Images of Toronto, tailored to suit every taste and budget, abound in our town’s bookstores and gift shops. Visitors who just want a memento to remind them of Hogtown after they get home can pick up popular photo albums of famous sights, scenic postcards, place mats,tea-towels and ashtrays with views of familiar local landmarks printed on them. Passers-by (and citizens) in search of something weightier can find full-colour picture books that celebrate the high-style architecture in the city`s most cherished Victorian and Edwardian neighbourhoods. But, to my knowledge, there’s never been a pictorial souvenir of this metropolis quite like the new portfolio called Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto’s Architectural Vernacular (Coach House Books, $24.95).
Introduced by Shawn Micallef, who hails from the circle of young big-city researchers and enthusiasts around Spacing magazine, this arresting little assembly of photographs by Patrick Cummins is a portrait gallery of the architecturally unimportant elements in Toronto’s pre-1945 urban tapestry. The featured items include shabby corner stores on residential streets, ramshackle garages in laneways, exhausted-looking bungalows and Gothic cottages and semis, shop-fronts at the bottom of three-level infill structures on busy arterial avenues. These cheaply constructed buildings will never rate official protection as “historic properties,” and nobody, I suspect, would fight to save them from modification, let alone demolition.
Unlike his usual subjects – some of which have been variously embellished, gentrified, “arty-fied” – Mr. Cummins’ depictions of them are nostalgia-free, dead-ahead, “full frontal” (as the book’s title indicates). But by carefully arranging these artless pictures into telling sequences, the photographer has created an atlas of the endlessly changing city that’s far more fascinating than any individual picture in the collection.
Mr. Cummins did not launch his project back in 1978, however, with grand designs in mind. He began simply by striking out, via the TTC, for some place in downtown Toronto and photographing the prewar houses and stores he found there. Important buildings, Rosedale or Forest Hill mansions and such, and most things post-war, did not interest him.
Then, in 1988, the photographer catalogued the thousands of negatives he had made, and got a surprise. He discovered that, while not meaning to do so, he had snapped some buildings more than once. Lining up image after image of the same structure, he found that substantial changes (some amusing, others deplorable, most visually interesting) had often occurred with the passage of time. A very retiring, somewhat tattered Boulton Avenue bungalow he shot in 1980, for example, had bloomed by 1988 into a merry Chinese firewood shop with a jaunty sign hoisted above a large new window.
There was a system at work in his heap of photographs, he realized – one that was drawing many seemingly disparate images into cultural narratives about the churn of change. It was at this point that Mr. Cummins decided to turn his accidental rephotographing into a deliberate activity. So it has gone since 1988 until the present: a systematic retracing of steps, the re-finding of buildings photographed years earlier, and the making of fresh images that, combined with the old ones, add up to the visual tales in Full Frontal T.O. As we find in the book’s opening sequence of eight photographs, for instance, the bungalow on Boulton Avenue captured in 1980 and 1988 has continued to change – adding a Chinese roof ornament and a roll-up garage door (1999), then losing the ornament and turning back into something that looks like a house (2012).
As you might expect, Mr. Cummins often returns to the site of an earlier photo shoot and finds his original subject has vanished. A neat, very modest (and very old) worker’s cottage, bookended by two-storey houses, still stood at 229 Borden St. in 1986, when Mr. Cummins first visited the site. By 2000, when he returned, it had been replaced by a dull two-level townhome. The photographer makes little fuss about the aesthetics of the new building, and certainly sheds no tears. His preferred role is that of the rock-steady, patient witness to the transfigurations documented in the pictures he takes. He leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether these changes are for good or ill.
This ego-free, distanced, balanced point of view vis-à-vis the city’s development (or desecration, according to your opinion of such matters) is controversial in the contemporary art and architecture worlds. Many critics and artists (and consumers of criticism and art) prefer cultural creators who are passionately engaged, forwardly polemical. So be it: Patrick Cummins’s cool, dry artistic temperament has served him well over the last 30 years, giving him the patience and sheer doggedness to keep piling up his enormous photographic archive, which people who want to know what Toronto really looks like will surely be pondering forever.