“You should really photograph this,” my close friend and neighbor Don McKellar said at the start of the pandemic. I have spent my career documenting communities and for me photography is about engaging in the relationships between people and the worlds they inhabit. “But what can I take a picture of of? I am a people photographer, I replied. “And they say we can’t see anyone or go anywhere. You can’t even leave Toronto. I’m not going to go out alone and photograph the deserted city. Then, without missing a beat, he said, “I will be your subject. Now this got my interest.
By day, the streets had become difficult to walk safely, despite wearing masks. I had tried running to let off steam, but ended up swinging around cars and avoiding traffic to keep a distance of two meters from anyone on the sidewalk. Finally, I didn’t leave my house until after midnight.
The next day, I texted Don, “Okay, I have an idea, but you’re going to shoot too.” I knew Don would be bored if he didn’t have more agency in the game. Our first night we were uncertain and cautious. We knew nothing about this new threat at the time. Was he hanging in the air? Are we even supposed to get out at all? Was photography “an essential job? I handed Don a camera and a flash. “Okay let’s go!”
And that’s how it all began, like all photographic projects, starting with a photograph, then another, without knowing what it was going to become, but with the commitment to see what we could discover about ourselves – themselves and our city in these unprecedented circumstances. As our reciprocal subject-photographer collaboration evolved, we became each other’s mirror muses, transforming ourselves into something other than ourselves in front of each other’s cameras.
Time has passed, measured in infection rate and death toll. The first wave was followed by a second, then a third. The seasons, one of the few things we could really count on, made welcome changes: rain, heat, freezing temperatures, blinding snow, rain again. We photographed all of this and crossed off places on our list of Toronto landmarks: Toronto Harbor, Gardiner Highway, railroad tracks on Dupont, Bloor Street Viaduct, St. James Cemetery, under Don Valley Parkway, the Humber Bay Arch River Bridge, Ontario Place, Canoe Landing Park and Trinity Bellwoods Park, with its bizarre “circles of physical distance” …
At night, under the influence of our flash, long exposures and other photographic techniques, Toronto took on a dreamlike and apocalyptic turn: landscapes of streets and emblematic buildings sparsely inhabited, the many green spaces, parks and ravines of the city, nature juxtaposed with the built environment, both in conjunction with each other. We are the only two people left. The only souls we encountered were the birds of Toronto Island and the passers-by living in the streets, in parks, under bridges. “Hey buddy, do you have a cigarette?” “” I want to take a picture of my [paintball] firearm?”
One night at the Scarborough Bluffs around 3 a.m. as we set off down a winding path we hid in the trees when we heard gunshots followed by the sounds of revving and cars coming out of the parking lot below, as the lights and sirens of the police cars came at us from the other side at high speed on Brimley Road. All I could think of was Thank God – a little adrenaline rush, a break from the boredom and monotony of half a year of confinement.
Meanwhile, there were murmurs about the introduction of a nighttime curfew in Toronto. Selfishly, we thought, “Oh no! Anything but a curfew! Anything! Please don’t deny us our nocturnal photographic wanderings with our cameras! It was our connection – the very fabric of our pandemic lives could be at stake. Months before June of last year, when the Chief Medical Officer announced a public health advisory endorsing social circles that allowed individuals to ” bubbling ”away from their homes, Don and I had already stretched the rules, started our project and had dinner together. Many singles were alone in the face of an appalling and unknowable timeline, with no companionship or physical contact with another human being. There is something frustrating, paradoxical and cruel about being confined together in a city, unable to leave, but forbidden to take Communion.
The city at night in the most antisocial hours was our stage and our playground. The pandemic dictated the rules of engagement: two meters away, wearing masks, after dark. The camera is inherently a mechanism that relies on distance. Marshall McLuhan once said that all technologies are extensions of humans. The camera is an extension of the eye and the finger (and the heart and feelings). Our twin configurations included a fixed focal length lens with fixed focal length: 35mm. We used a flash and a tripod – the latter so that we could establish a third-person point of view for some of the shots, appearing to us both, at an appropriate physical distance, in the same frame. We shot in black and white, which in photography pushes the metaphor of unreality, one more distance from the familiar, evoking how Toronto, a city we both grew up in and thought we knew, had become. strange and unknown. Gone are the activities, sights and sounds of all that defined this place. We became children, exploring the city anew, regressing from civilization as the natural world increasingly encroached on our nocturnal explorations. Our perception of time was altered, disorienting, confused. Uncertainty, fear, anxiety, loneliness and loss surrounded us. Photography was a balm for our isolation, bringing privacy to a void.
The fourth wave arrived unceremoniously during the summer heatwaves this year, like bad news you’d expect. But the vaccines have brought new hope and new life to the city. And even though we knew things would never go back to how they were before, everything changed and everything we had experienced that year faded away like an elusive dream.
In our last photoshoot of the final season of the first year of the pandemic, we climbed the fence of the Toronto Necropolis in Cabbagetown to take photos of the flowering trees, these symbols of possibility and renewal. We set up our tripod and lights and framed the shot for a close-up. Standing two meters apart, we each extended a hand towards the other, stretching our fingers over the flowering branches of an apple tree, and allowed the shutter to fire on a timer. And this is where we left “our two friends” (as we used to call our alter egos) – in a dead end of perpetual attack, still untouchable through time and space, frozen. in a photograph, an infinite distance between them.
Rita leistner is a photographer, writer and filmmaker. His new book Forest for trees: tree planters will launch at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto on October 23, and the related film will have its international premiere in November.
Don McKellar is a Toronto-based actor, writer and filmmaker.
Infinite Distance is presented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery and will be featured in its Wanderlust exhibition, from January 29 to February 26, 2022.