He was one of the 25 people who attended a noon-hour talk at Ryerson University on the work of Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian landscape photographer (www.edwardburtynsky.com/site_contents/About/aboutBio.html). I thought he would make a good portrait subject and would be an interesting person to meet. Alas, I hesitated and the situation did not seem to lend itself to approaching him or to making a decent photo.
Imagine my surprise when five hours later I returned after my class to collect my bicycle from the same location on campus and saw him sitting on the other side of the glass drinking a coffee. Many of us have expressed semi-mystical beliefs about missed opportunities that present themselves a second time and I’m no different. I told myself “I’m not going to regret this one twice” so I relocked my bike and entered the coffee shop and introduced myself, telling him we had been at the same talk earlier and I hoped to include him in my photo project. I was standing next to him and he looked up at me with a half-smile and a twinkle in his eye and said “What was it, the hat?” I laughed and said “Yeah, it was the hat, but you also have an interesting face and your beard would photograph well too.” He said “Sure, I’m not in a rush. I’m Tom.” We shook hands and so it began.
Darkness had just fallen on Toronto on this chilly day in late November and I had no idea how I was going to pull off a decent portrait. I told him I needed a few minutes to find a spot to make it work and he said “I’ll be here.” I stepped outside to consider my options and the only viable strategy I could come up with was to use the sidewalk on the other side of the coffee shop’s tinted windows as a background and somehow work with the artificial light coming down from electric lights on the overhang of the building. It was clearly chancy light and I set my camera for capturing a RAW image, hoping to give myself more room to manage the crappy light afterward. When I re-entered the coffee shop Tom was engaged in a conversation with a student sitting next to him and showing a historic photo on his cell phone of his grandfather in World War 1.
We found out he was waiting for another free public lecture on a scientific subject (something about the genome if I recall) and I said it sounded interesting. “Let’s say the price is right” he said with a sly grin. “Yes, free always attracts my interest” I replied. Tom put on his jacket, recycled his empty coffee cup, we exited the building, and I explained my challenge and my idea and Tom said “Sure. I hope you have good image stabilization on your camera.” He clearly knows a thing or two about photography but our conversation didn’t go there.
I found out that Tom is less than a year older than I at 69 and, like me, came to Canada from the U.S. When I asked where he was from he said “Chicago.” Really. “What part of Chicago?” “The South Side.” “I’ll be darned. Does the corner of 55th St. and Woodlawn Avenue mean anything to you?” “I know exactly where that corner is” he said. While he was from a different neighborhood a bit further south and west of Hyde Park, I was flooded with “six degrees of separation” thoughts (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation).
What followed was the kind of conversation which makes this project such fun. Tom and I stood under the fluorescent lights and found out about each other. We exchanged anti-war stories (both of us were critical of the Viet Nam War) and found out about each other’s careers and our retirement. Tom’s career had been in Information Technology (“Computers ruled my life”) and although he had worked in a wide variety of companies, the final 27 years of his career had been in the banking industry. When he heard I am a retired Social Worker he told me his daughter is a Social Worker – another unexpected link. When I asked if he had a motto that would say something about him, Tom replied “Never say never” which reflects his view that one should remain open to new experiences. Perhaps that openness is what led him to say “Sure” when I approached him for my project. We finished by talking about the 100 Strangers project and agreed we should meet again for coffee some day which I would certainly enjoy. We agreed that if the poor light defeated my portrait efforts today, we might give it another go in daylight on another day.
While I am no genius in editing RAW images, I was very glad I’d shot this in RAW as well as JPG because the unedited image was all yellow. Thanks to the RAW capture I was able to salvage a portrait which surprises me, considering the conditions (high ISO and artificial light). Use of my portable reflector helped a bit in evening out the challenging light.
Thank you Tom for sharing a few minutes of your day with me and for participating in my 100 Strangers project. It was most enjoyable. You are #674 in Round 7 of my project and you have a really cool hat.
Find out more about the project and see pictures taken by the other photographers in our group at the 100 Strangers Flickr Group page.