Category Archives: photography


Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
—from “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg

Chicago was a big, young, driving, thriving city in 1914 when Sandburg wrote that. It had already been the home of the first skyscraper and was destined to be home of many more; it had seen its famous fire in 1871, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (which gave us the term midway); it was already a mid-continent commercial nexus and had for a time been the fastest-growing city in the world; it already had its famous elevated train loop around the central district. It had not yet seen the roaring ’20s and their gangsters; it was not quite yet the place about which the musical Chicago (set in the 1920s) was written. It did not yet have its famed deep-dish pizza, which first hit plates in the 1940s. It was not yet the town of the 1964 song “My Kind of Town,” made famous by Frank Sinatra. But it was all there, sprouting and growing, like a bulb (or perhaps a whole field) of wild garlic in the heart of America.

I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days in Chicago for the conference of ACES: The Society for Editing. We were at the Palmer House, now a Hilton hotel; it’s in the middle of everything, pretty much. It has a glorious lobby, a dimly lit cross between Grand Central Terminal (or should I say Union Station, since it’s in Chicago) and the Sistine Chapel, dominated by a busy cocktail bar. Up a grand staircase is the Empire Room, which through the heart of the 20th century hosted every entertainer who might perform in such a room (their photos line the hallways by the guest rooms) and this past week hosted a spelling bee for editors as part of the ACES conference (I was one of the judges, having won the event at last year’s conference). We also had events in the Chicago Athletic Club, which is no longer an athletic club – it has a hotel, bar, and event spaces in its classic old building.

Chicago is home to many classic old buildings. It has shiny newer buildings, to be sure, including the second and third tallest in the US, but it has not gotten rid of its gems from its booming years, all the American art deco and prairie style designs, all the steel and stone. This is a city that never stops reminding you that it was the epitome of architectural chic several decades ago.

Which is not where its name comes from. Chicago is a French-style rendition of a word from the language of the Miami-Illinois, an Algonquian people: shikaakwa, the name for a plant that grew abundantly in the area. The Latin for the plant is Allium tricoccum; it is more commonly called ramp, wild leek, or wild garlic. It’s smaller than a leek but larger than garlic.

To me, Chicago feels like a cross between Toronto and New York – it’s smaller than New York, more comfy and manageable in its central area, and with a nice lakefront, and often reminds people of Toronto in ways, but it has the urban grit and American empire feel of New York. I took some pictures at the conference. You can see the whole album on Flickr, but here are a few.



I had a bit of a party yesterday to celebrate a bit of a birthday. For half a day (I mean 12 hours) I took over the party room on the 33rd floor of the building where I live, and a goodly number of friends joined me to celebrate my attainment of half a century – or, as my brother reminded me, a third of a sesquicentury. (And 50 is one and a half times 33, so there’s that too.)

A 50th anniversary is a golden one, but 50 is the atomic number of tin, not gold. As it happens, my hair used to be gold, or goldish anyway, but is now much more the colour of tin. If you see 50 on a tin in Canada, it may be a can of Labatt’s 50, which is a beer. I suppose I could have been clever and served Labatt’s 50 at my party, but it’s not the sort of beer I buy often. Anyway, I was more focused on the sparkling wine, of which I bought two cases to serve those present (along with two cases of still wine, which may not be sparkling but it’s still wine).

The word fifty is obvious enough in its parts: fif meaning ‘five’ (the v in five was established later – in Old English, [v] was just a possible pronunciation of /f/ between vowels) and -ty a suffix meaning ‘ten’ and coming from a word meaning ‘decade’. But there is another suffix -ty that is related to Latin -itas and makes nouns of quality, such as beautyroyalty, and plenty. If royalty is ‘royalness’, fifty could almost be ‘fiveness’. That might be nifty – but it’s not so.

Many things are 50 in number. The states of the USA, for instance – and Hawai‘i, being the fiftieth to join, wears the number. But 50 is not so often a number of completion; more usually, it’s halfway, or an equal share, although it doesn’t always seem so – a 50% grey looks quite dark to most eyes; for a shade to look halfway between white and black, it needs to be closer to 33% grey, i.e., just 1/3 black (so a third of the way, just as my party room is a third of the way to the 100th floor – if there were one – and I’m a third of the way to being a sesquicentenarian). But 50 can also be a standard. In Canada, for instance, 50 kilometres per hour is the speed limit on any street not otherwise specified. And in 35 mm photography – and its digital equivalent, “full-frame” sensors – the standard “normal” lens has a focal length of 50 millimetres. In truth, it’s a slightly narrower angle of view than would best match what your eye sees in the same image area, but the length was established by Leitz for their Leica cameras on the basis of what they could make best at that time.

As it happens, I was using a Leitz 50mm lens during the party – I had it on my Sony camera; I took a picture of nearly every friend and family member who came (I missed a few). After night fell, I swapped to a faster, glowier 50mm lens. So it was 50–50, but it was always 50, though not for the sake of cleverness; I just wanted the look those lenses have. And so here I present what getting to be 50 has meant to me more than anything else: people. My family and friends. Here are 50 pictures of them (among which is one of me). Continue reading

TORONTO: the book

After my tasting of Toronto with pictures, and its sequel Toronto, part 2, I decided it would be fun to make a photo book with five-and-a-half dozen photos of Toronto, mainly to give some to people such as my parents. I was going to publish it via Lulu, where I’ve done Songs of Love and Grammar, but it turned out that for printing photos at a decent quality on decent paper I would face a choice of using one of their (ghastly, trite) templates or making an overlarge, very expensive volume. So I used Blurb instead. As you can see, it is a reality:

Alas, Blurb is not so cheap either. As you will see on Blurb, this 72-page book, not much over six inches square, lists at $35 Canadian ($28.69 US right now), which is rather a lot given its size – but a larger format would cost proportionally more. However, as the creator, I can order quantities at a discount, and I ordered a few to give to family with a few left over. If you fancy buying one off me for $25 Canadian (plus postage if necessary), let me know – email james at harbeck dot ca.

(If, on the other hand, you’d like a PDF copy of it, that can be arranged in exchange for a drink or some similar consideration; just email me to ask.)


Memory is an immense pentimento, strokes of the past showing through but always partially extincted by more recent tincture. Given a means of external storage, we often avail ourselves of it to freeze time. But what do we choose to remember? What are the moments we digitize into a permanent convertible ephemerality? What mementos will we take with us?

Memento. That’s Latin for ‘remember’, second person imperative: “You! Remember!” Remember what? Often memento mori: remember dying, remember death, remember that you, too, will fade away and be deleted. But do memories die with us?

Does it matter? We amass them while we live to put together a narrative of our lives, a motif of moments. A constellation of our lives.

Constellations are made from stars, as we know. We seek stars to remember seeing: high points of light. This evening I stopped through the street festival for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). They have a red carpet area, well lit, and people surround it awaiting the famous ones, cameras ready for any glimpse. One person came up to a group of several standing on a planter for a better view and asked of a latter-day Zacchaeus, “Who’s coming out?” The spectator looked downward and said, “I don’t know.” But whoever it is, it will be a star, and a moment to remember.

Moment? Momento? It’s no surprise that the misspelling persists; the misanalysis has momentum. Magic moments make for mementos. And each memento moment may have two parts: the explosive effervescent of the moment, metaphorically like a sleeve of Mentos released into a bottle of Diet Coke, and the persistent image, made to be a meme, just a motif of emotion capable of captions multifarious. One is clear but evanescent, the other lasting but open to reinterpretation.

There is a movie, Memento, made in 2000, about a man who has anterograde amnesia. Digital cameras in every phone were not a thing at the time, and his memory was made of Polaroid photos that had physical persistance and could be written on – but also destroyed – and tattoos that were indelible but often inscrutable. He would never remember what had happened more than five minutes before, so he had to record the important parts to help him solve a mystery… or to create a mystery for his future self.

As we do. Flip through an album of photos, on paper or on your phone. See what things your camera has seen. Try to retrace a timeline of your life. What was that? And that? Was it really so? Or is it a pleasant part-fiction directed by previous you to mislead your future selves? It has all been selected and edited. It seems to make sense. But you will never breathe those breaths on those days again, so what is left?

Thus we raise our lenses and sensors; we resolve to resolve life into pixels so that a flat chip of time may take us back and prove that we were there in that moment. We could also buy or retain a thing, a souvenir, a flake of a life. It will be forever the age it is; a memento is frozen in death the moment it is born, and in time it acquires other layers, as the fresh memory fades and other associations attach. We just remember that we were one such person in one such place, with these things and these people, and the thread of our life is seen not as a coloured line among many thrown by a shuttle in a loom but as a single tight string twisted from peg to peg, nail to nail, each tack polished to look like a star; in the end this twiny constellation is meant to present our image, but we can never step apart to see it so.

But those are the instant-thin mementoes, already moribund. There is another memento to go with mori: memento vivere, ‘remember to live, remember life’. We cannot capture that with our cameras, of course, but it is the other part of the same experience: each shutter click is a paddle dip in a river, each memento maintaining momentum in the stream of life. I was here now, and here now, and here now. And from this we see the way forward.


We all have our piers, and we would be stranded – and none the happier – were they to disappier. We say no person is an island, but in one sense we all are, or at least it shore feels like it: there are always fluid expanses between us and others – sometimes gulfs, sometimes straits (at times dire ones). To embark on our contact with the world, we need to extend ourselves outwards into the open waters. As others likewise build their piers, and we can launch our communications, we form our pier groups to group with our peers.

What is a pier, really, literally? A popular diagram of late shows differences between a quay, a wharf, a pier, and a jetty on the basis of whether they are fill (or stone, or concrete) or piles (wood or metal) and whether they are parallel or perpendicular to the shore: according to it, a quay is parallel fill, a wharf is parallel piles, a pier is perpendicular piles, and a jetty is perpendicular fill. In the real world it’s not quite so simple, and wharf, pier, and dock are used in overlapping ways. But you can generally count on a pier being perpendicular to the shoreline and built on piles.

You can’t, on the other hand, count on what it’s used for. Wikipedia divides piers into three types: working piers (for commerce boats), pleasure piers (as at Brighton and Santa Monica), and fishing (angling) piers. I like this division, mainly because it is also a suitable division of our peers in the world – some we work with, some we play with, some we just… angle with (see LinkedIn).

Pier is also a personal name, as for instance the Italian filmmaker and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini. There are quite a few Piers in the world, mostly Italian. (There are also people named Piers, but I really don’t want to have to talk about the best-known current bearer of that name.) Of course Piers have their peers and piers, but in this there is irony: piers are normally built on wooden (or metal) piles, but Pier, like Peter, comes from Greek Πέτρος Petros: ‘stone’.


I spent much of last Thursday in one of my favourite places, doing one of my favourite things. Since I was a kid, I have loved gardens and landscaping and trees and flowers – not that I have a garden myself (doing things that involve actual dirt under the fingernails may not be my forte), but I love being in a nice garden or well landscaped park. Such a place is, for me, like a stronghold of peace and pleasantness and endless interest. And aside from walking in gardens and being surrounded by them, I also like taking pictures of them, not for any good reason other than that I like taking pictures.

Continue reading


What’s the take-away on abstracts?

Ha. Abstracts are the take-away.

An abstract can be any of several things, of course. It can be a short statement at the beginning of a paper or dissertation saying what the gist of the effort is – the synopsis, the tl;dr, the elevator pitch, the take-away. It can be an epitome, a microcosm or essence or distillation of a thing – when you take away all the variable excrescences, it is what you still have. It can be a work of art with most or all representation taken away – or should I say it has bits of what you can perceive taken away from all the other bits and presented in a purified form. Continue reading