeseen complications, the patience we bring to bear on the issue, and how creative we are in problem solving, will make all the difference between a successful shoot and a mediocre result, and demonstrates our tenacity and strength of character.

Of course, there is a whole other perspective that is very important to the photographer, which relates to a point of view. All to frequently, photography is treated merely as a commodity. Cameras are everywhere and consequently, everyone is a photographer. If simply owning a camera, be it a DSLR or a Smartphone, makes one a photographer by virtue of enabling one to capture a moment in time, then so be it, but in the hands of an artist, the camera becomes a precision instrument.

Each and every Photographer is unique, because no two will produce the exact same photograph, from the exact same angle, at the exact same time, with the exact same degree of passion. As we approach a subject, we position ourselves within the space and frame a scene, based on a very personal perspective. When framing a photograph, timing is very important, but no more so than composition.

Practice anything with intensity, and one will become proficient, maybe even master a skill. Without question, photography has forced me to see the world differently, from the smallest crack in a wall to wide-open cityscapes. I see more, I hear more, I feel more, and it is that unique perspective that distinguishes me from every other photographer.

So there you have it, a synopsis of how being a photographer has made me a better person, but there’s always room for improvement.

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This Collection of photographs illustrates my point of view