Two stories related to urban documentary photographers made local news in Toronto recently. They concerned events a century apart, and yet they were related.
First was the publication of a series by the photographer Peter MacCallum in the magazine Spacing (both online and in print). MacCallum, whose relentlessly expressionless work straddles documentary and art, likes to document buildings and industries that are vanishing. He has made a career out of intriguing interiors, from cluttered factory floors to giant, brutal machinery, and although he has documented workers in various industries, he tends to prefer his architectural landscapes without people in them.
Here he managed to gain access to a notorious rooming house in downtown Toronto, now awaiting demolition. Called the Waverly Hotel, this warren of rooms was sad and dangerous, and had some hip mystique in the 1960s and 1970s as a bohemian hangout. The “people’s poet” Milton Acorn lived there in the 1970s. There had long been a blues bar next door and a famously sketchy dance club in the basement.
Close to the University of Toronto campus, the Waverly will be replaced by a new student residence. Its troubled inhabitants have been exiled. MacCallum photographed its empty rooms and its grimy hallways and graffiti-blanketed rooftop. There are no people in the photographs and yet the traces of trouble are there: the smashed walls, the mouldy tiles, the bits of poetry scrawled on doorways. He did this with a medium-format film camera, obtaining his usual luminous effects – determinedly, even obsessively neutral, he manages to convey a sense of the practicality of spaces and of their emotional resonance in his straight-on, high-key approach.
Perhaps the eeriest photos in this series are those of the empty dance club downstairs, called the Comfort Zone, a space usually dark and crowded in the early mornings with people in various states of stimulation. The club was well-known as an after-party destination: Ravers would come here at dawn on Sundays and dance their buzz off, or merely vegetate until the afternoon. Beats could regularly be heard thumping at noon.
But MacCallum shows it in a literally different light. Deserted and bright, its bare walls and tiled floors come up as battle-scarred and plain rather than as otherworldly and pulsating, as clubs seem when you are in them. It looks, as so many of MacCallum’s photos do, like a work space.
These photos have been widely shared online, largely out of a sense of nostalgia – people are commenting on them with stories about times they visited the hotel or the club. Permeating these reminiscences are a wistful sense of a vanished era of bohemianism and a remorse about gentrification. I think this is a bit misplaced – MacCallum says some of the abandoned rooms in the Waverly were too smelly to even enter – but it does demonstrate the photographer’s effectiveness in reminding us to keep an eye on our architectural and social history.
I wrote an essay on MacCallum once, for a hardcover collection of his photographs called Material World, focusing on his admiration for a professional photographer of the early 20th century named Arthur Goss. Goss was hired by the city of Toronto’s health department in 1911 to officially document poor living and working conditions. He is perhaps best known for his pictures of poverty in the middle of the great city. He documented the shabby shacks of St. John’s Ward, occupying a few blocks right in the centre of Toronto (where city hall and its huge plaza now are). MacCallum admires both the technical elegance and the sobriety of Goss’s photographs.
The coincidence is that Goss is also back in the news this month. The historian Chris Bateman, reporting for The Globe and Mail, recently became intrigued as to the identity of an unnamed little girl in a well-known Goss photo from 1913. The photo was of the slums of the ward, and the girl is standing in a winter coat in the middle distance, beside slumping shacks, staring stolidly at the camera. Bateman used a clever triangulation of census data, directories, maps and archives to find the likely tenant of the site and the name of his children. He determined that the little girl was most likely Dora Cooperman, then 11, a Russian Jewish immigrant. He traced her passage from Russia to Toronto and then to the United States, where she died in 1979. By making her story detailed and personal rather than anonymous, Bateman humanizes the victims of this vanished ruin, makes them easier for us to see and understand. In a sense, her identity makes sense of the whole crumbling ward.
A resurgence of interest in Goss and his social mission – his documentation of the ignored and the displaced, a mission at once scientific and humane – is part of the same curiosity that makes photos of the Waverly Hotel so relevant at a time of massive neighbourhood reconstruction. It is no coincidence that the two photographers in the news, Goss and MacCallum, share an aesthetic tradition. MacCallum once even curated an exhibition of Goss’s work. Both men have a sense that the apparent ugliness that surrounds us, the ugliness off industry and decay, is the site of human work and life, and that it should be contemplated, looked at, even respected.