TORONTO PHOTOGRAPHER GIVES NEW APPRECIATION TO THE CITY’S HISTORY
From Plaid Magazine
All major cities are in a constant state of flux. It is their dynamic nature, alongside their implicit promise of new possibilities, that makes them so indelibly attractive. But in this increasingly globalized world, has our recent urban history simply become irrelevant?
In his ongoing series “Toronto Transformed,” Hogtown photographer Harry Enchin combines archival images with his own modern-day photographs of the same locations, revealing just how deeply the city’s past informs its future. I sat down with Enchin to discuss the series’ phenomenal reception, his personal motivations behind the project, and the one question he’d prefer everyone to stop asking.
“Toronto Transformed,” and Enchin himself, have been the recipient of a lot of buzz lately. Coming off well-reviewed shows in the CONTACT Photography Festival and at The Artist Project, he also picked up two awards at the recent Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibtion. Not bad for a self-taught photographer who only got his start in professional photography a couple of years ago. But while he may be a new to the city’s art scene, his relationship with photography goes way back. Enchin, who always had a camera around him as a young boy, rediscovered his passion when his mother began to experience memory loss. Photography now provided the opportunity to combine what would soon be the forgotten past with her present reality.
However, Enchin did not limit his project to his own family history, and it was this choice that no doubt gave the work its populist appeal. By focusing instead on more recognizable civic landmarks, he’s allowed each viewer to draw upon their own lost memories and experiences within the changing cityscape.
Unsurprisingly, the most difficult part of Enchin’s artistic process is the recovery of the city’s archival images. Enchin estimates he’s looked through “tens of thousands of photographs” over the course of the series, as the images are usually in too poor a condition to be enlarged or edited. Once he’s weeded out the unusable pictures, Enchin searches for those that strike a particular chord, or hint at a possible narrative to be constructed. Whether it focuses on a person or a building, Enchin is looking for “a contrast,” something that clearly illustrates how quickly we’ve progressed.
A prime location for finding such a contrast is the city’s rapidly-gentrifying intersection of Ossingston and Dundas. Enchin’s done a lot of work in this area, an art and nightlife-driven neighbourhood whose industrial roots are quickly being forgotten. Many of the original archival photos of the streets were taken to document economic depression and dilapidated buildings, which injects their placement alongside cafes and tapas restaurants with some clear social commentary.
But for Enchin, the photos actually “extend the invitation to consider a more harmonious existence” between past and present. Thus, his images aren’t mournful or nostalgic, but rather documents of our progress from one era to another, all the while encouraging the viewer to judge for themselves the ramifications of such change. Enchin tends to keep his imagery light and eye-catching, and shows a particular affinity for visual puns. In one piece, workers from the 1930’s are shown laying down the tracks for the modern streetcar that approaches them. In another, conservatively dressed women from the turn of the century seem to judge a colourful young woman in a mini-skirt.
“Toronto Transformed” is definitely grounded in the city’s history, but the works have a universal appeal. As Enchin says, “other than few recognizable landmarks or stores, some of the scenes could be in any urban setting.” Such changes would be observed by anyone alive during 20th and 21st centuries, and Enchin’s work goes beyond a simple historical contrast to touch on where we are moving as a global society; especially one that consistently looks to the future for inspiration, rather than past.
It is a complicated question, but Enchin’s own future is certainly looking bright. The series has been a fantastic success, drawing the attention of collectors and the national media. With all the press lately, Enchin has started to notice one question appearing a little too frequently: “Some people are smart-alecks and ask me whether I’m the one who took the original picture. I’m old, but I’m not that old.”