TORONTO PHOTOGRAPHER GIVES NEW APPRECIATION TO THE CITY’S HISTORY
Story by Kate Fane
Photos provided by Harry Enchin
All major cities are constantly in a state of flux. It is their dynamic nature, and with it the promise of new possibilities, which cause the masses to flock to them. So focused on moving forward, how often do the cities’ inhabitants consider the significance of the past? In this increasingly globalized world, do they forget the relavance of local history?
In his ongoing series “Toronto Transformed,” Hogtown photographer Harry Enchin examines local urban history by combining archival images from the city’s past with his own recent photos of the same locations. I sat down with Enchin earlier this week to discuss the series’ phenomenal reception, his personal motivations behind the project, and the one question he’d prefer everyone to stop asking.
Enchin’s 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 has also won two awards at the recent Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibtion. Not bad for a self-taught photographer who got his start in professional photography only a couple of years ago. He may be a new to the scene itself, but Enchin revealed to me that his relationship with photography and connection to his new project go way back.
“Around 10 or 15 years ago. I was taking my mother on a ride to west-end Toronto, where she grew up, and her family home was there decades ago. Of course, when we went by it was long-demolished.” Enchin had always had a camera around him as a young boy, and later, when his mother began to experience memory loss, he felt the impetus to use photography to combine what would soon be the forgotten past with her present reality. Enchin did not limit his project to his own family history, however, and it was this choice that no doubt gave the work its populist appeal. By focusing instead on more recognizable civic landmarks, he has allowed each viewer to draw upon their own memories and experiences within the changing cityscape.
Unsurprisingly, the most difficult part of Enchin’s artistic process is the recovery of the city’s oft-overlooked history. Enchin estimates he’s looked through “tens of thousands of images” over the course of the series, as the archived photos are usually in too poor a condition to be enlarged or edited. Once he’s weeded out the unusable images, 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 the 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 gives their presentation alongside cafes and tapas restaurants some clear social commentary.
But for Enchin, the photos “extend the invitation to consider a more harmonious existence” between past and present. Thus, his images aren’t mournful or nostalgic, but rather document our progress from one era to another while encouraging the viewer to judge for themselves the ramifications of such change. Enchin tends to keep his imagery light and eye-catching, and visual puns are frequently created. 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. For me, the most powerful image is of the corner of Spadina and Dundas, in which old Hebrew signs are inserted within the Chinese storefronts that now occupy the intersection. Immigration has had by far the greatest influence on the city’s development, and the work is a fabulous homage to the various communities that have helped to make Toronto a world-class city.
“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 who consistently looks to the future for inspiration, rather than past.
It is a complicated question, but Enchin’s 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.”
If you can get a weekend away this summer, Harry Enchin has an upcoming solo exhibition at Chancery Art Gallery in Bracebridge, Ontario. Otherwise, you can view his work, and check for upcoming shows at Toronto Moments In Time.