wishful wednesday – Tshinanu

Listening to the radio is an experience that has been with me since I was a child.

For me, good radio has and always will be, the original and best blogging platform. That’s when it’s presented in competent hands. And while most of the world’s great broadcasters have  squandered and pissed away their culture and heritage; the national francophone radio station in Québec has been at the top of my list for over 10 years now, and always close for the last 30.

Like most of the important cultural fabric in our daily lives, radio in Québec is always under constant threat of assimilation and negation, which is what leads me to this post today.

Tshinanu, it’s who we are – all of us. And while this song has rattled around my head for a very long time, I never really connected to it beyond the music. Re-hearing it this week made me want to look at the visuals and it was only then that I began to really understand. It’s all of us.

picture tuesday – let’s face it

The last couple of weeks have given me an opportunity to look at some of the bigger questions in life and think about how I would like to address them.  And while it has the potential of being a dark subject, I’m not sure I can sum it up any better than Ted Forbes does in this video. Harsh as it sounds at first, I think he manages to hit the nail squarely on the head…


friends of distinction


We don’t turn on the radio very often any more. In fact, recently I’ve encountered quite a few people who’ve never turned on a radio ..Much less heard a song like this one.

It’s a shame actually. For a brief period, popular music managed to cut across all sorts of boundaries and brought some needed fun into an ugly world.  We could do with more of this right now, but I don’t hear much music in public. It’s gone from stores, homes, buses and street along with the celebration of life it can be.

For a short time, hits like this were commonplace before music became an industry. And what’s gone missing is the genuine verve, sophistication and audacity of this music.

You might want to get outside, kick off your shoes and turn this one up ..jes sayin’.




picture tuesday – crossing the line




The Gardiner Expressway




In order to reach the foot of the city you have to find a way to mentally cross the Gardiner. And as a result, once across that line, you can rest firmly in a land of make-believe.

The downtown waterfront has been a place of dreams for as long as I can remember. The gritty socialist paintings of the 30’s. The smell of malt and sour mash and life. Boats and trains beckoning to faraway places. Goods flowing in and work being done. There was a visceral commitment to human progress and development. An unplanned vitality and exuberance even if it was ratty around the edges.

But there were other nascent dreams in the wings -mostly about how to accommodate more cars. And for quite some time, unless your average visionary was thinking about this idea, they weren’t a visionary they were a nuisance.

Somehow we were coerced into believing that a city of lively public thoroughfares was a city crammed full of cars.

Human industry, capital and street level commerce were discarded for a singular dream. Office space, condominiums and cars. What on earth could we otherwise need?

A rich and complex life gave way to a corporate shanty-town unable to reconcile itself with life on the street. Its absence replaced by carefully constructed dioramas. Public window-dressing dumped into every proposal with a promise of creating a glimpse of what real city life once was like.

No one foresaw or even cared where this was going. The sad result if you look around, is a tragic wasteland of half-baked ideas. A testament to complete inattention. A total lack of cohesive planning and the resulting desperate attempts to patch it up.

Meanwhile a little west of this district, Toronto has a rich and impressive history of waterfront development. The parks to the east are an inspiration as are the Islands, both places worth visiting for. The fantastic model of University Avenue. The original approaches to the CNE. They all could have set the score.

I don’t quite know what to say. Inspired planning is central to civic life. It’s not an individual project, it’s cohesive and human in scale. It creates space and room for things to flourish. Places where we don’t have to be reminded to walk with care, but instead can head out for a stroll.



foto friday – anticlimactic-modern


Over the next couple of weeks I will be featuring a series of pictures taken in the Soco area of Toronto. Toronto is a difficult city from many points of view. I lived there for a decade while I was developing my photographic skills and a great deal of my time was spent walking about the city day and night trying to understand what I was looking at, and seeing if I could capture it on film.

When I was young I eagerly waited to see the architectural rendering of a new project pasted above the hoardings. These bravely painted utopic scenes rendered with care and detail seemed to triumph over even the best works of socialist realism. They all promised tranquillity possibility and purpose. They were the giant calling cards of progress and provided compelling visual reinforcement that our proposed way of life would always be on the right side of history.

Once a project is complete and everyone moved in, the hoardings down and the surrounding traffic back to normal, no one sees that view again. Instead, it is added to this weird amalgamation of hyperbolic promotional material and media hype we carry around in our heads. Confronted with the real thing ‘in situ’ we only see the take away points. Connecting the dots is for dummies.

The area I walked through was once part of the Toronto harbour that was gradually filled in during the last half of the 1800’s and the first 20 years of the new century. The new land was necessary for railway lines that were rapidly replacing marine traffic. Industry and transport met at the foot of the city in a powerful testament to its importance and growth but when the economy faltered and then shifted mid-century, it was quickly and physically cut off by an ugly raised expressway so that it could languish and die out of sight.

Once dead, it has been the site of fevered reinvention as a cultural waterfront experience, an arts and entertainment district, a green transportation corridor, a transportation hub and a tourist destination.  Once relieved of its ‘stigma’ of railway and industrial heritage it has become a crushing hotspot of speculation and hype and the the development of vast tracts of very private and very expensive condominiums.








Why clear the streets?

For the most part it seems, people believe that politics and culture are merely questions of expediency and cost. Two values which we hold very dear.  Ironically, spending time focused on expedience and cost is viewed as both technical and boring which immediately makes it mediocre, pointless and unimportant. Something we best leave to technical nerds so we better folk can get on with the more important task of amusing ourselves with our purchases.

This unshakeable reasoning leaves a lot of room for starry-eyed stupidity in the public sphere. We have no interest in questioning or participating in decisions even when they overrule simple but unavoidable facts of life and bring us into a dystopian conflict with the world itself.

Case in point. There are 2 things about Canada that are certain. As much as we pretend otherwise, more than 80% of our population lives in a narrow strip of urban areas within 100 kilometers of the American border, and we get a lot of snow.


In fact here in Ottawa we receive over 2 meters every winter, translated that comes out around 7 feet .  Where I grew up and raised my kids, an average winter would have 3.3 meters or nearly 11 feet. In the snowiest town in Canada, Woody Point, Newfoundland they typically get around 6.3 meters or 21 feet. In all these communities, getting around in winter is a big deal.


Dealing with snow in Canada is not about politics, economics or lifestyle but a hard fact of life. However, over the past 20 years or so, number crunching and data modelling has reduced it to a large-scale source of potential savings. This kind of thinking originates in the heads of people living in Toronto where a 40 day winter might drop 4 feet of snow, but thankfully not all at once.

Somehow, like a bad case of impetigo, the idea that snow removal is bound up in balancing budgets has spread. The result is a ridiculous scenario where public jurisdictions across the country have divested their important and well deployed infrastructure and replaced it with that honoured process of awarding the contract to the lowest bidder where only the most minimal standard need be met.


In a real world response, we don’t even meet the minimum technical and bureaucratic standards.  Every snowfall becomes a disaster movie, transportation grinds to a halt. The impact on business is enormous.  Like some self-inflicted terrorist threat the entire city goes on lock-down. Cars, buses and people are stranded. Trains and airports close. Industry closes. Business stops.

I mean, who in their right mind would invest in a scenario like this? Seriously? Social networks are crammed with messages from dozens of households pleading to pay anyone “$20 to come and shovel my snow so I can get in my driveway”; and when they don’t get a response they abandon their vehicle on the street go inside and tweet while they watch the news.

But we love it because above all, it’s entertaining – the ultimate reality show. And because we value being personally entertained above everything else, we tolerate it. The worst part is that 20 or 30 years ago none of this would have warranted discussion beyond the kind you would have in an elevator or at a bus stop.


Winter brings out character in a nation. The question of where all the snow goes is very pertinent. The Canadian winter has always provided a strong subtext to our narrative if not the plot itself. Speaking to friends in southern France, it was necessary to point out that for 4 months of the year, none of them were likely to face death at the hands of the elements every time they left a social engagement. The danger and battle with the elements is something palpable and real for the majority of Canadians even if they don’t consciously acknowledge it. But our public story has been lost to an industry of post modern criticism, contrivance and globalization. Very hip, but at odds with reality. Only Quebec still sings “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver”.


Pretending that snow doesn’t exist is an increasingly risky situation that isn’t likely to end well. This situation follows the general breakdown of important infrastructure and civic-mindedness at all levels, not to mention the ‘public common’ which is under threat everywhere. In the race to disassemble our common culture and reassemble it with fantasy ‘world citizens’; things continue to go astray. Our common purpose, common space, common mind and common ground has given way to feudal structures and acts of personal fealty. Our response to our environment and one another matters a great deal. Ignoring the necessity of common purpose or embracing it will spell entirely different and fundamentally important outcomes.



Edwin Land presents – instant fun in a box !!

polaroid-onestep-SX70-whiteFor anyone who’s spent time developing pictures, spooling and dunking tanks, rinsing, tilting, waiting, mixing, measuring, weighing, washing, squinting, fumbling, while sitting in the dark listening to the shortwave radio and scribbling notes about dilutions and diminishing chemical strengths; what Dr. Land did on stage in those 5 seconds in 1972 was nothing short of a miracle. Up to that point, making a picture was always a very tangible process. Trying to insure the room was black, the temperature was stable, plenty of fresh water, everything in its place and our muscle memory reliable and competent. Constantly fighting humidity, dust, impurities and time. Balancing it with precision, knowledge, patience and skill. A good picture, not even a great one, was materially wrestled out of light and thin air. And whatever the process was, the first thing that comes to mind wasn’t fun.

I stepped outside this morning and was struck by how the morning light fell about the yard. It was a pretty mundane view but still it intrigued me so I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture. Maybe it would intrigue others too?  I quickly checked the screen, it actually did a decent job of documenting what I saw.

In fact,  just snapping an image and checking becomes an act of pleasure and entertainment in itself.  And apparently I’m not the first to notice this. What Edwin Land’s SX-70 did was change forever how we feel and interacted with images.

All of a sudden pictures are instant, self gratifying and totally in our power. The whole process is exclusively ours with no one else involved We can enjoy the fruits of anything we record even before we leave the scene. Snap a picture and a minute later we’re looking at it, judging it, showing it off, and getting others to judge it.  If everyone agrees, we have our picture. If not, we can immediately adjust the world until it looks exactly how we like. And then we try again.

There’s no driving to the store or taking the bus across town. No standing at the counter examining contact sheets with a plastic loupe. No horribly developed duplicate prints to shuffle through. No need to be marking little x’s and circles or pointing out bits of dust. No pushing or pulling and no coming back days later to see if we can decide which shots are good. Often seasons changed before you got your picture. One look at the commercials of the day and gets you an idea what it was like. *

To top it off,  no one could count on someone else to deliver their prized memories and experience. We always end up siding with the woman standing at the counter braying ” if they come back shaky, I’m not paying”. Everyone knew it could be their  own pictures coming back faded blue and green or murky black.  People shelled out money and told themselves “I meant it to be that way” and quietly wished for better luck next time.  Not with a Polaroid though, no sir!  Suddenly we lived in a future where taking pictures was exciting and incredibly fun!!

Hello instagram, selfies, pinterest, flikr, facebook, tumblr and more. Kittens, puppies, lunches, babies, flowers, trees and any thing else that catches our fancy. The pictures aren’t that much different. It’s how we take them that’s changed. That and the sheer volume of them. Images have become a waste product of our daily lives. Inhabiting our internal landscape like a city in the midst of a garbage strike**

Imagine for a minute how many images we capture daily of the Eiffel Tower, Lotte World and Everland?  Think of how people would have behaved or experienced taking those pictures in the 1930’s or 1860’s.  Dr. Land’s strange and wonderful invention introduced us to a whole new way of imagining the world. Truly carefree and disposable in practice. The world we now inhabit is instantaneous, impulsive and without consequence or history. Free from the complexity and constant physical grappling needed to visually capture experience. We stopped gazing and contemplating and our records became as fleeting as our thoughts.polaroid-SX70-classic

Equally the magic box of Dr. Land would turn out to be prescient of other trends to come. It would introduce a landmark patent case that would be familiar to us today. Devoid of inspiration or innovation like most American companies since that time, Kodak would try to steal this fun idea and disguise it as their own. They would have to pay for this infringement,  $909.4 million dollars to be exact.

Polaroid’s public popularity would be brief. Peaking in less than 20 years. 10 years later they would file for bankruptcy. A labour force of 21,000 reduced to 150 people in the end. Crippled and left out in the cold with the rest of the photographic world. The change they ushered in would spell their doom.

But what surprised me most in stopping to look at Polaroid and Edwin Land, is just how many Polaroid products I have owned or used over the years. It was a bit of a shock really. I never really thought of them as part of the product of my workaday world. They often solved intractable problems incredibly well. For me, Polaroid was never a passion but it was always deeply fascinating, sophisticated beyond belief and above all else loads of fun!!!


*   fotomat television advertisement from 1973

** this is how I imagine our mental landscape


Edwin Land’s self developing film


Today marks the day 65 years ago that Edwin Land received his patent for self developing film. I sort of came across this fact by accident. Like almost everything about him, I wasn’t looking for it and it wouldn’t normally have popped up during the course of the day. Fact is though, as soon as I saw it I knew enough to pay attention.

Edwin Land was a funny kind of hero to me for many years.  I never really connected him to his cameras, or to his film.¹ For the most part, I was unaware of his quiet contributions but it didn’t stop me from regularly tripping over his name associated with something I was doing. As a person, he never ‘burst onto the scene’ and always seemed to remain just a little out of sight. But his timely contributions managed to shape a generation and his iconic inventions still influence our day-to-day life.

Land was a scientist and innovator capable of putting many of our current superstars to shame.  I mean, here’s a guy who left after a freshman year of studying chemistry at Harvard to invent a film that contained millions of micron-sized polarizing crystals that all lined up with each other and were capable of filtering light. In order to do this he used the New York City Public Library to do his research and snuck into the laboratories of Columbia University at night to do his work.

He returned to Harvard but never finished his degree because he didn’t need one. Once he figured out a solution to a problem in his head, he just went ahead and solved it. He had little interest in writing it down, and even less in trying to prove himself to others.

Together with his Harvard physics professor he started a company to produce his polarizing film. Designed for optics and scientific work they managed to get it to work on sunglasses and camera lenses and this brought in enough money to start his Polaroid Corporation in 1937.

He went on to make the first full-colour 3D glasses, the brightness control necessary for all LCD’s, target finders, dark adapting goggles, the first passively guided smart bomb, and a stereoscopic system that could reveal camouflaged positions in aerial photographs. His team developed the optics on the U-2 spy plane, and the ability to project the entire spectrum with only 2 colours of light. But most importantly, on February 21st 1947 he demonstrated the first instant camera and film to the Optical Society of America. The Polaroid 95



Despite the fact that he never obtained any type of formal degree, his commitment to science had him perform at least one experiment every day and earned him enough respect to be called Dr. Land by his friends, employees and the press. The Wall Street Journal being the only known exception, adamantly refusing to attach the Dr. before his name.

Wall street in general took a dim view of him. They and his investors disliked the fact that he made his decisions based on what he felt was right both as a scientist and a humanist. He consistently hired women and trained them as research scientists and put himself and his company at the front of the affirmative action movement after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

When he died at the age of 81, his personal notes and papers were shredded by an assistant.

We’ve fast forgotten how physical the world of photography was for most of its existence. The glass plates, flash pans, massive tripods, stools, boxes and giant cameras. The problem of trapping light in a black box and getting it to physically stick to a surface was something more than alchemy, and that Dr. Land could permanently stabilize it in dye was more than remarkable.

There had been instant film for cameras since he introduced it in 1947. But it was still physical and messy. And in the 10 seconds that passed when Edwin Land pulled a folded camera out of his pocket and took 5 ‘instant’ photos at the annual meeting of his company in April 1972, this would change forever.

Congratulations and Happy Birthday to all, for none of this would be possible without the original patent for self developing film.

¹The whole story of his life is worth the read from the following link from which I have drawn a fair bit of information  →  Edwin Land