Category Archives: photography


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


How do you say postcard?

I don’t mean “How are you supposed to say it?” I mean “How do you say it?” I know how we’re supposed to say it. The citation form, as linguists call it, is /ˈpoʊstˌkɑrd/ (or, with a standard British accent, /ˈpəʊstkɑːd/). But that’s not the everyday form of it. Listen to yourself say it: you almost never say the /t/ in there.

Which is fine. It is thereby uttered more efficiently, which is also a point of using postcards: they are smaller and lighter and more quickly sent, supposedly. They also limit the text that can be included, thereby reducing the burden on both sender and receiver. As a message a postcard is a quick salutation, a social nicety nicely discharged. Postcards are lately increasingly displaced by Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, but there’s still something about physical evidence – and a tangible, durable, non-ephemeral form.

The evidential nature is key to a postcard. It says you were there. And it shows where there is, what it looks like. Not what it looked like to you when you were there, though. Not what you would have taken with your own camera (cell-phone or otherwise). Look, you just can’t get a good shot without all those doofuses (doofi?) and their stupid cars, cars, cars in the way. (If there are people or vehicles in postcards, it’s because you can always expect to see some people or vehicles there and these ones are no longer individuals but tokens standing for a general type – postcards are the opposite of reportage.) And the light is wrong and the sky is wrong and blah. This is one reason people still buy postcards even if they seldom mail them to anyone: the photos you take on your trip, no matter how good a photographer you are, will never be as perfect as postcard pictures, nor as close to memory. Besides, you’re busy taking pictures of your family and friends standing in front of the things you’re there to see. Evidence, remember? But a postcard shows what it’s supposed to look like. A typical view. Its citation form.

Except that postcards take on the aspect of memories, and we know that memories distort, exaggerate, simplify. While the uttered forms of words are generally reduced from their citation forms, the citation forms of places are typically reduced from their experienced forms: vivid and uncomplicated.

Vivid and uncomplicated. That is the essence not just of the subjects and compositions of most postcards but also of the colours in them until more recent decades. I’m quite fond of old postcards – I don’t collect them, but I love seeing them online on sites such as And they have a look that stands out. The colours are often somewhat faded and yellowed with age, but you can still see that the exigencies of inexpensive printing in quantity meant that the inks were very contrasty, and so the blacks are often a bit thick and punchy, and the colours are vivid and uncomplicated. There’s a lot of colour but not a lot of subtle variations in the colour. In technical terms, they’re very saturated but lacking in colour depth. The earliest colour postcards are even more so: they were black-and-white photos with colour added, so of course the colour doesn’t have a lot of detail – the black ink gives all the detail.

Another feature of many older postcards, usually absent from more recent ones, is captions on the pictures. Oh, you can buy postcards with very splashy florid writing proclaiming Miami! for example, but the older ones had more detailed captions, sometimes even whole sentences, printed on the picture or beneath it.

So. On the front you have the vivid and uncomplicated citation forms of the sights you see. There may be a pithy statement. On the back you get to write some anodyne distillation or simple evidentiary salutation. The contents vary; the classic is “Hawaii is fun, wish you were here,” but my personal experience ranges from one relation who, on at least one occasion, copied text from a tourist brochure just to have something to write, to another relation (an extremely close one, often inches away) who has at times fit 200 or more words of travelogue on a standard postcard.

As may be known, I like taking pictures. I decided lately to do a series of photos of Toronto done up somewhat like old postcards, with the simple colours, the contrasty blacks, the aged look, the on-photo captions. Because why not. I also kept strictly to a 4-by-5 size, although I did allow some of them to be vertical (a little bit of a cheat). I put a number of them on my Flickr on Saturday. On Sunday I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario and found – and bought – a little book of mid-century postcards of unremarkable sights around Britain, titled Boring Postcards. It was obviously meant to be.

Here are a few of my postcards from Toronto. The captions may be slightly different from the classic style. Oh well.


Hey. You wanna see something funky?

Yeah, see.

I know, I know. Funky is something you hear or something you smell. Bear with me. You can’t smell this blog, right? And if you could it would not smell funky.

What, by the way, is a funky smell? Not everyone uses the word for smells anymore. But if you do, you know it. It’s the smell like something wild crawled under your house for a long, long, long nap. It’s what you get if game farm animals take over the game farm. It’s the aroma of Normandy farmhouse cheese, or rutting badgers, or Uncle Phil after he’s been out at his hunting camp for a week. It’s earthy.

It used to be smoky. The verb funk, not really used now, meant – in the 1700s and into the 1800s – ‘blow smoke on someone’. It seems to trace back to Latin fumicare. From that we got a more general noun sense of ‘strong smell, stink’. And so something that’s funky is really… earthy. Unwashed. Down and dirty.

Which is how it got into music. In the early-to-mid 1900s, jazz musicians used funky as a term for a really down-to-earth approach. Not rarefied, delicate, pensive, airy. Nope. Getting into the dirt. Hit that bass and play some heavy lines that get you grooving down. We’re talking syncopation here that sets you grinding. By the time of James Brown in the 1960s, funky music had become funk music, a distinct style, and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye – and lots of others – really made it popular everywhere.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of other apparently unrelated funks. There’s the one that means a state of depression or cowardice, as in blue funk. And there’s one that’s not used anymore, meaning ‘spark’ – its cognate is still there to see in German, and you’ll hear it in Beethoven’s 9th: Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium – ‘Joy, beautiful spark of Gods, daughter from Elysium’.

Well, funky music is not cowardly, nope, though it can in another sense be blue. But it does have a spark. A lot of sparks. And some of them are sparking up the cigarettes and cigars being smoked in the clubs where funk is played. And some of them are coming, with smoke, from the fingers of the musicians.

I heard a lot of funky music on Friday night. Aina and I went for a walk along Queen Street East here in Toronto for the Beaches Jazz Festival. I took my ears. And my camera. And, consequently, quite a few pictures. Now you look and see. They had some funky lighting and I got a little funky with the colours too. By which I mean grooving, sparking, vibrant, and earthy. I don’t know if it captures the feel of the music or not, but man, I tried.

If you want to hear what these bands sound like, I’m telling you the name of each before the pictures so you can go to their sites and have a listen. (And click on any image to see it larger on Flickr.)

The Achromatics

(That second one is the real-life colours, no adjustment.)

Quincy Bullen

Funny Funk

Elise LeGrow

(That last photo is unadjusted real-life colour.)

Toronto, part 2

Some of you have said that you like my photos of Toronto. Most of the photos I included in my Toronto post were of the place more than of the people. But of course what makes Toronto Toronto is the people. I’ve gone through my last several years of photos from Toronto and pulled out a bunch more, including many of people (and a few more of places). And all of them were taken in Toronto. This time they’re all just in more or less the order I took them. There are many more on my Flickr site.


On July 10, 1997, I arrived in Toronto with a truck full of personal effects to take up residence. I had never lived in Toronto before, but I had visited, and it seemed like a good place to go. Just a month later, I met Aina Arro, to whom I have been married since 2000. Nearly every interesting, enjoyable, and profitable thing that has happened to me in the intervening 20 years has resulted directly or indirectly from decisions and connections I made in my first year in Toronto – in fact, to some extent, it was all in place by the end of that summer, though I didn’t know it yet. I sure wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live in Toronto.

Toronto is like that kid in school who’s so popular nobody likes her. And then you happen to get to know her and you find out that she’s really interesting. And ridiculously insecure. Continue reading


Our northern Italian transect culminated in Milan, city of millionaire milliners, the Toronto of Italy. Neither the prettiest nor the ugliest of cities, but an oversized cutlet of urbanism and urbanity plated on a broad plain, breaded with money and spiced with art, education, society, alcohol, and fashion.

Milan has been there since forever, in the middle of that plain. A common derivation of its Latin name, Mediolanum, means ‘middle of the plain’. It’s tempting to say it’s a plain city, but while it may be relatively plain for Italy, it’s still far more presentable than, say, Indianapolis or Winnipeg. And it has long been a magnet for power and money. The Castello Sforzesco is there to help you remember that fact.

From there you can walk along Via Dante and Via dei Mercanti, past all the stores, to the heart of the thing: the Piazza del Duomo.

You can see that the statue horse under the statue dude on the right is frightened by the festival of fancy spikes it sees before it. And also maybe by the crowds: the line just to get a ticket to be let into the line to get into the duomo (cathedral) was a solid block long, almost Godardesque in extent.

Or maybe the horse is spooked by that golden angel madonna on the top of the highest spike. I’m not sure how the palm trees, a gift from Starbucks for letting them open a store there (which is like opening a Taco Bell in Puebla or, um, a Starbucks in Italy, for heaven’s sake), are affecting the beast or the assorted tourists seated beneath its upturned tail. (The second photo is from two hours later. The sky cleared.)

We were with a group and had tickets in advance, so we had much less wait time to get in. The cathedral is, as expected, exalting, and, as is also to be expected, took exactly forever (6 centuries at least) to build – providing you can consider it finished, which I’m not sure it truly is. It is the largest church in Italy. (The pope’s place, St. Peter’s, is in the Vatican City, which is its own separate state. You knew that, right?)

People come to look up to the stone-and-glass heavens.

There’s even a sort of gaudy mechanical nimbus the bishop takes up to ceiling level once a year.

There’s a statue of St. Bartholomew, who is holding his own skin. I’m guessing he’s on the way to have it altered or to swap it in for the new season’s latest.

There’s a replica of the angel madonna (the one that’s spooking the horse). It’s covered in gold and guards an area that only a select few can get into. I suspect it’s the mascot of Fashion Week.

Speaking of gold and getting skinned alive, off the north side of the Piazza del Duomo is the Galleria, its entrance guarded by the Scylla and Charybdis of Campari and Prada, the original locations of both, so you can get something intensely bittersweet and then go and have a cocktail after.

A view through it towards the south reveals the splendor not of the duomo – that’s at the east end of the piazza, with a western narthex as is normal – but the headquarters of Martini and Rossi.

Keep an eye out for the fashion police, though.

Milan has always been a city of fashion. The term milliner for a hat-maker (formerly used more broadly of purveyors of women’s fashion) comes from Milaner, i.e., someone from Milan – which used to be said like “millin’” by the British.

And there is millin’ around, especially in the piazza, but Milan is really a city that is going places. At night it goes, perhaps, to the opera (I did not visit La Scala, so no photo of that); at day it gets around, by underground train or above-ground streetcar

(most of which more modern than this classic one) or bike or simple perambulation. Or by car, though I can’t consider that the best idea. It goes shopping

or for lunch, perhaps to have one of the city’s eponymous expansive breaded veal cutlets,

but it goes, above all, to see and be seen.

In some cities, the sightseeing is all about the things that don’t move. In Milan, it is, above all, about what does move. And eyes are everywhere.


Bergamo is a city of highs and lows, of broad views and surprise turns, of windows on history, of glimpsed secrets.

Yes, yes, just like lots of Italy. When you have that much history, what do you expect? But Bergamo has perhaps a bit more and other.

Let’s get something out of the way to start: It’s pronounced like “bare ga mo,” with the stress on the first syllable, and it’s not related to bergamot, the citrus flavouring in Earl Grey tea (which is best said with the t on the end nice and crisp). Fair enough. Bergamo is not a tea-drinking kind of city.

You can see Bergamo from a distance across the lowlands to the south. You can see one part of it, that is. Bergamo is a city of two parts: the città alta, upper city, a dense medieval Italian town set on a thumb of mountain projecting into the plain and surrounded with 16th-century walls built by Venetians (who owned the place at the time), and the città bassa, lower city, which looks like any other modern northern Italian city, with buildings of a broad range of ages, all built for living and working in but not as much for showing off. Many people think the lower city only appeared in modern times, but it’s been there as long as the upper city has – the difference is just that the lower city has been erased and redone over time like a whiteboard, while the upper city is like that “please leave on” corner of the board.

And the lower city is the lower-class place, historically. The commedia dell’arte, a form of masked improvisatory comedy, drew three of its zany characters from Bergamo (zany? the term for them was zanni, which is the source of the English word): Arlecchino, who became Harlequin, he of the patchwork costume, emblem of romance novels and dime-store paintings; Brighella, who was the smarter and nastier big brother of Arlecchino; and Pedrolino, who may have been a forerunner of Pierrot. All three were lower-class sorts from the lower city who spoke in a broad Bergamasque accent.

Bergamasque? Yes. The term in Italian for a citizen of Bergamo is bergamasco. This shows up in English as bergamasque or, sometimes, bergamask. The latter also names a kind of rustic dance and associated music. And since Bergamo was held by the Venetians for some time and picked up some of the masquery and revelry, which also influenced the commedia dell’arte, it was quite reasonable for the French poet Paul Verlaine to write, in his 1869 poem Clair de lune,

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

This poem’s second line inspired Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque for piano (from which we get his famous “Clair de lune”) and Gabriel Fauré’s orchestral suite Masques et bergamasques.

All of which is very romantic and elevated. Lofty, even. Like that other part of Bergamo, the one you can see from a distance, the one you come from a distance to see. It’s on the mountain – which probably contributed the berg to the name. It’s a bit of a hike up, so you take the funicular.

You get off that and walk a stone-paved street uphill until you get to the old square in the heart of the old high city.

There’s a tower there that looms over the town: the Campanone. It has large bells in it that chime the time every quarter hour. At its base in an equally old building (with, in place of a lobby, an open pit showing excavated ruins) is the Museo Storico di Bergamo, the Bergamo Historic Museum, where you get a window onto the past – figuratively, in its detailed and digitally enhanced displays on the great cultural (musical, literary) and economic history of the town, and literally.

When you have done reflecting on that, you can climb the Campanone. There is an elevator if you prefer, or there are stairs if you prefer. At the top there is a view.

You can see the anfractuous streets of the old high city.

You can see that people actually live in this town (they also drive cars around it – watch out!).

You can see the cathedral.

You can descend before the bells right above your head chime the time.

The alta città is a nice place for wandering among the old narrow stony streets. Don’t expect to do too much shopping; there are stores, but fewer than you may expect, and many of them are not open when you pass by. You may lose your way, but if you do you will within 5 or 10 minutes find yourself somewhere you know, probably back where you started. It is small up there.

You can walk down to a gate and see a view to the spread of the lower city.

You can walk past closed gardens and open university buildings. You can go into the cathedral and see the beautiful architecture and beautifully painted walls. And perhaps you will even get a glimpse of something more.

You can buy one of their ubiquitous polenta sweets.

And have espresso with grappa in a brew pub for 3 euros for two. So much more fitting than Earl Grey tea.

And who knows what else you’ll see of the old and the new?