A portrait and nature photographer discovers the unexpected wonders of street photography.
By Cassia Schaar | July 13, 2020
WHEN THE BARS on Whyte Avenue began opening their patios in 2018, my trio of photographer friends and I knew we had planned long enough. Nothing beat drinking iced tea and editing photos while the wind blew in off the street, tousling my hair. It was of officially summer — the best time to catch golden hour night after night.
Months earlier, David described his dream of starting an urban street photography group in central Edmonton. As a portrait and nature photographer, I was the last to agree — flat brick walls and twisted graffiti weren’t my preferred subjects. But, having reached a plateau with my skills, I accepted the challenge.
On the evening of our first meeting, we met outside Block 1912’s accordion windows as the sun dipped further west, pulling the heat with it. Twenty photographers followed David down the street, each with two pounds of glass lenses in their hands. At the corner, we divided into three clusters to avoid suspicion. Street photography’s magic relied on anonymity to capture life in the most candid way possible. So was nature photography, but I never felt guilty when the mountains stared back at me through my lens.
The night started off abysmally. Not used to the new style, my lens choices spat out blurry wide-angle shots and streaked images of passing cars. My focus darted from pedestrians to store signs to bicycles chained to streetlights. Compared to taking portraits, street photography was chaos. I didn’t know where to look and ached for blushing sunsets over prairie marshes. Everything smelled like concrete dust and oil. How did David take such spectacular shots without breathing in pine-infused air? When he initially proposed this venture to us, he showed us a greyscale photograph of a man walking by a storefront. Shadows cast long crosswalk stripes over the scene, and my friend timed it perfectly so the subject stood between the shadows and in the sunlight.
As the other eager photographers positioned each other in front of chainlink fences, I scanned the alley for a subject through my viewfinder like a pirate with a telescope. Nothing but straight lines and geometry. I never liked math.
Which is your go-to Christmas movie?
13%Miracle on 34th Street
20%A Nightmare Before Christmas
4%Jingle All the Way
One left and two rights later, an orange glow yanked my attention from growing disappointment. I lowered my camera. We stood outside the Malt and Mortar patio where swooping strands of lightbulbs cast warm circles over wooden tables. My lens had noticed one of the bulbs. The colour of its light mimicked the setting sun, gentle but invigorating. Peace I only felt photographing rural settings spread through my veins.
I looked over my shoulder to Block 1912 sitting across the intersection. How had I sat at those window tables for months without noticing this string of lights? I’d spent the past hours looking for a way to bring straight lines and monochrome colours to life, when Edmonton was filled with as many curves and colours as the forest — I just wasn’t looking at it with the right eyes.
I turned back to my subject and lined up my shot.
Scot Morison, an award-nominated Avenue contributor, taught a creative non-fiction course at MacEwan University this past (abbreviated) school year. He presented us with a shortlist of the best writing from his class, and we picked one for publication in the Summer issue, the piece that you’ve just read.
This article appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton