More Monochrome – Toronto’s Spadina Avenue

For the second time, I’ve been featured in a gallery on the website of popular photography magazine, Popular Photography (see what I did there?). So it’s time for some more shameless bragging, tempered with a mild introduction to one of Toronto’s more colourful and interesting streets, Spadina Avenue.

Popular Photography - Your Best Shot Gallery: January 2013
PopPhoto’s “Your Best Shot Gallery: January 2013”

Oddly enough, both gallery selections have been film, rather than digital photographs, taken with the same 1958 point and shoot camera. This example is on black and white Arista Premium 400, a rather more modern, sophisticated and predictable beast than the ancient film stock I wrote about recently. The previous one was in colour. It’s enough to make me begin to wonder why exactly it is that I own two digital SLRs and a bagful of lenses.

I’m not sure what it is about this photograph that seems to have struck a chord with viewers, and presumably one or other of the editorial staff at PopPhoto. It was featured in Explore, a collection of photographs selected each day by photo sharing site Flickr’s magic interestingness algorithm. It’s been marked as a favourite more than fifty times, far more than any other image I’ve posted. It certainly feels nice to be Explored, although photos do drop in and out, since each one’s rating can change from day to day. To date, 33 of mine have been featured at one point or another; this one is the second-latest, preceded by an ice-skating one you can see at the top of my Happy Holidays post, and followed most recently by a barrel. But Explore isn’t really an indicator of what makes a good photo, nor necessarily of which ones will be generally popular. I’m beginning to think that perhaps the film itself is adding some magic quality, although I wouldn’t rule out that using the old camera is forcing me to visualize and photograph in a more creative way than I do with my digital beasts.

The picture has human interest, which is unusual for me, and the reflections in the glass make it a little more visually interesting. But overall, I’m not convinced this is composed or cropped particularly well – that panel of building stones to the right hand side seems a little awkward now that I’ve lived with the photo for a while, for example. But the most obvious feature, I guess, is the words “Open Dumpling?”, which although they make no sense, seem to have caught a lot of people’s attention. I cheerfully confess that I had no idea I’d captured them like this, especially since “Dumpling?” is a fragment of the phrase “Got Dumpling?” in the right-hand window, and the “Open” sign is just that. The words don’t even go together, for goodness’ sake, which you can verify for yourself on Google Street View.

Those misgivings aside, I’m actually quite pleased with how this turned out, since it was just a grab shot on a quick jaunt through Toronto’s Chinatown. Spadina Avenue is the heart of this neighbourhood, and is bustling most of the time, becoming jammed in summertime with shoppers frequenting its street-side markets. It’s been an interesting place for a lot of years, and older heads than mine remember it as previously being a vibrant Jewish neighbourhood. Look hard, and vestiges of that history can still be found, in an old theatre building, and some of the storefronts. But nowadays, from College Street down to the theatre district, it’s an unruly conglomeration, its southern reaches even including a block or two of leftovers from the fur fashion industry, all dominated by a delicious mix of Asian food markets, specialty stores and restaurants. In late December, it’s still busy enough to provide plenty of street shooting opportunities.

Spadina Avenue, Toronto
Spadina Avenue, just before Christmas 2012.

Noodle Wink
A winking noodle bowl statue.

Although I’ve spent most of my weekdays over the last 25 years downtown, and I’ve walked Spadina and its side streets many times, I’ve never photographed here very much, so shooting off a roll of black and white film was good fun. I even made a detour across parts of the University of Toronto campus, pausing for the alchemical symbols on the side of the chemistry building.

Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories, University of Toronto
I tried to find out which elements these are, and got hopelessly confused. Maybe there’s a legend in the lobby.

All in all, I’m rather pleased with this low-cost black and white film, and might run another roll through the Silette, which is currently loaded with generic, drugstore-brand colour film. In the meantime, my urban exploring has largely given way to the pursuit of pioneer-era cemeteries and other buildings in rural York Region, dating from roughly the same period as the lime kiln I’ve written about before – which I’ll tell you about another time.

About Richard Wintle

I am Canadian by heritage, and a molecular biologist and human geneticist by training. My day job is Assistant Director of a large genome centre, where I do various things along the lines of "keeping the wheels on". In my spare time, I tend to run around with a camera, often chasing horses, race cars, musicians, and occasionally, wildlife.
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15 Responses to More Monochrome – Toronto’s Spadina Avenue

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Perhaps it’s some weird Canuck alchemy. Here are the symbols in the Unicode list:
    The one on the left looks like vitriol (1F716) but with three circles added. There is nothing on the list remotely like the one on the right.

    I agree with you about the photo. The wall on the right does detract a bit. if you had composed it so that both the people in the window were around the 1/3 intersections, it might have looked better. That’s just a counsel of perfection though; there’s no point in being perfect if you miss the shot.

  2. Thanks Laurence – I looked at several different lists of alchemical symbols and couldn’t find anything matching.

    The photo could be helped with a 4:3 crop omitting that wall entirely. I was slavishly adhering to the 2:3 ratio of 35mm film frames – which is a bit silly, really.

  3. Philip Strange says:

    It’s a nice photo. It has some of the feel of paintings by Edward Hopper, where he looks into people’s lives from a distance.

    Also, if I ran a Dim Sum store I might be quite happy to call it “Open Dumpling”!

  4. says:

    I do like the Open Dumpling photo. Crops are always hindsight, though, with film.

    • I’m not averse to straightening and cropping film scans. πŸ˜‰

      • rpg says:

        Learning that it was OK, indeed encouraged, to crop, straighten and indeed post-process made a big difference to my photos. And ate all my spare time…

        You remind me I have an old Praktica with B&W film in it (long story). I must dig it out…

        • Reading books by film photographers of yore is quite eye-opening – the amount of post-processing in terms of print exposure times, dodging, burning, re-touching, tinting, etc. can be astonishing. That said, one of my fave photogs, Robert Capa, famously hated these aspects of the process and generally just handed his stuff off to be developed “as shot”. He was more of a photojournalist than an artistic photographer, though.

          Makes me feel better about tweaking everything in Photoshop these days. πŸ™‚

          • Grant says:

            I used to see all that post-processing as a kid – my Dad ran a photographic business. (For that matter I had the run of the darkroom in the weekends, so I did a little of it myself.)

            I just wanted to drop a thought about you writing “It’s enough to make me begin to wonder why exactly it is that I own two digital SLRs and a bagful of lenses.”

            Perhaps it’s less if the camera is digital or not, but how you use it?

            I haven’t the money to buy the bigger DSLRs, never mind a bag of lenses. (Mind you, I could recycle my Nikkor’s, etc.) On my trip to Europe last year I picked up a little Fujifilm X10 (digital). The thing that struck me reading your remark is that I don’t have the same experience (yet?), perhaps because I chose a camera that you can shoot in a “simpler” way, a bit like the old film cameras. (It’s partly the target market of the X10.) It does have a few flaws but overall it’s a nice little camera.

          • Grant – yes. Sometimes having more options stifles creativity, I think. Says he who just bought an ultrawide-angle lens today. πŸ˜‰

            The Fuji X-series are nice little cameras, and I can totally see the appeal. Leica still makes cameras of the same general form factor too, for the same reason I guess – putting less in between the photographer and the photograph, I suppose.

            Still, at n=2, I think my experiment needs more data points. Who knows, my next ten in a row (as if!) in PopPhoto might all be with a DSLR. πŸ˜‰

          • Grant says:

            FWIW, I used to shoot with a Leica M3 as a kid. (My Dad’s, more-or-less on “permanent” loan until he sold it without letting me know he was going to – which I’ve never quite forgiven him for!)

            I do like the idea of mucking around on the computer with the images, it’s just aside from the cost of software I haven’t really got the “spare” time I’d like to – I’d rather be using what time I have for photography-related things exploring with the camera in hand I guess.

  5. Dodge Baena says:

    Nicely done! There’s something about a composition that just calls for a B&W treatment, and with film to boot. Your shot reminds me of a night shot of the same place, the first time I used the twilight mode on my then new Sony a65. This time, however, it called for colour.

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