That first step. Also the long “read me” for this project.


The beginning of a major undertaking is just getting it into some kind of motion.  This blog is hopefully part of that great first step.

This project, whose working name is Kodachrome Toronto: 1935–2010, is the brainchild of an overactive imagination that wonders whether it can make something this big come to life (hi there!).

After the end of this year, it will no longer be possible for anyone to shoot and process Eastman Kodak’s venerable film, Kodachrome.  You know, the only film to be immortalized by a song (OK, folk-pop singer Shawn Colvin did the same for Polaroid, so I’ll take that back).   It’s not as if that there will be this huge swell of photographers who will throw a huge hissy fit next year, but there are still a few who are just now trying it out for the first (and only) time or shooting with it instead of other films (or digital cameras) for as long as it can be processed by the last photo lab with the chemistry and equipment to do so: Dwayne’s in Kansas.  That deadline is New Years Eve 2010.

So what exactly are we talking about here?

A little background

Kodachrome is a particularly interesting way to stop time.  Even though far more “accurate” and “rapid” ways for doing this are impossible to avoid, Kodachrome managed to hold its own for 75 years — longer than any other colour film system — with only minor changes to the way it is developed in the lab.  It went on sale 15 April 1935 as a cine/movie film.  The still film followed in 1936.  Being one of the films in Kodak’s portfolio, it shares a long history with Kodak’s former Canadian headquarters in Etobicoke’s Mount Dennis neighbourhood. Kodak Heights — and by extension, Kodachrome itself — was part of local economic growth and decline until Kodak Canada’s facilities were shut down in 2005.

For Toronto, it makes for an interesting juxtaposition, as it celebrated its centenary in 1934 (and, obviously, its 175th birthday last year).  These 75 years encompass a stunning degree of change in the city — including the very bounds of the city itself.  In 1934, there were none of the familiar skyscrapers.  The sole exception was what is now known as Commerce Court North.  Obviously, there was no CN Tower, and Queens Quay was little else than a heavy industrial area with wide swathes of railway tracks.

Imagining the pre-World War II past is usually the domain of creative licence and black-and-white photographs.  But what if they’re in colour?  What if those colours didn’t really fade over the decades since it was lab developed?  Would that change the way we see back into our city’s past?  Would we be able to better empathize with it?

That’s what I’m hoping to find out.  My name is Astrid.  I am a photographer, urban scholar, and naturalized Torontonian (adopting the city in 1996).  My undergrad university experiences in urban studies really helped to fill in a fantastically broader impression of how Toronto came to be the crazy-wonderful place it is today.  “Toronto” as a subject remains this engrossing idea for me since the very first hour I set foot during my first visit: from research on the people living in the long-gone laneway houses of what later became Regent Park; to the triple-homicide of sex workers in the ’90s; to a retrospective on what happened with the Yonge Street Mall; to creating a urban vision of Toronto a century from now; and to the city’s lost crannies like Bay Lower and the uncompleted, underground Queen Street streetcar station from the 1950s.  There’s always something new to learn, and I find none of it boring.

I prefer film to digital, so maybe I’m a photo-Luddite even as I’m not averse to laptops, Blackberries, or iPods.  Although I only started shooting with Kodachrome on the day the March 2008 blizzard dumped on us — also the night I shot one of my all-time favourite photos — it is now what I love using most.  Perhaps it is knowing that each moment captured — of people and places — is liable to remain preserved just as I saw it for many decades to come (and long after I have gone).  Having seen Kodachrome photos from the early 1940s not fade into nasty magentas or greens, I know what it’s capable of capturing.  Even after digital images shot today with the best SLR cameras are forever lost to obsolete or deteriorated media, this Kodachrome I shot should stay in stunning shape.

Still sceptical?  OK.  Here are a couple examples of what the city archives can cough up:


A view down King Street East

Time stand still! King Street East, late summer 1945.

Bay, bedecked.

Early in 2009 on flickr, I started a group pool called Kodachrome Toronto to invite other members to include their best Kodachrome work.  Since then, a respectable collection has emerged with examples dating from the 1950s up to today.  That was step one.  Now, step two: the idea to explore this theme as a formalized project — namely, a book — is new.  This project, should everything succeed as hoped, would come to fruition in later 2011.

What’s the project supposed to include?

Kodachrome Toronto: 1935–2010 is the working title.  It shall have an online companion where movies can be seen.  Rather than a pretty, but literarily shallow coffee-table piece — something I really wish to avoid here — Kodachrome Toronto will be a story told through photography (plus 8mm and 16mm cine film); comments by people (or descendants thereof) who captured these moments; and essays by some of Toronto’s eminent mavens, experts, and scholars who will then take these and weave them together into common themes.  This blog is the active work space for this project and will be closely linked with its progress.

This is not only a documentary on Toronto, but also a work of its greater narrative.  Features might include some of the following:

  • the earliest known Kodachrome photograph and movie taken in Toronto or the GTA, as well as the last known Kodachrome;
  • a visual history of local fashion and fads;
  • the changed morphology of the city’s architecture, transportation, and urban design (examples: streets, neighbourhoods, and districts changed over time; changes to public transit vehicles; and so on);
  • the “lost city” — visual artifacts of what one of my profs once called the “vertical city” (that is, the city’s temporal archaeology);
  • milestones: the day the CN Tower opened, the World War II victory parade, the 1967 Stanley Cup/ the 1993 World Series celebrations, and so on;
  • cultural moments: the opening of Nathan Phillips Square, Yonge Street Mall, Rochdale College, Yorkville bohemia, the stopping of the Spadina Expressway, Queen West in the 1980s, appearances by Toronto popular music groups, the bathhouse riots, anti-Vietnam war protests; and so on;
  • the face of crime, homelessness, and the hidden Torontonians in the “good” city;
  • private family moments: holidays, outdoor activities, pictures of the neighbourhood;
  • “the city of lights” — from neon to old street sign lightboxes to light pollution;
  • “the natural city”: a section on photos within the city of undisturbed lands which exist or once existed within city limits;
  • serendipity — breathtaking sunrise/sunsets, ice formations as seen from the islands, etc.;
  • portraits and snapshots of living celebrities, musicians, dignitaries, and authors passing through the city;
  • photos of Torontonians in Toronto, now passed on — Jane Jacobs, Ed Mirvish, Glenn Gould, Peter Gzowski, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Lester B. Pearson, John Candy, and so on; and
  • other scenes throughout not only the City of Toronto, but also the GTA and the Greater Golden Horseshoe Area (east to Oshawa, north to Innisfil, and west to Hamilton).

There’s a tonne of work ahead, and obviously, any pointers or ideas for the project will be welcomed.  I will update with questions, emerging themes, announcements of confirmed contributors, and sneak previews of images that may end up in the final publication.

Toronto, show us who you’ve been for these past 75 years!

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