Skip to main content
q&a

Photographer Patrick Cummins prepares to take a new photo of the first Toronto home he photographed thirty years ago (in rear).J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail

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.

I love the spruce tree mushrooming in front of one house on Richmond Street West over the years.



This project is about change; it's not so much about trying to stop time as it is about trying to capture the slide of time. Most of our perception of time is memory. It's as much about what I've photographed through choice or chance as it is about what I haven't.

Do you interact with Torontonians when you shoot?

I'm pretty good at reading the periphery when I'm taking the picture, seeing what's coming and going. I don't mind people sometimes, but I get very particular about how they are. They have to be framed or on the edge or wearing an interesting pattern. Sometimes if you really look at the rows, you'll see the same people showing up. You'll see the same car, 15 years later.

Are you walking, cycling or driving?

I walk and take transit to get from Point A to Point B. Walking has always proved to be the way to do it.

What are your parameters?

I generally work between Roncesvalles in the west, Woodbine in the east and St. Clair in the north, with occasional forays beyond those limits. The reasons for this are the prevalence of 19th- and early-20th-century architecture, which is of most interest to me. The further you go beyond those boundaries, the more recent the architecture tends to be.

Commenters write about how addictive your Flickr sets are, like a mammoth spot-the-difference game. How many photos have you shot?

On Flickr, there are 23,000 photographs. About half the work on Flickr is part of the Collations project, which is comparatives of structures over time. The other half is projects ranging from graffiti documentation to crushed Coke cans. I don't even know how many images I have now, it's probably like 75,000 now. Flickr is my shoebox of photographs.

What do people tell you after going through your Flickr?

They're just overjoyed to see their old home because usually the photo was taken when they were living there – and they no longer live there. They're just astonished to see it. They start talking about details. It happens with businesses and shops as well.

Looking at reams of Toronto properties, you see how bad people's aesthetic choices are and how shoddy the work often is.

I don't make judgments. I think of it as a celebration of the involvement of people. The architecture was built in a different era with different sensibilities and it gets used and reused. That's what I like about vast areas of downtown: it's just people adding layer upon layer to it. It's a celebration of lived-in architecture, as opposed to building something and trying to maintain it in pristine condition forever. This is more about shells that get reused.

Micallef writes about decay spreading like "an infectious cold." Your photos reveal that some spaces, like the one on Sherbourne just north of Queen, sit abandoned for decades.

The restaurant at 123 Sherbourne survived into the nineties, Tom's Restaurant. I never went in there, but it survived. In 1986, the earliest photograph, 125 was completely closed. Now it's been erased completely.

There's always been the situation where one spouse dies and the other just sort of sits there for years before doing something. Or it might be larger development consortiums who buy properties over decades until they have something they can work with.

What about all the boarded up second floors in these photographs?

You still see that. The HMV at Queen and Beverley, in three of the photos over a 15-year period, the blinds are sitting crooked in the second-floor window. They never change position. I don't know what was up there. Sometimes, the second floor is in use but the first floor isn't. One house on Bathurst, you realize the ground floor is boarded up but somebody's still living in the second floor and there's a cat in the window. They obviously have a rear entrance.

Is your project a time capsule or a time machine?

It's both. People will look at it as a re-creation of a past time or a way of going back and generating all that was around.

The earliest material now is getting quite old – early eighties is when it really amps up. It's almost archival. This project is never-ending, it's the business of keeping-on-doing-it. People I know who do this kind of work today, I don't know if they're going to keep doing it for 30 years. So I'll just keep doing it and we shall see what happens – which, essentially, was always the approach.



This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe