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Toronto street scenes: Michael Cho and Patrick Cummins

In the June 2012 issue of Q&Q, Alison Lang examines two new art books that are inspired by the urban canvas of Toronto’s ever-changing storefronts and back alleys.

From Patrick Cummins' Full Frontal T.O.: photos of one storefront taken a decade apart

Like most cities, Toronto is in a constant state of flux. It’s easy to notice the major signifiers of change, like the multiplying condo developments, but as two new art books attest, Toronto’s streetscapes also provide quiet yet powerful visual proof of its growth.

Patrick Cummins’ Full Frontal T.O. (Coach House Books) collects more than 400 of his Toronto street photos taken over a 30-year period, with accompanying text by Shawn Micallef, author of 2010’s Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto (also published by Coach House). The new book launched in early May, in conjunction with an exhibition of Cummins’ photos at Toronto’s Urbanspace Gallery in the 401 Richmond building.

Originally from Georgetown, Ontario, Cummins moved to Toronto in 1978 to attend the Ontario College of Art. During daily walks from his East End home to the school’s downtown campus, the drawing student became increasingly fascinated by the vibrancy of his urban surroundings. There was just so much everywhere, he says. Inspired by the sights, Cummins began taking photographs of everyday structures and scenes, such as storefronts, train yards, gas stations, and laneway garages.

In 1988, as he began cataloguing his huge collection of photo negatives, Cummins noticed he had inadvertently taken two shots of the same Boulton Street building. In the eight years between photos, the location had transformed from a residential house to a landscaping business.

That was the moment I had this shock of recognition, he says. It was tremendous.

The transformation he captured led to Cummins’ current practice: shooting the city’s ever-changing storefronts, signs, and buildings, to create a narrative of the city snapshot by snapshot. In one photo set taken over 20 years, a plumbing store’s signage reveals its lifespan, from fresh paint to the appearance of a 60 per cent off sign, to its final state, boarded up and covered in graffiti.

These changes can be disruptive or really gradual, says Cummins. Sometimes we’ll really notice them in one area because of massive development, but they’re happening everywhere else, too.
Coach House editorial director Alana Wilcox welcomes Cummins’ attentiveness to local minutia. There are a lot of coffee-table books about the bigger buildings in Toronto and the large-scale architecture, and really, it’s such a small percentage of the city, she says. Most of our city is the little houses and the storefronts.

Like Cummins, illustrator and comics artist Michael Cho has spent most of his adult life in Toronto, observing the urban environment. Better known for his stylish depictions of figures and faces, Cho began working on Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes (Drawn & Quarterly) as a means of improving his ability to draw landscapes. In picking his subject, he naturally gravitated toward his favourite part of his downtown College Street neighbourhood.

I didn’t want to draw the CN Tower “ I wanted to draw the Toronto where I live, he says. For me, it was cutting through these alleys on the way home from Sneaky Dee’s [a local bar] or other places.

From Michael Cho's Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes

D&Q publisher Chris Oliveros, who first noticed Cho’s alleyway drawings when the artist posted a selection on his blog, urged him to publish a book. Oliveros says Back Alleys is a testament to Cho’s artistic versatility. His urban landscapes have a certain haunting quality about them, each possessing [its] own form of quiet beauty.

The drawings vary in detail, moving from a simple black-and-white sketch of a fence surrounding a house to a vivid rendering of a desolate alley at night, drenched in the glow of orange and pink streetlight. As the art grows richer in colour, so does the sense of Cho’s emotional connection to his work.

Some alleyways were beautiful, or melancholy, or, in a certain kind of light, they produced something strange and classical, despite the fact that they’re in the back, where there is graffiti and garbage, he says.

Back Alleys closes with one of its few non-alley drawings: a vacant lot next to a tiny brick house in the city’s West End. It was the only place you could see the horizon across Toronto, Cho says. I walked by again a few weeks later and boom! Condos. I was so glad I had caught that.”

Although people don’t feature in either book, both authors capture the sense of impermanence that comes with residing in a city. We live in these neighbourhoods, and they’re not going to be around forever, Cummins says. A lot of the stuff I photograph has a long day-to-day life, with two or three people’s lives lived in a house, two or three businesses occupying a building, and then it’s gone.