Leafing through proofs from celebrated Canadian photographer Geoffrey James’ recent pictures of Toronto places–the work is due for publication in book form by Douglas & McIntyre late next year–I found a city familiar but also strange, as though snapped through a lens that miraculously makes pain visible.
The disjointedness that James sees in Toronto’s landscape is hardly foreign to anyone who lives here. Our urban geography is very much a matter of towers too tall raised beside blocks too squat, charming Victorian houses hard by stark and alien parking lots, short stretches of friendly street wounded by ugly highrises thrown up without respect for the modest gentility of Toronto’s best domestic architecture. That’s just the big-city reality Torontonians live with, but rarely see in more flattering standard-issue representations of the city.
Here, as elsewhere in his large and well-known body of architectural photography, James reveals with unsparing clarity the ache and raw rub in these sites of conflicted vision. This is his gift to the imagination of urban culture: his ability to summarize, in single panoramic images, the complex historical processes of building, decay, disappearance on a given site, in a given place.
Contrary to a hasty reading of James’ photographs, these are not traditional landscape images, nor even the usual picturesque images of the urban landscape. Robert Fulford has pointed out the absence of timelessness in James’ pictures, and the pervasive presence of time–change, history, layering. Everything is in process. A proud but sad and dilapidated chapel, once part of a 19th-century prison, its wall plastered with advertising, stands in a wallow of cheap new townhomes being built around it with greedy speed. In another image, James depicts the brutal gash made in Toronto’s downtown urban flesh when the old west-side warehouses and factories were cleared, to make way for desolate fake Victorian housing. In other pictures, we visit places ruined by neglect or by too much attention of the wrong kind, bad architecture ambushing what’s left of the lovely, or good architecture awkwardly subsiding into the general sprawl of bad.
This sad tale is not, of course, what Toronto is all about. No photograph or heap of photographs can say everything. But these Toronto images precisely target the change and fracturing most of us experience only vaguely, and they document the artist’s ambivalent encounter with his new (since the 1990s) hometown.
“I’m struggling to deal with the complexity of Toronto, the way it is dispersed,” the British-born photographer explained during a recent afternoon’s conversation in the kitchen of his west-end Toronto house. “The project is also a way of reconciling myself to the city after having a hard landing here. When I came from Montreal in the 1990s, Toronto was just not a very inviting place. Nothing was happening here, but there was a lot happening in Mississauga and north of Highway 7–development, factories going up, great banking centres, whatever. I am still coming to terms with that. We knew an enormous number of people, but it was very hard to find a community. And I couldn’t find a place to buy a newspaper! In Montreal, there would be an international newsstand on the corner. I missed the whole series of small urban pleasures. I was like some old Australian bemoaning the lack of good cream.”
But since starting to photograph his newfound city, James has begun to discover a real place behind Toronto’s Potemkin faades of swank and not-so-swank capitalism.
“It’s not a flat city, the topography is much less staid than it appears at first sight. Instead of having hills, Toronto has declivities–ravines, rivers. The thing I have found is how unplanned the city is. It seems to have been laissez-faire since about 1900. North of Bloor, it’s basically a characterless bungalow sprawl, like Los Angeles without the freeways. It’s funny–A lot of Toronto is unloved, while Montreal is slightly too picturesque for its own good.
“And there’s the scale of the houses and blocks, which took me a long time to figure out–until I realized it had to do with the high proportion of homeowners in Toronto. Everyone had to own a house, apartments were places of sin and vice–so there are no old apartment buildings. Montreal is a city of renters, with a family on every floor of those greystones. They’re brilliant to live in, they’ve managed to get light in them.” Toronto’s Victorians are less brilliant to live in, because “there’s very little light,” and the houses are situated on blocks too long to make walking attractive.
But since beginning his career in photography some 25 years ago, James has found individual houses less interesting as objects in their own right than as remote sensors reporting deep shocks and shifts in the cultural mantle of the earth. In his 1987 book Morbid Symptoms, James looked at France in the strange, weightless time just before the Revolution, as the ancien rgime played out its final energies in gardens, retreats and fantasy spots. Turning inward, away from the industrialization that had thwarted their pastoral dreams of order, liberal spirits constructed the small Arcadias photographed so beautifully by James, including Ermenonville, where Rousseau died and was buried. This abiding concern with the moment in which antique worlds disappear and new ones are born amid sorrow and hope has informed and increasingly sharpened James’ photographic project.
The site in which James finds this transformation at work, however, has continued to changed. At first he discovered his subject in the traditional Italian and French garden. “It was what I was interested in, but I couldn’t go on, because it would become soft and mannered and predictable. I was ready for a change.” The opportunity for change came when James received a commission (along with Robert Burley and Lee Friedlander) from the Canadian Centre for Architecture to photograph the American and Canadian parks created by 19th-century landscape architect Frederic Law Olmsted. “Working in those places for seven years, I realized they were about the breakdown of public space in America. Central Park is kept alive by private money, it’s surrounded by the richest people in the world, who all have a stake in fixing it up. But most of the parks are sad places, with trees at the end of their life–very strange places, not kept up.”
Decline and fall–in Lethbridge, in Paris, anywhere: “Much of what I have done is accidental. Take the Paris book. My original project was to do the new towns around Paris. But when I got there, it turned into a matter of pure shoe leather, going through the city like a worm, seeing how it’s become a clean, bourgeois city, with rents that have got rid of the working class. I went to Paris for the first time in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, and it was like being in the Middle Ages, with so much life, and with everything crumbling. Since then, it’s gone from a textured, tasty city to one that is expensive, and it’s all becoming clean. I think my book is about the death of working-class Paris, which is surely the most transformed city in the world. Go to New York, you still find brownstones and fire escapes. In a few years, there will be nothing of that left in Paris.”
As Paris, so Lethbridge: “I genuinely love the city, I fell in love with the coulees and urban Modernism, but when I put the book together, I did a critical book. It’s not that I purposely set out to do this, and I was not trying to do a book about a city stuck in urban failure. But there is a conflict inside me over these matters. I think that if you do this kind of work, you become a kind of UN observer–pull back, look at it from the outside, see the flaws that most people don’t see when they are driving around, scanning. Very few people ponder the whole urban experience. Everyone has his set of circuits in the city, of course, so it is important for me to work outside my comfort zone. If I had set out to make Toronto beautiful, I would fall into the trap of every anodyne book of tourist photographs,
and we know them all. The Flatiron Building, Fort York, the CN Tower, a little bit of Cabbagetown, a little bit of Yorkville, and some condescending ethnicity.”
Many images destined for the Toronto book remain to be taken, and at least some will probably not be as bleak as the ones I saw. While keeping his distance from the seductions of urban beauty, Geoffrey James nevertheless goes about his work with strong, restless aesthetic hunger, and even allows himself the odd bit of satisfaction. “When I stumble across little parks of Cabbagetown, I’m in paradise. I’ve found a heavenly little corner–abundant, generous, intimate. There are the storefronts in Toronto–the range here is staggering. I’d like to deal with things I love, like Massey Hall, but you can’t do everything. At a certain point, you have to realize this will never be over.”
John Bentley Mays lives in Toronto and writes a regular column for The Globe and Mail.