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Cities In Mind
Three Toronto photographers explore the urban landscape and find new ways of utilizing the overused medium.

The ROM Crystal, St Lawrence Market on a Sunday, men in suits filing down Bay Street. These are all things that seem perfectly applicable to a photography exhibit that explores the connection between people and a city. But at Cities in Mind—a show put on by three Toronto photographers that aims to do just that—there’s nary a CN Tower to be found.

Instead, the show takes the less-paved, abstract route. Cities in Mind is a collaboration between Wieslaw Michalak, Don Snyder and Andrew Williamson. The former two artists are professors at the Faculty of Image Arts at Ryerson University; the latter is a recent photography grad, invited by Snyder and Michalak, to create a body of work that ties everything together.

“It’s been a long day,” says Williamson, who has been single-handedly coordinating the show, when I finally get him on the phone. Besides creating original work within a three week period, Williamson took it upon himself to do curation, promotion, assembling frames and build light-boxes, a first for the 23-year-old artist. “It’s been a huge undertaking, coordinating a show in just three weeks and creating original work,” he says. The biggest challenge? Hassling his once-professors to get work in on time, a role reversal from Williamson’s student days.

(Rome by Wieslaw Michalak via the artist)

The show at the Artscape Triangle Gallery is divided into two sections. I visit on opening night, shuffling from piece to piece to snack table to bar, back to the art, back to the bar. One side is dedicated to Michalak, the Polish-born photographer who splits his time between Berlin and Toronto. The title of the show came from a body of work Michalak did in 2005, consisting of satellite images from world cities like Istanbul and Rome, projected onto 19th Century German atlases and displayed in glowing light-boxes. The atlases’ pages are fanned open, juxtaposing a dated method of sorting geographic information—who uses an atlas anymore?—with the relatively new satellite footage that, through the likes of Google Maps, is slowly replacing the atlas. If you look closely at the image of Rome, you can see the cross-shaped vatican and the meandering grid of the city projected on the sprawling pages.

(Williamson's take on Snyder's photographs of the Annex)

On the other side are Don Snyder’s photographs, which like Michalak’s, take a scientific approach. He uses something called photo micography film, which he (very graciously) explained to me as “high-contrast, fine-grain, designed for microphotography of stained biological specimens. It renders magenta, red, blue and not much else.” When taken out of the lab and into his camera, the result is moody, expressionistic.

He shot these photos in the ’80’s from balconies and bridges looking down into the ravines of the city. His photos are lush with sinewy branches, showing the oft-forgotten unpaved side of Toronto. Even his set of Victorian houses in the Annex, the only work in the show that has actual buildings, the houses are enveloped by trees. “For years I’ve been fascinated with the ravines in Toronto, either as places to walk, or places to look at,” says Snyder. “The fact that so many bridges provide a quasi-aerial perspective also interests me — it’s not that often that you are in a location where you can actually look down at the treetops, in certain kinds of light this affords a wonderful view,” he says.

Between images of urban terrain shot from space and lush ravines, it was up to Williamson to tie the two together. His art consists completely of Michalak and Snyder’s artwork, but it looks like he’s dissected their photos and squeezed them into cramped strips of distorted photograph. Is that it? “Well, sort of,” Williamson says diplomatically every time I try to make sense of it. Granted, this was before I saw his photos in person—but let’s backtrack a little here—in his final year of his degree, Williamson won an award for quasi-remixing the way photographed matter is represented. He did this through programming scripts in ImageMagick, which is to PhotoShop what a Walkman is to the iPod. ImageMagick takes the DNA of a slew of photographs as programmed by Williamson (contrast, edges, colours) and mashes the stack of images into one. The result is an almost dizzying game of lost and found, spotting which aspect of Snyder and Michalak’s work is where.

Williamson got the idea through a school assignment of creating a book of photos—incidentally assigned by Michalak—that he did not want to do. “It was sort of a rebellion. It took publicly available Flickr photos and overlaid them,” says Williamson, “I knew I was either going to get like, a 95 or a zero.” Spending every day completely overloaded with images (something you can’t deny for a second) this is a different way of looking at photography. When someone uploads vacation photos to Facebook, a week in Mexico is translated into 300 images. “What if we looked at it all at once?” he asked, and the idea was born. Suffice to say, Williamson didn’t get a zero.

Cities In Mind is on until December 5th at the Artscape Triangle Gallery, 38 Abell St., Gallery Hours: Wednesday – Saturday, 12:00 – 5:00 p.m.

Photos by Arthur Mola, unless noted.

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