I asked Ian Willms to ask Jeff Bierk some questions.

It’s a long read, full of stories, thoughts, histories, reactions, photography, more. Grab a coffee, find a comfortable chair and tuck in . . . it starts with a dream.

There is a complicated beauty within Jeff’s work. The faces looking back at the camera betray a weary, worn hopefulness. Bodies before the lens pose in back alley wastelands and broken parking lots, framed by seething greens or menacing skies of black and gold. The periphery of the photographic print sometimes transitions seamlessly into a textured plane of oil paint strokes.

It is an impressionistic document, born through careful collaboration and shared print revenues, which shows an unwanted and ignored community. The interrogation and reinvention of the documentary process helps Jeff to humanize his friends and collaborators, who live with challenges related to poverty, mental health and substance use.

There is a lot of discussion today about the ethics and relevancy of documentary photography. Many feel that the medium is stagnant and dying. If documentary photography is indeed in cardiac arrest, folks like Jeff Bierk are the defibrillator. 
-Ian Willms

Long Haired Brent poses in The Back 40
Jimmy and Short Haired Brent, embracing on the
subway platform. Walmer Road, on the outskirts of The Back 40

Ian Willms: You come from a family of artists. Can you tell me a bit how you came to photograph and paint and the creative influence of your father?

Jeff Bierk: Last summer I came into work at Downtown Camera and my friend John came towards me, frantically, asking, “Can you show me a picture of your Dad?” We went to a computer and I pulled up an image of my father. He was young, with long hair and a big beard. John looked like he had seen a ghost. “David Bierk, that’s your Dad’s name?” “Yes” I said, confused at his questions and the look on his face. He pulled me to the back room and told me the following story.

“Okay. I had a dream last night. You were on a ladder, hanging a large photograph of Bluenose. You know, the one with the flowers. I was standing away from it, watching, and you were looking at me to make sure it was straight.” He puts his hand up, and motions to the left. “I felt someone behind me, I turned to see this man, the one from that picture, your Dad. He was just watching and smiling. And then he handed me this note.” John pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket, hands it to me and walks away. It reads:
“I’ve seen it all, Colour and Grey. Exceptional!
Go Bigger!

Now here’s the thing: John had never seen my Dad, and didn’t know his name. The words sounded like my Dad’s but filtered through John in this way – the energy of what he was saying was undeniably him. Life is full, and although this experience hit me in a beautiful way, it was soon pushed to the back of my mind.

Paintings by Jeff’s dad: David Bierk
Still Life with Steel, to van Aelst, 1999
A Distant Light, from John Appleton Brown, Trees in Blossom #2
, 1993

My Dad died before I got to know him, before I really knew myself. He was the kind of person who thought big, in terms of art, anything was possible – there was no limit to his imagination, and if he wanted to make something, he did. He was an inspiring person to be around, his excitement was contagious, he engaged with all kinds of different people and had remarkable charisma. I think these parts of him live in me, not just in my relationship to art, but in all parts of my life. He taught my brothers how to paint, and kind of singled me out as a photographer, giving me his old camera when I was 14.

He tried to teach me how to photograph, but his lessons were less about photography, more about discipline. He wanted me to take 50 black and white portraits before I shot anything in colour. We clashed. I was skateboarding and partying, and just beginning to really check out of life. I had no interest in authority, and at times it seemed like that was all he was. He grew up without a father, with very little, and had to work extremely hard for everything from a young age. Without an example, there were many ways he was an absent father, especially at a young age when I really needed him.

Everything I’ve ever made is in some way in conversation with him. I grew up surrounded by large paintings, a lot of them appropriated images from art history, paintings that I associate with him, not with the artists who originally painted them. He was making work that was poetic, he was in conversation with the past, and using images from Art History, juxtaposing them with landscapes, or his own photography, to critique modernity, to question it. He was a virtuosic painter, but to see only that would be to miss the point.

I live with his paintings and with with a handful of these beautiful painted photographs that he made. They’re large photographs, mostly landscapes, mounted on panels and painted into, creating this incredible union of eye and hand, photograph and paint.

So, I guess for a while I’ve known that I would make work like this. That’s my strange relationship to Art – this way that I’m obsessed with these kind of visional images of the things I make. This way that work comes to me as a seed in the form of a feeling, or a knowing. And so I started to paint into these cyanotypes that I had lying around at home. They were good studies, the pallet was simple, two blues, black and white, maybe some green, and orange. I love making them, it’s very impulsive. Other times it’s like being in a fight and losing. I experimented a bit with painting into small, colour photographs, and I guess I was always working towards these larger works in colour.

This past year I was very fortunate to receive a grant, which allowed me to fund a studio and make the work bigger. I started to paint in oil. It was frustrating and throughout the process nothing seemed clear.

I’m saying all of this because my father’s creative influence is complicated. It’s abstract, and in a way it’s spiritual. It betrays the order of time, it’s fragmented and at once whole. It’s confusing. It seems clear to me, but can fall apart in explanation if I just say, “He came to me in a dream to tell me he loved the work I was making. He told me to go bigger, and I did.”

In 2009, you created the Curtain series, which struck me as a visceral, beautiful reaction of self-preservation through metaphorical imagery (correct me if I’m wrong). Can you tell me a bit about your experiences using a visual medium as a means to navigate trauma and grief?

At the time, it was just an expression, a way to articulate something complicated, something I didn’t understand and hadn’t processed.

My Dad died when I was 20 and my Mother died suddenly, 4 years later. During that time I was a heavy drug user. Drugs allowed me to survive, to feel connected, to feel a part of community, to feel safe and whole. When my parents were sick and dying, it’s not like the opiates numbed or erased the pain, it’s more that they eased it, they allowed me to exist through it. I went to rehab two weeks after my Mom died, lived in Fort Lauderdale for about a year, and then returned to Toronto to try and build a new life. At that point, I really had no idea who I was. I had just started to work through the trauma and grief of the major loss I had experienced. My life had looked so bleak for so long, that the easy thing to do at that time was to try and deal with all the external things. I got a job at a camera store in Scarborough, got an apartment, and started to assemble some sort of normal life. I looked healthier, I tried to make friends in a new place. I soon got in a relationship, and I started to photograph because it felt so natural as a means of expression. The act itself was impulsive, at times it was a way to connect to people or to a place, and other times it acted as a way for me to separate myself from an experience, to create distance.

The curtain series began when my partner was sick in the hospital. I remember this visceral reaction I had to that place, the feeling in my chest and throat. The colours and smell sent my mind to the memories and pain of being in the hospital as both of my parents were dying. My reaction in that moment was to photograph, to examine my surroundings through the camera. It allowed me some distance from the intense things that I was feeling in the moment, to somehow escape the confinement of that space, the fear, the weight of it all.

Afterwards, upon reflection, I became fascinated with the images of the curtains. They embodied the loss I had experienced, the trauma, all of the grief, as well as this intense beauty and stillness. For me, that complication, the expression of it, and this way of relating to the world through photography comes so naturally. As naturally as speaking, you know? So I don’t know any other way how to be except the way that I am. It’s interesting to write about this now, almost 10 years later. So much has happened since, and a lot has changed.

I first saw your work in 2012. You were showing a precursor of what would become The Back 40. Your connection and commitment to the people in your photos was evident to me, but I remember there were some people in the crowd that found the work exploitative. Your work has since tackled the issue of exploitation in photography head-on. How has that practice evolved, and where do you see it going?

I’ve talked about the ethical dilemma around the kind of photography I’m making so much over the past 5 years. The work you’re talking about was the beginning of a new direction in the kind of photographs that I was making. It was a major show for me, and it was the first installation this ongoing series about my community called “The Back 40”. It came at the edge of a big shift for me in terms of considering consent from the people I was photographing and recognizing that even though most of the photographs I was taking were consensual, my process up to that point was pretty extractive and lacked full transparency. That consideration was spurred by criticism I’d received on Instagram for shooting people who were sleeping on the street without their consent. I was asked to consider whether or not it was a fair thing to expose people in their vulnerable states without asking their permission. I was defensive at first, but took these questions seriously and this eventually evolved into a practice of collaborative photography which people can read more about here or here.  But, in short, now I look to get ongoing and enthusiastic consent from people I’m photographing throughout the process of not only taking the photographs, but showing them. And then, if I make money off the photographs, I profit share 50/50 with the people in the photos.

Jimmy is my most beautiful and charismatic friend. He taught me
so much about the history of my neighborhood – a place he’s lived and
worked in for the last 30 years. Here, he’s photographed in my kitchen,
standing in front of my brother Nick’s painting.

Joe died this year, alone in a park. He overdosed. The dope is so bad,
poisoned, and it’s killing everyone right now. I saw him fighting
Gabriel one day, and ran down the fire escape with my camera.
I stopped them, waving and yelling, asking if I could photograph it.
They both stopped, Joe with a mouth full of blood, looked at each other
and said, “okay”. He was always so soft with me. I miss him.

So of course, photographing and showing in this way ends up influencing the kinds of photographs I make, but also the relationships I have. At that event you were talking about, audiences hadn’t yet understood that process as part of my practice, and so criticisms of exploitation were frustrating to me because they hadn’t caught up to the reality of the way I was working. After that I spent many years articulating and clarifying these things in various publications, and there’s not much more to be said about it at this point.

In a sense, I have no idea of where I’m going with photography. I’m always trying to push at it and do something entirely new.  That’s kind of the beauty of it – the precariousness of it. I’ll always photograph my friends and as long as Jimmy’s alive we’re going to be hanging out and taking photographs. Once you’ve integrated transparent practice and ongoing consent, once that becomes reflex, there’s no moving beyond that. It just is. Problems are solved and then there are no problems. If new problems emerge, then they can be solved collectively. And so right now I find a great ease and freedom in the way in which I’m taking photographs. Responding actively to the criticisms I was receiving allowed me to develop a way of photographing and showing work that at this point feels good, and so I’m able to return to the thing that my work has always been about, which is just beauty. The beauty of my friends. The funny preservation of memories. The excuse to explore different parts of the city. Right now we just seem to be chasing the sky. I’ve been obsessed with clouds and the sky for a long time and when that collides with my obsession to photograph people, I have an excuse to bring them on that journey.

I used to worry a lot about justifying the work on a theoretical level – now I don’t really need to. If someone can’t see the beauty in the work, it says a lot more about them and the limitations of the cultural conditions that form their viewpoint than it does to the work or how I live my life.

In terms of what the practice is looking like, I feel mostly like my collaborators and I are carving out paths and seeing how we can sustain this little thing that we have. So much of the work is about impressing Jimmy. It’s very reactive. I get great joy out of the way I’m able to manipulate reality with a camera and show someone in a moment and blow their mind. A month or so ago, we were at one of our new spots, “Stonehenge” with Shorty and Jimmy. We were just sitting around talking, but I was present to the sky, watching the clouds move, waiting for the sun to dip, for the colours to change.  And then when the moment came I got Jimmy and Shorty to sit on this one rock so I could get beneath them, passed Shorty the flash to hold. We worked it out together, both of us telling Jimmy how to pose. I took the photo, frustrated with how shitty my camera gear was. But then we got it. In that moment I smile, Shorty smiles and screams out, “Show me, show me!!”. I pass her the camera and she’s like “Holy Fuck!” bursting with excitement, radiating. That kind of moment, and the excitement is always there for me. It never changes. To share that with the person being photographed, or other people involved is so important to me. It brings me great joy.

Wenna, Stonechild, Me, and Old Man Sammy, photographed by Cree
at one of our spots. Wenna is in prison for Attempted Murder,
Stonechild died this year.

Do you have any advice for other photographers who want to equalize the power dynamics and imbalance of privilege which exists in their own work?

On a basic level, the most important advice I have is to just treat people like people. I think that equalizing power dynamics is so specific to a situation – it’s a case by case basis that is determined by who is taking the photograph, who is being photographed, what the photograph is for, and what its purpose is. I work within an artistic context – I’m a free agent and I don’t even work with a gallerist. So I answer to myself. Which means that the power dynamics I’m negotiating function in a different way than they might for someone working as a photojournalist.

So for me, I look at how power functions in three main ways:

1) In the act of photography

2) In how the photograph is shown

3) Who stands to profit from the photo

I’m looking to have ongoing, enthusiastic and informed consent. I remember our conversation about the shoot you did for Toronto Life, photographing drug users. There was an editorial imperative for the images to be taken in an ethical way and you called me for advice. I remember telling you to photograph people as you would your mother, or your lover. Like, you wouldn’t publish a photograph of someone you care about in a major magazine in a way that represented them poorly, or you wouldn’t publish a photograph that you would feel bad or embarrassed to show them face to face. There’s this assumption that the photograph is truthful, when in fact it’s not. It often carries with it the bias/values of the person with the camera. In this case, it’s interesting to think about stigma, and representation, to think about the things that direct our intention, and how regardless of what the editorial imperative is, hanging over it will be this deeply ingrained image of what a drug user looks like. And this image has been informed largely by the kinds of images that have been spoon fed to us by the media, by advertising, and by popular culture as truth and that have shaped our understanding and our bias. Think about this cycle. Imagine bias as this thing that upholds power and privilege, upholds imbalance and influences how we see and treat people and difference.  It affects our gaze.  Photography may be nothing more than an extension or expression of that gaze. So for me it’s about looking at my own biases, my gaze, my values and ethics and developing an awareness of how they affect the way I photograph. If we use the power of representation in the act of photographing to continue this cycle and to embellish stereotypes, then we are upholding some of the conditions that punish difference and erase realities.

I think there are easy and practical ways to divest from the power imbalance that exists in these situations. I always show the person I’m photographing the images that I’m taking, or the images that I like in order to check in and make sure they are okay with them. I want to make sure they like how they look and see if there’s anything they want out of the process. I like to make sure people know my intent – where the photograph is going to be seen and what narrative might be attached to it.

If it’s possible, and someone wants it, I like to give them a copy of the photograph.  If the photograph is in a publication, I bring them a copy. If I’m showing work in a gallery, I invite them to the opening. If there are barriers to access it in that way, I make sure I advocate for the person being able to find comfort in attending whatever event. Maybe they don’t want to go to the art auction, maybe they do. Maybe they want to bring a friend to the art show, maybe they don’t want to go. Maybe they want to go, but can’t afford to get there. How can I make it easy? The digital divide is also something we have to talk more about, because it’s a lot to do with money and safety. You know, sometimes people can’t hold on to their phones and don’t have the same access or understanding of computers and the internet.  I think it’s important to recognize this and not just assume that someone is comfortable with an image being posted/published online in the same way we may be.

I share the profit of my work 50/50 with the person being photographed.  It would be interesting to hear photojournalists perspectives on this, honestly.  How would doing that destabilize the conventions of journalism?

For the past six or seven years, the majority of your work has been a collaborative effort with Jimmy, Bluenose, Carl, Ramzes, and others who live with various challenging circumstances relating to poverty, lack of privilege, bad luck, etc. You all seem quite close, almost like a family. Why did you grow to collaborate primarily with this group of people? Is there balance or imbalance between your personal and creative relationships with these friends of yours?

The hard part for me about always being asked these kinds of questions is that we’re talking about my friends, so it can feel like the underlying truth of this question is,”Why are you friends with these people?” And the answer is simple, “Why not?”

It’s interesting to think of why I have to justify my friendships, or my choice to be in relationship and community with people that have a very different class privilege. I am reminded that culturally, there are more things that point to Jimmy and I having no reason to be friends than there are reasons for you and me to be friends. But for me and for Jimmy those things just aren’t present. We are really just open to each other, and it comes easily.  He knows I’m obsessed with photographing him, and he’s cool with it. We both have a lack of judgement, and a growing life of common experience. But people see a class difference and question it, and that class difference in a place like Toronto is why people can walk by Jimmy as he panhandles and act like they didn’t just pass the most charismatic man in the world.

Really I collaborate with a lot of people. Last week I shot some photographs of my friend Meg who’s a musician for her record cover. I regularly collaborate with my partner, Simone but the way we show our work is through their practice as a musician. And these kind of relationships and collaborations fit neatly into the way I’m supposed to act in dominant culture, within traditional heteropatriarchal relationships.  Like right now I’m driving home from Montreal and Simone is writing down the answer to this question, and we are talking about the answer, so in effect my answer is a collaboration, and to me, it’s as natural and easy as my friendship with Jimmy.  I did a portrait workshop this summer with Regeneration Community Services which was facilitated with Oliver Roberts, Sofy Mesa, Rhonda Wegner and Hannah Ross. We met up for five weeks at my studio and made work that was shown in this really cool exhibition at the loon (ed: a Toronto gallery).

To be around me, or what I would bring into any friendship is my obsession to photograph. So it came natural to photograph this group of people I was spending time with every day. There are a lot of photographs of friends no one will ever see because the people being photographed didn’t want to be seen. And there are a lot of photographs I never took because I didn’t have permission or didn’t feel right about taking them. If I take a step back and look at my friendships and the work we’ve made, the successes and failures, the chaos and hard times, the joy, it’s been a very generative time, it doesn’t feel extractive or imbalanced.

I became friends with Jimmy and the people that were hanging out in The Back 40 at the same time I was questioning my own photography practice. Our relationship as friends and the trust that was built through friendship, the ongoing presence in each others lives, the photographs, working through the problems of the power imbalances that existed in the act of photographing and my pursuits as an artist to want to show people the photographs, were problems that were solved over time and through these ongoing relationships and trust in getting to know each other.

I think what’s interesting is that if I had chosen to invest in other relationships – with people who look like models for instance, or people that didn’t compel the question you asked- it would be boring.  Right now I’m actively trying to undo a lot of the brutal effects that dominant culture and its conceptions of masculinity and beauty have had on me. I’m trying to figure out new ways to be and of course all of those things play out in my relationships and are going to be expressed through the art I want to make.

You’ve been pretty public about your history with addiction, which I deeply admire. Can you tell me about photographing addiction in others and the efforts you make outside of photography to support friends and members of your community who are working to meet those challenges?

Everything happens outside of photography. A huge part of my life is involved in community with people trying to get clean, working with other men, radical openness, and I feel so lucky for that, but it’s not something I want to talk about publicly. All of this is woven in the layers of my work, and I know it’s not visible to most people – but it’s there.

I’m not sure I photograph addiction in others so much. If I look back to the photographs I was taking a decade ago I can see that I was interested in making and showing those kinds of images of people using. Everything was different then, I was a different person. I don’t see the point of that now, and haven’t for a very long time. If anything, I think those kinds of images enforce the stigma around drug users and further push them away from being real people, painting them as people that are victims of some sort of self-imposed crisis. Addiction is complicated, my experience is just my experience. When I look at how I got out of jail, or how I got to go to rehab, or how I had a place to stay when I had no home, I realize that a big part of the reason I had access to getting clean has to do with my privilege. And a lot of people I know don’t have the same options that I did and do. For me, I had to get clean, but I’m not about telling anyone how to live their life, or about preaching to people to get sober. I have a lot of friends that used drugs and are clean, and I have a lot of friends that are still using. I’m grateful for all of those relationships.

While you rarely, if ever, photograph it directly, death is a theme which seems ever present throughout your practice. Can you tell me about your relationship with loss and mortality and how it has shaped the work you do?

I’ve experienced great loss, the death of both of my parents at a young age, my first lover as a young adult, and so many close friends over the years. I’ve been shaped by grief, by those experiences, as well as the more abstract losses which I’m just beginning to uncover and make sense of. The shapes keep changing as time passes.

I don’t even know where to start. Death has forever changed me. I think of its swiftness, its flattening blow. I think of my simmering anger and sadness. I go to my memory, the flashing images, the fragments. I think of my romantic relationship to reality. I think about forgetting.

Donny, back from the dead, hanging out at Checker Park, 2017

There’s this practical way that death and loss have fueled my obsession to photograph the people I’m close to in my life, in the way that it allows me to feel like I’m able to hold on to their image or hold on to the experience of knowing them. Or the way that a photograph can act as a placeholder for memory. For me, I haven’t had an experience where “time heals”. Time has robbed me of my memories and the hardest thing, for me, about losing someone is forgetting their active/living/sensory presence. I use photographs to remember, to activate emotion and sense. I guess that’s my sacred relationship to the photograph.

These experiences and feelings are layered into all of the work I make. Most of the time it’s not explicit, maybe not even visible to anyone but myself. It’s folded into an image or a painting like a code, or a hidden metaphor, something that only I can see or understand. In that way, the work I make is very personal.

Jimmy James Evans, 2017

Your relationship to art as a precious object has changed dramatically over the years, from high quality framed prints of The Back 40, to the Blankets series, which were intentionally utilitarian, durable (even disposable?) objects. Your latest show employs paints, photographic prints and custom frames to create works that are certainly one-of-a-kind. Can you explain a bit about the process behind these choices?

Around the time of The Back 40 show, I had been making these incredible photographs and I wanted people to see them. I really care so much about the physical print. There were a lot of people interested in the work I was making, but no one wanted to show it. People admired what I was doing, but I don’t think they really understood it. And it’s not easy work to make a commodity out of. I remember feeling stuck. My partner Simone pushed me to throw a show on my own, and so with their help, I did. We made a trade with  Niall McClelland and Jeremy Jansen who were working out of an unfinished basement studio on Wade Avenue. My oldest friend Ian and built them a large wall and in return I got to use the space for 4 days. I put everything into that show and it was a huge success. This was a major turning point for me.

For The Back 40 show I really wanted to honour my friends. I didn’t want the show to be photographs tacked on the wall. I knew how they would be read, and the last thing I wanted was people to come into this rough space, and see these rough men, and think that there was some sort of intentional choice made in the presentation. I made these incredible light jet prints and mounted them in custom frames with museum glass. I wanted to challenge the audiences familiar notions of beauty, not to play into the aesthetic of the space or the viewers assumptions of the images. It was a huge moment for me because I realized how important this part of the process is and how much presentation matters.  I had always seen photography in museums or galleries displayed like this, but it was the first time I had seen my own work given the same care. It was very expensive though. I remember the night of the opening, my friend Ramses walked in and made his way around the room. He walked up to each framed photograph and pressed his hand on the glass in prayer, and I was so worried he would damage the glass that had cost so much money. It’s funny to think about value in that way, preciousness, convention.

On the street, in the alley, everyone was so excited. The opening was huge, so many people came, all of my friends were there- all kinds of different people who normally wouldn’t be in the same room were together. It was so exciting, the atmosphere of the night and for me to see my photographs like that.  The joke in The Back 40, among my friends afterwards, was that it was a huge failure because we didn’t sell any of the work, and after the four days I was left with a huge debt and ultimately the work ended up in my apartment, some on my walls which were already full of art, and the rest sat in stacks kind of useless.

Living with these objects that served no function outside of the gallery was one of the major reasons I started to print on fabric. At the time, not many people were doing it. It’s not like now, when every photography show has something printed on fabric. I applied for some grants, and one of the main things I was looking to fund was a series of photographs on fleece blankets. I was seeing my friends Carl and Rebecca sleeping on hot air grates in the winter and I thought a lot about the thin, orange, City of Toronto Emergency blankets. I had photographed hospital curtains, and was drawn to the folds of these blankets that covered people sleeping on the street, and I wanted to push those ideas forward in the work I was making – layer them into something new. While I was waiting for the grant, I discovered Rebecca Belmore’s work “Dream Catcher”. It’s perfect. She’s my favorite artist. I had to really question making my blanket after seeing that, and even though they are different, it’s important to acknowledge that she made it first, that it’s better, and that anything I’ve made is after that work, and after her.

So I made this series of blankets, and experimented printing on silk, re-photographing everything, layering images. I photographed Jimmy sleeping in The Back 40, printed it on a fleece blanket, then photographed him again in the same spot, a month later, covered with the blanket and the image of him sleeping. I imagined continuing this process, stacking time, but it kind of fell apart on the third go- the layering became so small and distorted, that it became unrecognizable. I’m proud of that work. The durability of the fabric was a stark contrast to the preciousness of the expensive prints I had made before. It became easier and less expensive to give work away, silk could be folded and scrunched in pocket, a blanket could be used as a prop for panhandling, or to keep warm. I have some of those blankets and silks in my house that I use every day, but most of that work I gave away to my friends. One massive blanket of Jimmy’s face got burned at his house, all that’s left is this charred small piece of his face, which is tacked up on his wall. I still give him shit for that.

I started making cyanotypes too, a lot of them. Simone gave me this do it yourself kit as a gift and it sent me off. That process was so nice. I could sit on my fire escape and make prints, hundreds of them, rinsing them off in the sink, and people could come and go and share in the excitement of that process and leave with a print.  I would rephotograph those too, half developed, in all different ways, stacking, layering.

When we all met, The Back 40 was this vibrant, living space. At any time, day or night, there would be groups of people sitting on milk crates, hanging out. There were two good panhandling spots right around the corner, there were paths and holes in fences which created a whole system for people to move. There were other spots, pockets where you could find seclusion to smoke crack, the piles of bricks behind the abandoned houses to the North, the staircase to the underground off of Walmer Road. There was the beautiful concrete slab on the east side of the old FedEx building, just far enough off Bloor for people to drink in relative safety, and perfectly situated to everything else. We spent many nights there, drinking and hanging out, the mouth of The Back 40 and the Superfresh panning spot in direct view. There were the church steps around the corner, the Metro panning spot, and two other parks, Turtle Park and Checker park, all close by and accessible through alleys, off the main drag. There was Domino park at Spadina, the dealers at Rochdale, down the road, the beer store, and all the alleys to the south. My apartment was on the third floor, there was a rickety fire escape with a small stoop overlooking “our backyard”. My windows overlooked Bloor, and sometimes I could just listen and know who was out and around. It’s where I met Jimmy, Sarah, Derek, Suzie, Teacher Joe, Kid Shawn, Short Haired Brent, Long Haired Brent,  Sammy, Bluenose, Cree, Mike, James, Ramzes, Gabe, Old Man Barry, Joe, Tim, Gilles, Stonechild, Fred, Tony, Wenna, and so many other people. There was the back entrance to Spadina station that, for a time, had the old token machines that you could jam up and take a haul. I remember hiding Stonechild from the cops on my balcony, the perfect escape – he lay flat and they just ran through. I remember lying with Ramses outside of Turtle Park, the time when Jimmy and Sarah slept for weeks on an old bed. I remember Suzie building a house in the back corner and Derek climbing the tree. Those times were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced.

A collage of family photographs from “The Back 40”

So much has changed. So many people have died, and the rest have scattered. Jimmy and I live in the west end, and more importantly that whole neighborhood has changed. Old businesses have gone, and with them come the entitlement of new the owners who would rather call the cops or make arbitrary rules about space than get to know the people who have lived and worked the neighborhood for so long. It didn’t use to be like that. We all kind of took care of each other in these ways and people knew people.  I should tell the story of how The Back 40 ended. A juice bar moved into this building next to mine, its back opening up to The Back 40. The owners parked their cars there where the  lot had normally been empty, only housing garbage bins. That’s when the cops started coming through. The most striking image I have in my mind is of this well dressed woman, the owner of the juice bar, talking to me and Jimmy for the first time, unable to treat him as a real person. I forget exactly what was said, but it was the way she looked at him, paternalistic, with contempt, and the underhanded comments she made. I don’t think the business lasted a year, but the damage was done.

I used to see Carl and spend time with him almost every day.
He loved to be photographed and enjoyed the attention – people
recognizing him. He died last year and I miss him every day. It took us
weeks to get this photograph right, to catch the light.

 I remember the landlord of that building screaming at me over the phone. Suzie had erected this absolutely stunning “house”. There were these massive umbrellas, the kind you’d find on the patio of a bar, surrounded by layers of cardboard and tarps. It was tucked in the corner, and camouflaged so much that you really had to look hard to see it. It was beautifully lit at night, inside there were candles and dollar store hot plates, stuffed animals, a Maple Leafs blanket, and I gave her cyanotypes of Jimmy and Simone to hang on the walls. I would come home from work and check in, seeing the new additions she made – it was so impressive. After a week or so, the cops came and gave her 24 hours to take it down. It was the winter and she had nowhere to go. The landlord had called the police, saying that the new tenants felt unsafe, that people were afraid getting stabbed and that the alley was just a place that people used to do drugs. As I said, I called her to plead Suzie’s case, and she yelled at me and hung up. Simone and I went to city hall, we talked to the intern of a city councillor, but ultimately nothing could be done. Ramzes was murdered the summer before. Stonechild died, Tim died. Joe died.  Superfresh is gone. Fedex is gone. Simone and I moved into an apartment at Bloor and Dundas and Jimmy started to spend more time around his building at Dupont and Lansdowne. All these changes marked the end of  our beautiful and sacred meeting place, and with it a new beginning.

It became much harder  for all of us to spend time together. It used to be that I’d wake up and open my back door to Derek sitting on a milk crate saying, “About time you got up!”, or come home after work to a whole crew of people and have no choice but to hang out all night. At first, I felt isolated in my new place. Just to clarify, I’m talking about a change in life and relationships and community but I’m also talking about a change in the work, in photography, because just as you can guarantee that Jimmy will have a bottle of sherry in his backpack, you can count on me having a camera in mine. Jimmy calls me, “The Mad Photographer”. I had other street names, “The White Dragon, Jethro The Bodine From The Beverly Hillbillies, Slick” but that’s the one that stuck. Anyway, in this new place, I got to be still and I was thinking more about where I wanted to go with the work I was making. 

Over the next couple of years, a lot happened. I started to spend most of my free time with Jimmy, and with new people too, Carmella, Hakim, Shorty, and at new spots. I was always obsessed with the sky, but I started to use it more in the work I was making. I got to meet this artist John Ahearn, a sculptor, who inspired me greatly, and the new space that I have. Through a grant I was able to open up a studio on Dupont called, “The Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts”.

I’ve always lived with my Father’s work, and everything I make is, in part, in conversation with him. He was an incredible painter, he made paintings that are luminous and masterly. Like I said before, he painted into photographs as well – mounting landscape triptychs on large panels, painting into and around them, loose and spectacular works. I was interested in sculpture and painting for a while, in complicated ways that I’ll keep to myself,  and through all of the change I was more and more obsessed with making them. My relationship to creativity is a relationship to obsession.  I took some sculpture classes and began painting into the cyanotypes I had lying around. I would buy dollar store bristol board and glue the cyanotype portraits  down, painting into them loosely with acrylic paint. It was exciting and I made so many of these kinds of studies and started to experiment painting into colour photographs in the same way. I learned a lot about what worked, and about what I wanted, and about the relationship of paint and photograph, the kind of thing I was after. I learned that there were these ways I painted, impulsive and intuitively that were great, but also I was humbled by how hard was to execute a concept.  It was cheap to do, and fun, and most of the time successful.

I’m starting to repeat myself. I guess here is where we’ve come full circle, where this answer is folding back into the first, back to the dream.

Author: Tony Fouhse

Tony is an Ottawa-based photographer.