Updated: Feb 2, 2022
By Paul Mitchnick:
My fascination with amusement parks goes back to my youth. From about the ages of seven to twelve, nothing was more fun for my brother and I than going to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
Every year, my brother and I would start to get excited on the 50-mile car ride to the CNE. My mother drove her Plymouth Belvedere 10 miles below the speed limit all the way. Even though it was a hot summer day, we weren’t allowed to roll down the windows because she got a stiff neck with the breeze. So we sat in the back seat on hot vinyl-covered seats in shorts with our bare legs glued to the seat cover. This was before seat belts, but we were pretty well behaved. The way back, full of sugar and adventure, was a different story.
Lots of things were available to us even at a young age. There was the enormous amusement park where you could get excited and scared in so many ways: You could get scared flying in the air. You could get scared in the fun houses. And you definitely could get scared going way too fast on the roller coaster. You could get into the bumper cars and, if you had a really good one, you could ram into your brother along with people you had never met. What could be better than all that?
All the rides had lights that were on both day and night—they just looked way cooler at night. And every ride, every funhouse, every game of chance made noise. Lots of noise, and each one had their own noise.
There was the sound of barkers enticing you to their booth. And music from each ride or amusement weaving its way over the music from its neighbor. The sound of BBs hitting metal ducks as they mechanically swam across water. The sound of the hammer on the high striker as the metal tried to ring the bell. The sound of the machines at full whirrrr . . .
There was the sound of people laughing, people shouting, kids crying, people talking, the sound of people walking and running, punctuated by the bad sound systems echoing in your face and in the distance.
There were games of chance and skill. BB rifle arcades to practice your marksmanship. Ring the gong if you were strong. Move the crane and grab a prize. Big dolls to win. Toss the ball into the circle and win a prize. Knock over the milk pails and win another. My brother and I mostly watched, and whenever we attempted anything, we soon discovered it was a lot harder than it looked.
My father accompanied us sometimes, and there were lots of other things to satisfy our curiosity. How things worked, the future in goods, things that were interactive. There were buildings with animals and buildings with food. All these things smelled different than our lives. All these things tasted different than our lives.
You could eat unfamiliar food. Pink Candy Floss that looked like Valerie Fortney’s hair but probably tasted better. If you were lucky, it would kind of melt on your face as you ate other parts of it. The snow cones and their rainbow-colored artificial flavors always ran out of syrup halfway through the ice. Loud sucking noises signaled their demise. And the ubiquitous corn dog. What were they thinking?
This was the way to see things that were new, different, the current and the future—all in one place. Now we have the Internet and the world, in whatever form we want, is at the end of our fingertips. Not so much then. Barkers sold all kinds of gadgets for the kitchen that worked until you got them home. Microphones around their neck gave them somewhat inhuman voices as they extolled their particular gadget’s virtues. My mother once came home with a knitting machine the size of an electric piano.
As we got older, we got a chance to go off by ourselves—especially when both my parents took us.
“Meet back at the Food Building in half an hour.”
And my parents would go off to look at appliances or some such things. My brother and I would search out the curious.
There were sideshows where for a quarter you could look at a very big woman with a beard. I was a chubby kid, and when the chance came to actually see someone really large; I couldn’t resist. We were taught it was impolite to stare at someone less fortunate but, but, but . . . it must be okay because you could pay to see them here. So how could that be wrong if it was permitted and even showcased? The forbidden . . . The wrong . . . Me . . . The curious . . . The voyeur.
In our younger years, the afternoon grandstand show would be on the agenda. A TV hero, The Cisco Kid, would ride around on his horse, Diablo, and hand out autographed pictures afterward. Diablo had a bejeweled bridle and saddle; something a medieval knight would ride. Someone you saw on TV, live, and five feet away when you got your photo.
And there was the photo booth coughing out a strip of three photos for 25 cents. Not only did you not have to worry about behaving for adults, you got the results right away. They smelled of developer still on the photos as they slid out to you. And how did that guy, usually almost always a guy, guess your weight every time?
Years later while living in Vancouver, Michaelin and I went to the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition) in Vancouver. We spent a sultry summer afternoon with hotdogs tasting of yellow mustard and memories. It was fun, that carnival atmosphere.
I took my camera and shot some infrared photos. There was a mystical quality to its capture. It seemed a perfect match for an amusement park, a very different film for a very different world.
In 2007, Kodak stopped making infrared film. It was mainly used for the military, and with the advent of digital infrared, the film disappeared. I’m glad that I was able to shoot the PNE on Infrared until I couldn’t.
Black and white film seemed like a great next option. A couple more visits on my own made this an interesting adventure. Amusement parks seem to be a place where I try things out. Whatever muse I am chasing with my experiments happen usually first at amusement parks. Not that this was ever on purpose, but it seems to be true. This was an early time of shooting longer exposures, so that meant a tripod. The camera had to be steady to see the image.
So with some heavier equipment and a tripod, I went in the evening. There was a big beautiful Ferris wheel. Setting up and shooting this way is a little time consuming. By the time I was ready to shoot, a rather large, official-looking gentleman came over to me.
“What are you doing?”
“Who are you with?”
“No one. Just myself.”
“Hmmmmmmmm . . . You can’t take photographs here without permission.”
I had shot here before both day and night (without a tripod) and no one bothered me like this before.
“Well, you will have to go to public relations over there (somewhere) and see about getting permission.”
OK. If that’s the deal, then that’s the deal.
There was a young woman in the public relations booth that put me through to someone else at the end of a telephone. I was informed that I would have to have a pass to shoot at the Pacific National Exhibition.
Two days later I met Shelley Frost of the PNE public relations department. I’d brought my business card, my film resume, and some photographs to show her. We had a nice chat, and I was given a pass. There were two issues that they were concerned with. Both serious enough.
The first was pedophiles. Lots of men took lots of pictures of children. Digital photography made it easier for security to look at people’s photos if there was a suspicion. And the second reason was they didn’t want their patrons exploited in any way.
So no photographs of people easily recognizable. These weren’t negotiable rules, so I said okay, and my photos changed tone. Art instead of realism. All good. Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. However, I did get a parking pass and access to the media tent that had soft drinks and doughnuts. Sugar. Sugar. Sugar to keep going.
I shot at the PNE for about five years. After coming back to Toronto, I shot the CNE as well. This first group of photos is the black and whites. In the next article, they will be the color.
Paul Mitchnick is a cinematographer living and working out of Toronto, Canada. He has spent time with many gifted filmmakers in his career—Sean Penn, Lawrence Kasdan, and John Woo as Directors, as well as many Oscar-winning cinematographers. For the last decade, Paul has been Director of Photography on award-winning Canadian Independent Features and television Movies of the Week. He shot KEIF AL-HAL, the first feature film produced by a Saudi Arabian company. Whenever on assignment, Paul travels with his still camera and has taken photographs all over the globe. "I make my living looking at things, and when I have my still camera, opportunities kind of present themselves. Whether those things are looking for me or I am looking for them, I am not sure."