The World Upside Down - Spacing Magazine, Summer 2021
Bart, Underpass Park, Toronto
CERB and Covid-19 anti-eviction posters, Parkdale
City of Toronto
The World Upside Down
Words & Photography by Daniel Skwarna
One evening late in February, as coronavirus began to flood our news cycle, I sat browsing Japanese Ebay ads. I was looking for a used large format film camera (ideally a mid-century field model I could carry around). I hoped its weight and technique might help to slow myphotographic practice, making it a more immersive, meditative experience. I also hoped to challenge and confront my traditional digital approach and foster a new mode of seeing, working in, and engaging the world during an unprecedented health crisis.
A late model Toyo 45A field camera shipped from Japan in early March, right before Toronto shut down. It proved a prescient choice and fitting partner to wander our increasingly deserted streets with. It also turned my world upside down.
The large format camera lacks a conventional SLR camera mirror. I see people and places upside down and backward, a deeply unsettling experience if you prefer life ordered and predictable. Without a Toronto-based lab to develop the film it had to be shipped to Vancouver. Much of my CERB support went to pay for this.
I was shooting blindly (but still upside down and backward), with no idea if the camera was capturing faithfully, or at all. Most often I was not able to see my negatives for weeks as our overwhelmed postal service stopped tracking packages, leaving my film floating somewhere over western Canada.
I soon felt utterly helpless with my new camera, which served to only reinforce what I imagine so many of us were feeling at the time.
I avoid planning too much as I move around the city. I am not particularly familiar with Toronto even after living here my whole life. Carrying a cumbersome camera in this newness proved additionally unnerving. Approaching strangers makes me anxious, especially with our collective health so tenuous and fragile. I have also lived with Type 1 Diabetes for nearly thirty-nine years (I am thirty-nine years old), leaving me squarely in the high-risk category. My dark hood became a plague mask, blocking out the larger world, allowing me to focus on manageable four-by-five inch portions of it.
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Dairy Cream, Mississauga
Netflix & Chill, Scarborough
Ana-Laura & Peter, Etobicoke
Much to my surprise and delight, the fashionably old camera proved a draw. I did not have to nervously approach passersby to explain what I was doing. They want to talk about the camera (is it real or a prop? How does it work?), and they want to talk around it, like a water cooler sitting plump on a tripod.
A man in Parkdale I will call Allan crossed the street to tell me about his life (and living with a disability) and to share his photographs, which he keeps in a small plastic protective case tucked away in his pocket, of the homeless and disadvantaged people he encounters around the city.
He pressed a computer printed business card on me with his contact information and Youtube channel. I promised to watch his video and message him with him an honest opinion (as requested), and I did.
Several people I chatted with wistfully described their early years in the darkroom developing and printing black and white film, now lamenting the demise--or so they think!--of analog photography. It is difficult to be seen or heard in isolation, to avoid the feeling that you are disappearing altogether as the initial novelty wears off and the months drag on.
Social media is no substitute for moist, meaningful connection. The experiences of the people I meet calm and ground me. My anxiety ebbs. Without the boiler plate of daily life, they have time and relative ease. Many want to be seen and to share their place in the city as they move through it. And they are eager to be involved and help.
Lake Ontario from the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant, Toronto
My process is necessarily slow and encourages exchange. A stubborn creature in the urban jungle, the large format camera refuses to be rushed to exposure. Even as I plead with it to do my bidding, my fingers anxiously fumbling with its knobs and dials, I am totally dependent on the kindness and patience of strangers.
Fully enclosed within its opaque elasticized shell and entranced by the dull glow of the topsy-turvy image on the ground glass,
I hide from the virus world while spying on it, my own cozy photographic quarantine. I emerge to measure the light, set the exposure, cock the shutter (this turn of phrase elicits much giggling amongst men of a certain maturity level), and insert the film holder. Gingerly,
I remove the dark slide, careful not to move the camera. I take a deep breath to let the camera and my heart settle, then gently squeeze the cable release, exposing the film. Looking directly and intently at my subject, the cost of sheet film prohibits more than a few unique exposures per encounter.
Limited to just ten sheets of film per day, I have plenty of time between pictures to reflect on why a mid-century photographic squeezebox became a small personal talking point during a global health crisis.
It is almost comically outside of time and place. Picture an old accordion with a small lens attached to the front and a large shower cap hanging from the rear standard.
It makes kids giggle and adults smile to see a camera with a body attached to it. They catcall from passing cars and whistle from their bikes. Most people want to be anywhere but here now, in a politically and culturally divided world with few, if any, sureties. The camera helped us with that, if only momentarily.
Many have lost so much already and we are all worried for the future. I have not slept properly for weeks. When not caught up in making photographs, my body hums with baseline anxiety. Will there be a second viral wave? Will small businesses survive? The economy? Will I have a job after all of this is over? How will I make a living?
Early morning joggers and walkers up before the masks come out, Riverdale Park East
Winnie & Martin, Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto
What about George Floyd and other Black victims of police brutality and systemic racism?
While I was under my hood, a Black man was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer with a history of violent behaviour and Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death from a High Park apartment while under police supervision.
I met a middle-aged white woman at a Mississauga long-term care facility who told me she doesn’t wear a mask (while talking increasingly close to my face) because it makes it difficult to breathe.
It was hard to not think of her when looking at protest photos of Black activists wearing masks that also say, I Can’t Breathe.
My camera has no answers.
Perched stolidly on my shoulder, long tripod legs stretched out in front of me, it catches the eye of passersby and lures us backward into a hazy, nostalgic past.
A time that is decidedly not this one. Anytime but the present. Before COVID-19 swept the world, killing hundreds of thousands, pitting citizens against one another in slow-simmering, divisive culture wars.
An outwardly simpler period before dark web conspiracies, self-driving cars, and phones that spy on us.
Before an increasingly fractured world got sick together.