Patrick Cummins, 54, has been photographing Toronto since 1978. He has work in the holdings of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa, a program of the National Gallery of Canada; his Flickr page contains more than 23,000 images, about half of which are comparative works called “Collations.” (He guesses he's taken approximately 75,000 photos of the city since the seventies.) Since 1986, Mr. Cummins has worked as an archivist specializing in photographic, cartographic and architectural records.
Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto's Architectural Vernacular, published in May by Coach House Books, examines the “messy urbanism” of the city. With photographs by Patrick Cummins and words by Shawn Micallef, a senior editor at Spacing magazine, the book will see its official launch on May 9 as part of the 2012 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, with an exhibition at the Urbanspace Gallery at 401 Richmond St. W.
What did you photograph when you arrived in the city in 1977 to study at the Ontario College of Art?
When I first moved from Georgetown, I lived at Parliament and Gerrard, in the heart of Cabbagetown. It was an area undergoing a lot of change: Homes were being sandblasted and cleaned up but it was also still a very vibrant, old Toronto neighbourhood. It seemed like a town unto itself. I quickly got the impression that Toronto was just a bunch of little towns thrown together. The work of Walker Evans and his focus on vernacular architecture and storefront signage in America in the 1930s infused my vision, and I started to look for that sort of thing.
In the eighties, you had an epiphany.
I’d been doing this sort of work for about 10 years. I was cataloguing my negatives and discovered that one particular building at 140 Boulton Ave., east of Broadview at Dundas, I’d photographed in 1988 but I had also done eight years earlier. This house was now a landscaping business. It was this shock of realization: It was the same building. What really attracted me was that you could not apply any architectural style to that house. There are many examples of this in Toronto, houses that are really hard to date. The number of layers that get added, it starts to be treated like a blank canvas. I realized quickly that it wasn’t the only building that I had re-photographed. This is what the whole thing was: When you’re standing in front of something, you would swear it’s always been that way.
Did your job with the Archives change the way you shot the city?
They intertwine. The one thing that really hit home is that when people visit the Archives, more often than not they’re looking for their street, house and neighbourhood. It reinforced that it was an area to be explored, especially over time. The more official Toronto gets documented enough already.
As Shawn Micallef points out, Toronto’s tourist sites change a lot less than the mundane spaces.
The tourist sites are grander and built to last. Shawn quotes [Toronto architect]Brigitte Shim: the city was built “with sticks.” The idea is that this mundane kind of stuff was never built to last, but it does last.
“Toronto was never built for glory,” Micallef writes. It was built “on the cheap, quickly and humbly.” And now we have our world-class-city insecurities.
It’s fine to strive for these things, but at the same time you need to recognize what you have. There’s a certain spirit that often goes unrecognized in this city.
What is your process shooting the same places over and over again? Do you have a schedule?
I try to do everything on the decade and half-decade and poke away at it in between. Because I work full time, I have my weekends only. I basically go out with an itinerary. Usually I get a third of what was on my list because of cars in the way or the light being wrong. I love the fact that we’ve got so many trees in the streets now, but we never used to and it really changes when you can shoot certain structures. There used to be no shopping on Sundays to speak of so Sundays were great – you could walk down Queen Street and there’d be [no traffic] Now, you’re fighting everything to get at it.