Category Archives: Inspiration

Curiosity Fed The Photographer

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As newborns, everything, and I mean everything is novel. We’ve never seen a face before, or heard a rattle and we’ve certainly never distinguished between red or blue or yellow. Instinctively, we find sounds as well as facial expressions, to be either pleasant or not. For the first ten to twelve years of our lives, we are, by nature, curious, and it is that curiosity, which in large part, describes childhood. Unfortunately, as innate as curiosity is, during our early childhood, parents also play a significant role in encouraging or discouraging our sense of adventure, our sense of curiosity.

Reasonably, a child can’t be familiar with anything that they aren’t introduced to. If as parents we limit our children’s food choices or allow them to pick and choose, then they will likely become picky eaters. Shun physical activity and complain about the weather, and our children will probably develop negative attitudes in that regard too, based on the only examples they’ve been exposed to.

If on the other hand, we cook from scratch and introduce new ingredients, while involving our children in the process, then they will likely develop a curious and healthy relationship with food. Focus on introducing experiences that don’t involve an Entrance Fee and they will tend toward expanding their own repertoire, and trust me, invite you to participate as well. Expose children to a wide palette of artistic expression and they will value, support and defend the arts.

Not to be confused with naivety, curiosity is what keeps us soulfully young. Most of us who have experienced the struggles and challenges of mere mortals, and spent even a passing moment considering human behaviour, are keenly aware of the fact that chronological age is no guarantor of higher level thinking, much less emotional maturity. Likewise, chronological age does not preclude one from being adventurous and childlike, not to be confused with childish.

Just as the phrase “mature beyond their years” describes one who is unusually wise at a chronologically young age, so does “young at heart” describe one who, despite their grey hair, has retained the curiosity of a spring lamb. Curiosity is the nut, the fruit that brings life to every day events and experiences.

We’ve all met that person that lights up a room as they walk in, despite not knowing anyone. Call it charisma or call it charm, but very close to the surface you will find a sincere curiosity. Sure, be aware of false prophets, but many, if not most of us, recognize sincerity when exposed to it. We can see it in the other’s eyes while they listen, or not. We can hear it in their voice, as they share an embarrassing anecdote, or in how they peel back our guard with their thoughtful questions.

I don’t know who first said it, but “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” is a phrase that I first read, over twenty years ago, in Steven Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“, and that I truly believe holds true. Some may argue that it just isn’t so, because one may be messy at home but not at work, to which I would counter, take away all the artificial supports, take responsibility for all aspects of your work environment, and then we’ll talk. If you’re curious, you’re curious, regardless of your sparing partner, regardless of the topic and certainly regardless of any self-serving motivation.

Sincere curiosity can’t be disguised by shallow posturing, anymore than by wrinkles and receding hair-lines. All things being equal, a sharp mind is the product of a curious mind. Refrain from reading, at any age, and remove, perhaps the most important avenue to new ideas. Avoid solving problems, and deny yourself the satisfaction of discovering a hidden talent. Ignore those chronologically younger or older than yourself, and suffer the consequences of ignorance.

It may come more naturally to some, than to others, but there’s no denying that curiosity is critical to remaining physically, intellectually and emotionally active. In the words of Pablo Picasso “Youth has no age.” and since we were all curious once, we can be again. Now, I’m off to walk the streets on this cold January day to poke my camera around another, unfamiliar corner and, who knows, produce some memorable Street Photography.

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These photographs were produced in downtown Toronto

Body of Work

I was killing time, while waiting for someone I’d made a coffee date with, and as I am inclined to do, wondered into an Indigo bookstore. As I walked in, I headed for the discount bins and glanced over the many covers in the hope of discovering something, from one of a few authors that I particularly enjoy. Nothing there, head over to the Best Sellers displays. We all know better than to judge a book by it’s cover, but often, it’s still a good place to start. The titles and the cover art, typically indicate something about the content. If either of those catches my fancy, I flip the book over and read the brief synopsis on the back of the dust cover. I’m always left feeling that “if only I had two lives to live and could spend more time reading”. Finally, I head into the stacks and pick a section at random.

The purpose behind entering the store may have been to while away a bit of time, and it certainly wasn’t to purchase a book, although, that may be the end result, but rather to feel embraced by the ideas and experiences of hundreds of authors from around the world. As an artist, I am sensitive to the creative process and in awe with the apparent ease that, especially fiction writers, can string together words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into worlds that are not subject to the same place and time restrictions that burden our mortal lives.

As a photographer, I am inspired by the deliberate plotting and disciplined exercise with which a good writer researches their subject matter, lays out a rough sketch of the story, real or not, and draws the reader in to the journey which they have invited us on. My actual reading habits, and this is a deliberate approach, is to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. I recognized, long ago, that there is much to learn from the facts, if not truths in historical accounts, as from the imagination, which can take complicated human emotions and shine a light that forces the reader to reflect on the parallels with their own daily grind.

Not always, but often, I am inspired to translate the story telling ability of the writer into producing Photo Essays. My Photo Essays, tend to be short stories and, although, I continue to grapple with the insecurity that I may bore the viewer or come off sounding pompous, I am inching forward toward something more revealing. More on this in future posts.

You’d never know it from what you’ve read this far, but my motivation for writing this piece, was to lament the prediction that, in the not so distant future, we will soon see the last of our wonderful brick and mortar bookstores. I don’t pretend to know where it all began, although the loss of the small, independent, local bookstore was certainly a canary in the coalmine. Nothing too revealing in my gut wrenching belief that the advent of the tablet reader is one more, if not the final nail in that coffin.

Now don’t misunderstand me, as a working commercial photographer I too work in a digital environment and appreciate all the storage, sharing and chemical free advantages of a digital file. My concern, and this goes for records stores too, is the loss of the physical space.

When walking in to a record store I am exposed to artists, musical styles and genres, that I would not, if my only option was to cue up, pass a piece of paper through a narrow slot in a wall and collect my purchase in exchange. I remember making an event of spending hours flipping through record albums at Record World, looking at the cover art, reading the liner notes, and sometimes because of this, discovering a new artist.

The same, of course goes for the countless authors, ideas and subjects of interest that would remain forever lost to me, had I not the opportunity to slowly browse physical shelves. No logarithm has yet been designed that will suggest to me what I don’t know, or sense my mood, since they are designed to return similar searches. It was Socrates who said “You don’t know, what you don’t know.” and that, I think, is the greatest loss in the disappearance of the physical record and bookstore.

Here in Ontario, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), our government run Liquor Store, use to keep the entire inventory of product behind a solid wall. The only way to purchase a bottle of alcohol, was to flip through a sort of upright, hinged binder, locate the product, alphabetically, note a code on an order slip and pass it to an attendant over the counter. They would disappear through a door and return a few minutes later, with the bottle and quickly slide it in to a brown paper bag, lest anyone see what it was.

In fairness, and as backwards as it was even then, the LCBO pulled the curtain back on the evil spirits, in the early 1970’s. The vast majority of Ontarian’s agreed that doing so was a step forward and we haven’t looked back since. I can’t say with certainty, but allowing people to see and hold the vast selection, and exposing them to the choices available, has not resulted in a permanently, alcohol intoxicated society, but rather introduced the world to our palates and widened our appreciation for that art.

The risk in loosing our bookstores may just be the complete opposite. It’s difficult enough to encourage reading in our society, as it is. Relegating all forms of text to a digital platform may result in ever narrowing points of view. How can it be otherwise if one only reads what one is comfortable or familiar with. Don’t even get me started on converting our libraries into digital depositories or simple meeting places.

So, the title of this piece was A Body Of Work, and I ask, what do you really know about an artist, be they an author, composer, painter, photographer etc. if all you ever hear, read, see or experience of their work are the Greatest Hits? If all you ever hear on the radio is what someone else has decided you will enjoy, then where is the appreciation for the art form, let alone the artist? Let’s face it, in most cases the Hits are just the icing and without the underlying cake, one quickly becomes bored. What gets played on the radio or makes its way into your playlist, often suggested by someone else, is not necessarily the best. The Hits may be highlights that more closely represent the disposable, lost leader, which in the past would’ve encouraged one to go into the record store, purchase the album and return home in anticipation of gently placing the needle on to the spinning vinyl disc, plugging in the headphones and soaking in the artists mood or point of view.

It’s important to ask ourselves if we want our artists to continue to produce more work, ’cause if we do, then we better nurture their creativity and encourage them to expand their repertoire. What better way to do that than to familiarize yourself with their entire Body of Work, ’cause you’ll never know what you don’t know, unless you’re willing to pull back the curtain and take in the entire vista.

Before Sunrise and After Sunset

It should come us no surprise that I enjoy early mornings. I can’t say it was always this, way, and there was certainly a time when I had to drag myself out of bed if I was the least bit tired, or worse, if I’d been artificially awoken by an alarm clock. Just the thought of getting up before the sun, was so foreign, that it never crossed my mind.

My earliest recollections of dawn are tangled up with camping trips. With nothing but a thin film of Egyptian cotton, later to be substituted by high-tech nylons, between the eyelids and the early morning glow of a sunrise, it didn’t take much for the internal clock to spring to life, earlier than typically accustomed to. The rapid tapping from a Sap-sucker drilling for breakfast or the haunting melody of a White-throated Sparrow, serving as a subtle reminder that it’s the early bird that catches the worm.

From an artistic point of view, every photographer who takes their art seriously, knows that the quality of light at either end of the day adds more character to a photograph, than the harsh overhead mid day sun. That’s not to say that high-noon doesn’t have its place too, it’s just different. With a clear sky, natural light at day-break, and in the waning hours, will typically be warmer in colour, that is to say, yellow or golden. Where as the mid day sun, is more neutral, leaning toward blue, or colder.

But enough with all the technical stuff, I’m more interested in the emotional stirrings. There’s an unquestionable freshness, regardless of the season, that greets the first rays of daylight. A peaceful stillness and silence anticipates the hopefulness of each new day. The night creatures are settling in to their daytime refuges, while songbirds begin their preening ritual.

I hold an especially fond recollection of rising early on countless Saturday mornings, in my early twenties, to participate in a unique experience. A group of friends would congregate at the foot of the Leslie Street Spit, on the shores of Lake Ontario, in Toronto, for our springtime ritual of banding songbirds, under the guidance of Peter from the Metro Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. On occasion we would catch a tiny Saw-whet Owl or a Blue Jay, but for the most part, it was the smaller Warblers, Sparrows and Finches that would fly into our mist nets.

There is definitely something romantic about daybreak. Before Sunrise is the name of a movie that follows a young couple on a long conversation through a street lit night in Paris, and I can’t think of anything more romantic than that. One may debate if the romance was under the cover of night or in the anticipation of the day’s first light, but either way, the experience would not have been the same, had it not been for sharing it with a kindred spirit. Carpe Diem!

The Mysterious Smiling Face

A face in a window! I skipped a beat, or maybe it did a double beat. Not sure. There’s nothing unusual in a photographer grabbing their camera and heading out to witness the world beyond the confines of our environmentally controlled abodes. Although I gravitate naturally to the less trampled path of a hiking trail or portage, I live in Toronto and don’t break free of the traffic gridlock as often as I’d like. So, rather than lament what I can’t do, I head out for the busy sidewalks and laneways that offer up no shortage of unexpected surprises, regardless of the time of year or hour of the day.

I was sitting in front of my computer screen, keywording some images that were now a few years old, but hadn’t gotten around to processing, when I pulled up this image. I was in a streetscape sort of mood that day and found a storefront that caught my eye, but there was something missing. I positioned myself across the street and waited for someone to walk past. I was fortunate that smack in the middle of the reflective window, was some signage that would be perfect for disguising my own reflection, and exposed several frames, of passersby.

I picked this one as the best in the bunch, and although I didn’t know if it would ever see the light of day I straightened it out a bit, converted it to black and white and made some contrast and exposure adjustments. I zoomed in to check focus, when suddenly it hit me. Maybe it was Temper Trap playing over my speakers or maybe it was the mood set by the late February funk, but what ever it was, the image took on a whole new meaning.

I had been completely unaware that there was a smiling face behind the glass. Who was she, what was she thinking, did she think I had pointed the camera at her, or that I might even be aware of her? I’ll never know, but the discovery of that smiling face in the window, reminded me of how powerful a photograph can be, even after all this time.

With the heightened concerns regarding privacy, I know that many photographers have become, shall we say, hesitant to photograph the street life that humanizes the city. Up until a few years ago, I too counted myself amongst those timid photographers, but no more. I may not be able to sell the images, but the pure satisfaction I derive from documenting our communal struggles is satisfaction enough. Finding that mysterious face in the coffee shop window has only reinforced my craving to bear witness to the human spirit.

Streetscape on Bay Street in Front of Urabna Coffee as photographed by Miguel Horitiguela, Photography By Miguel, Toronto Photographer serving Toronto, GTA and Southern Ontario.