On the next eight pages a young immigrant enters a lively protest against the myth of Toronto the Dull. Here, in his first published photographs, is a buoyant city swirling with life and glitter—
In the century since Charles Dickens described Toronto as “full of life and motion” it has been hard to hear another good word spoken for a city whose critics have consistently outnumbered and outshouted its admirers. In the clamor most outsiders and many of the city’s own have been sold a stodgy stereotype called Hog Town as a true image of Toronto. Now the lively city Dickens saw has caught the admiring— even the loving—eye of another European, a 27-year-old Dutch immigrant named John deVisser. For three of his five years in Canada he has wandered Toronto with a camera: this is his vivid portrait of the city.
Two years after he landed in Toronto from Holland in 1952 young John deVisser bought his first camera, "it wasn't long,” he recalls, “before everything 1 looked at struck my eye as a picture. 1 realized I
had never really seen Toronto before.” The camera was a near-perfect hobby for a department-store shipping clerk with little money to spare. “Once I knew how to see, Toronto turned out to be a mag-
nificent stalking-ground for a photographer.” To capture part of the city’s color he photographed a Sadler’s Wells ballet dancer under a scarlet spotlight. He recorded the million brilliant eyes of Toronto
at night by climbing the highest building, the Bank of Commerce tower. On different mornings at the same intersection he photographed the blue glow of fog, the wet shine of rain, and the everlasting variableness of women.
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A NEW LOOK . . . continued
The newcomer had a lot of ground to cover when he began to “see” Toronto. On week ends he ranged to the city limits. Once from a bridge on the northern by-pass, he saw a string of saddle horses winding through one of Toronto’s webbed ravines in the green haze of early fall. “It looked like a classic landscape, and I tried to make my photograph look like one too.” But there were fresh images right on his doorstep. “My neighbor Vicki is out of focus; 1 had to shoot before she brushed away the curl around her eye.” And Toronto even had “a perspective on itself.” From a landspit in the bay he photographed the cold blaze of the harbor skyline against the cold counterpoint of the moon.
But the city fascinated him most at night. “Toronto has the cosmopolitan magic that creates glamour.” There was glamour in the sleek set of model’s head under a pink floodlamp; there was glamour in a department-store window. “One night I saw a mannequin with a green glow of neon suspended above her. She summed up the city at night.” The bright lights in the photograph are reflected on the plate glass from the opposite side of Yonge Street. Held up to a mirror, the vertical sign spells Jewellers; the square of light above the mannequin’s head is the marquee of a movie house.
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A new route through the city usually led to a fresh discovery. “Toronto gives me a feeling of perpetual motion, and one night on the way to the ball park I discovered the core of all the movement.” It was the main railway yard on the harbor front.
“The riding lights and the blinking signals made a pattern of dazzle and darkness. I wanted to freeze it, and tried a three-minute time exposure with the camera in my hand.
It was too shaky. The next night I brought a tripod, and caught the swirl of Toronto on a strip of film.”
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It was second nature for a European to seek out the theatre for dramatic photographs, and Toronto had a stage for everything — from ballet to Ice Follies to burlesque queens. “But 1 needed a new technique for photographing the stage. Flashbulbs are prohibited and natural light is better anyway, so 1 underexposed (usually a 1.5 opening at 1/100 sec.) and overdeveloped my negatives.”
Toronto wears a different face for every season, and the young Netherlander found excitement in all of them. “In the spring I stood for hours in the rain, waiting for an umbrella to reflect the wet shimmer I wanted.” Summer is perfectly framed at Kew Beach: “To escape the heat 1 saw people crowding to the hottest place of all.” On the football field, when Toronto played McGill, “I thought I saw the vigor of fall.” And a winter night muffled by snow was the expression of “Toronto’s serene moment; the moment when the city is asleep.”
Strolling the bank of a Centre Island lagoon he turned a bend. “I had the strongest suggestion of people in love I’ve ever known. The trees blurred in the soft light and the man’s straw hat was a bright symbol for the light heart of a young romance. 1 was careful with my camera, leaving it slightly out of focus to eliminate distractions like the telephone wires that ran overhead.
I was trying to give my film the effect of an impressionist painting; the impression of love. There is a secret of Toronto here. It is a city with a light heart.”
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