I Am My Father's Son
Photography – especially street photography – is, in many ways, coming full circle for me. I was reminded of this when I had posted a few recent images on Facebook and my cousin Kwoi commented that my dad would be proud of my work. I mentioned to my partner Kenneth what a compliment it was, coming from Kwoi – a professional photographer and filmmaker. Because of their mutual interest in photography, my dad and Kwoi were pretty close. "You didn't tell me that," my partner said. "Did you get into photography because of your dad?"
No. Well, maybe.
I was still pretty young when my dad took up photography as a serious hobby. I don't have much recollection of it, other than remembering that he belonged to a camera club in Toronto's Chinese community, and that they would go on photo walks. I think I might have gone with him a few times, but I probably didn't understand the attraction of taking photos of boring buildings and trees. He was pretty into it - he even had a Hasselblad, so I don't feel so bad splurging on my Fujifilm. I don't even want to guess how much he spent on his gear.
My dad passed away in 2004. It was quite sudden – he became ill and within days, he was gone. In the years since then, there have been many moments when I realize how much I am my father's son.
I already knew that at an early age, I demonstrated a keen talent for drawing and sketching - just like my dad. At one point, I even considered going to an arts high school. But being the practical man he was, and not wanting to see his son become a "starving artist" (he was a commercial artist himself), my dad was just as happy when I decided not to go.
It wasn't until Grade 10 that I fell into what would become my early calling – journalism. It was sheer luck that my school happened to have journalism class. It was also luck that my school happened to have a school newspaper, of which I became editor in the following grade until I graduated.
From there, it only made sense to attend Ryerson which was one of a handful of schools offering a program in journalism at the time.
Taking photos was part of my first job as a reporter and that's when I really picked up a camera. My editor at the time was quite skilled at photography and taught us the basics of taking decent enough shots of people and places to accompany our stories.
And now, here I am, instead of reporting about events and writing the "first draft of history," I'm documenting every day moments in people's lives with a camera, trying to capture a story with a picture.
Last week, I visited my youngest sister who is selling her house. My dad had lived with her until he passed, so of course, she has a lot of his things still. She and my niece came across some of his photos when they were preparing their house for sale. I'd seen many of my dad's landscape shots before, but I had never seen these - urban streetscapes.
I used to wonder what my dad would think of my work. Now, I know what I'm doing isn't that far off from what he used to do too. I still think he would think it's mostly strange for me to take photos of strangers on the street. But I also think he would have recognized my passion for it, and in his way encouraged me, by not discouraging me – as is the Chinese way.
The photos my sister and niece found are featured in this project, along with my own work which mirrors my dad's style or subject matter.
So this is for you, Dad. Thanks for passing on your talents, and for encouraging and teaching me through the years.
September 28, 2019
Anyone who calls themselves a photographer in Toronto has at least a few hundred shots of the city's skyline, prominently featuring the CN Tower. It appears my dad took his shot from Centre Island while mine is from Polson Pier.
When I saw this shot by my dad of some hydro wires, it really hit me that we had a similar aesthetic and the desire to make something out of the ordinary. I also took many, MANY shots into the sun which is something you're not supposed to do.
Toronto's Gooderham (Flatiron) Building from two vantage points and different time. of day. Another must-have in a Toronto photographer's portfolio.
Times Square in 1980 (note "Xanadu" is playing at the theatre on the left) with only one large billboard. On the right is a photo I made in 2018. I bet my dad would have loved seeing Times Square now in all its neon/LED glory.
It's a bit jarring to see a "real" photo of the World Trade Center after 9/11. My dad's image was made while leaving the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, while mine was made on the way back into Manhattan.
Finally, this is a shot on 5th Avenue, looking south from W 33rd Street - you can see the entrance to the Empire State Building on the right and the Flatiron Building in the distance. This is my favourite image because it's not quite a tourist shot and showed my dad appreciated the energy of the streets as I do.