By Paul Mitchnick:
I love being awake and out in the early, early morning. I do. It's something that has always given me pleasure. As a young man, I assembled car radiators at Long Manufacturing in Oakville. My route took me over the Skyway Bridge in Hamilton way too early. The sun came up over Lake Ontario and filled my car. I believe it came up for me. A private moment between us; the world and I. To be shared, maybe; but for me.
The beginning of the Covid lockdown was the beginning of our renovation project—to the day. It was then my everyday early morning.
After two years of paperwork, meetings, appeals, money paid to "consultants," permits, permits to get other permits, people saying yes to us one week and not having phone numbers the next; it looked like we were going to finally start.
The day prior to people coming into our house to do things, the Premier of Ontario put the province into pandemic lockdown that included construction. Our gutted apartment looked like it was going to stay gutted a while longer. The following day, you could go ahead if you had an existing permit. We had—we had fought the city for it tooth and nail.
Circumstances had us (well, Michaelin, really) as the contractors. Not something that was our choice, but another overly busy contractor who did not think we were worth it bailed. Not enough money, too much work, the addition too complicated: we’ll never know. We have overseen pretty big renovations in the past, but this involved taking the roof off. In winter. A little out of our comfort zone.
A few months earlier, I had a perforated appendix. It got caught just in time. Lots of drama, but I was blessed to emerge butter-side up. So, my unskilled labour would be restricted to smaller tasks for a while. My pre-reno task of ripping out drywall had been given to those more able.
The world had shut down, and we had a renovation to complete. My goal, focus and exercise; bring it on. When the day finished, I was spent and slept the sleep of the guiltless.
After 6 months, we had a framed addition and more than bare brick walls. Covid and other things had put us way behind, but we were slowly creeping forward.
Now it was time for skilled tradespeople to start the finishing and the putting back together.
A lot less unskilled labour was required—a lot less. I became the "fetchit" boy. My trips to Lowes were so frequent that not only did the staff know my name, but I had my own parking spot. Yet I missed the quiet of simple physical tasks done by myself, no matter how singularly inane they were (chipping the cement off the hundred-year-old bricks to be used for new windows and bricking in old). Lockdown meant no gyms, no swimming pools, no anything inside. Reno tasks were physically taxing but, at the end, there was something.
The skilled workers showed up at our house at 8 a.m., and one of us had to be home. Something always needed attending. More than a few days were spent just waiting for someone to show up, for someone to not show up, to make the 85th phone call about some part of the house that had been promised on a certain date or was the wrong shade/size/price.
We were living downstairs in another apartment, so you could never really leave the renovation behind. Ever. My plan was to walk in the very early morning. Cedarvale Ravine was nearby, a little up the hill and down the hill in the quiet of a ravine.
I left at 6:30 a.m.
My brain is an addled mess at that time. To avoid getting stuck at the sock drawer trying to decide, I lay out all the things needed for the next day the night before—from my wardrobe, roughly "folded" on the floor, to whatever bits and pieces the walk required of me. Then the morning was mine. I had only myself to assemble to get out the door.
Cedarvale is a Toronto ravine and park that runs from the St Clair West subway stop northwest to Ava Rd. and Winnet Avenue. It is about 1,600 meters (1 mile) from stem to gudgeon.
My entrance to the park is from the 1912 Glencedar footbridge that spans the ravine. It offers an ever-changing vista that stage of season dictate.
Lots of entrances, some from upper middle-class neighbourhoods and others a little less privileged. The park has some tennis courts, a soccer field, a dog area, and is quite civilized. You can tell what kind of hood it is by the dogs in the dog park. Most of them have fur.
The ravine part is . . . well, . . . just ravine. Although you travel under a couple of graffitied bridges, it is just ravine, complete with creeks, wild vegetation, sociable birds, and small wildlife. Also, it’s home to a couple of coyotes. They can be spotted early in the morning in the deep ravine. Coyotes are not interested in you if you are not interested in them. Rabbits and squirrels are easier kill.
Our reno finishing took 12 months, and I was out at least 4 days a week, weather never a factor but a challenge.
Cedarvale was a lot of watching: watching things grow, watching things change, watching things die, and then watching them come back. Life rearranging itself, steps and changes so small as almost not to be perceptible. I looked for them, or perhaps they looked for me.
I have kept over 200 photos of the view from the bridge, differences so slight; viewed day-by-day a little boring, weekly not so much. This is the fabric of life: repetitious and boring looked at a certain way, richer looked at another way.
This was also the longest time that I have been home in the 40 years that Michaelin and I have been together. Re-reading that sounds a little odd and unbelievable, kind of like saying one’s age out loud.
We’re talking about living every day with the same person. The same person you have not been living with daily ever. New for me. New for Michaelin. There have been times when we were more apart than together. Arriving home, letting my suitcases air out, still packed, while waiting for the next confirmation of yet another gig away. Not really home, not really away. Half hoping I got the gig, half hoping I didn’t. It doesn’t really matter why you are away, you just are. This has been our relationship: better, worse I don’t know. A different kind of sharing.
And now here, with no excuses not to be in each other’s faces. And what more fun could there have been than renovating under Covid lockdowns. Relaxed, optimistic, carefree, fun—maybe not so much.
The renovation shared something of the subtlety of the ravine in terms of the change. And much of the pace. Lots of seemingly nothing, then there were . . . walls.
And dealing with Michaelin, this person whom I love and have been with now most of my life. No hopping on a plane and we will deal with it later kind of stuff. Life was pretty present. We have always liked each other, and that helped us get through most of the nonsense that accompanied our renovation. I continue to process that 18 months. We are still together and still like each other.
Cedarvale was a very nice place to start my day. So much more than fresh air and exercise. As the soft blanket of dark dissolved, the morning twilight coloured my small journey. The daylight came either as a gentle unfolding or a shower of warm sun presenting what it wants me to witness. Always Grand, always different.
My eventual route became a loop with a couple of extra inclines for more vistas. I woke a camera sleeping in a dark case that might like to join me in the morning air. Lots of times, the camera just went out for the fresh air, but not always.
This from someone whose most creative act for the day might otherwise be photographing a lag bolt sticking out of concrete or making coffee and arranging cookies for people working in our house.
I approached the winter terrain carefully. Each day represented a different foot-scape: ice, snow, ice covered in snow, snow covered in ice, on the flats, up a hill, down a hill. All carefully and mostly successfully negotiated, care and caution being the primary tactic.
As my observing got a little more sophisticated, so did my wardrobe: warm enough to stay warm in the cold winter dawn, not too warm to have clammy cold sweat run down my back after a steep incline. Starting out a little underdressed and carrying an extra toque helped.
Snow was always welcome. No matter how dark the morning, a field of white made everything softer, quieter.
Snow also hid whatever was below. Quiet footsteps meant new soft snow, unlikely a hazard. The louder the crunch, the icier the tread. Anything that shone was to be avoided. My boney ass hitting the ice below the snow not once but twice one morning was a big awakening. A sore, month-long reminder of more carefully treaded footsteps to be considered. It hurt like hell. Twice.
Playing in the snow as a kid never felt like that. We had a deep creek below our house. Some waste flushed into it, but in winter it all froze, and we found a good surface (never smooth) to play hockey on. No one really wanted to play goalie because no one had the goalie pads, but we took turns (we were too young to get the puck high enough to take out any teeth), and keeping score was as hard to remember as it was to police. The game ended when it got too dark to see. The banks of the creek were covered in snow and became soft landings when we got checked into these "boards." Part of the fun then, not now. Landing on ice hurts a long time.
Crampons hidden in my closet, somewhere near the cameras, were added to the walking kit. Mine are industrial strength and resemble kitchen utensils used to make pulled pork. Walking up the side of a vertical ice wall looked possible with these things strapped to your boots.
Others had the same habit of being out early. It became reassuring to see them. This was Covid, after all; human contact all but outlawed. These early morning "Raviners" became acquaintances by their daily appearance. Spending time with others had become a rare, fragile experience fraught with the possibility of getting sick—real sick. Here, not as much. These people sightings, which became familiar people sightings, re-enforced how important relationships with humans are. Not an image on a screen but someone you could see, someone you could sense.
A layered-up woman, always smiling, exchanged a friendly comment about the weather, her black shaggy dog lumbering 20 feet ahead, announcing her arrival. A jogger with an awkward gait always gave a slight wave and hello with her coming and going. The birdwatcher, binoculars around her neck, who both never smiled nor made eye contact. A woman on her cell with her infant strapped to her front. Dogs walking their people, walking poles with men in foggy glasses. Although I knew very little about these people, I knew something of their behaviors, their gate, their appearance, their expressions, and the something I knew made them part of my life, if only for that whiff of time. The ones I saw many times were stronger whiffs.
The no gym, no swimming pool rule also applied to restaurants, cafés, bars, and no one over to my house. All those things went by the wayside necessarily/begrudgingly. But not spending time with other human beings is life sucking. Being with friends is so very much more important than the where and how.
Cedarvale became my social life during the pandemic. People that I could no longer socialize with indoors were invited to join me on these sojourns. Many did. One even made it for the early shift. On particularly icy days, I would share a crampon with my companion, a little like two three-legged dogs walking through the woods.
A frequent companion on this walk was Robin, a friend from the film business who had moved back to Toronto the same time as me. A great deal of our past had been spent in brutally honest conversations about the state of our lives.
One of us suggested bringing cocktail fixings as part of the afternoon’s adventure. Robin also had a neighbourhood walk in his woods, and we would alternate both vistas and cocktail making.
Our stopping point involved a nice view: on a rock, on a picnic bench, on a knoll, near refuge for a washroom, in a snowstorm, in the sun, and in the cold. A thermos full of the day’s concoction, thermos mugs, ice cubes, and drink condiments came out when we sat down. A little time out-of-time, an in vino veritas moment.
Forays into the wilderness of uptown Toronto were extended by things photographic. Some slash of light, some graphic, some combination, or an idea of clambering in closer for what might be there took me happily off my path.
Photography is an artisan skill that requires some technical knowledge, some tools, some taste, and a bit of a dedication. At its heart, however, is joy, passion, and a singlemindedness, a feeling about an image that exists or might.
That feeling exists in me, and I have seen it in others, like my friend David. His photographic passion is to make beautiful photographs of birds. His patience and taste award us with images that show us what is common to all living things. One day, David and I were on a march through some woods, and he spotted some birds. Immediately, his demeanour changed. There was a rush of adrenalin that his manners could barely rein in. I saw his struggle to remain with the conversation and me; David would rather have been observing the birds with no other agenda. He was kind of walking forward away from the birds and back to the birds at the same time. The struggle was palpable. His conflict strong, and his real desires obvious.
This same adrenalin rush overtakes me. All I can see is the image I will see if I go 50 feet farther. Things in my way are barely observed and never remembered. Only the direct line to that image. The strength of that feeling is metered by how strong my conviction is.
In the Chennai train station in India, it was over 37° Celsius, or 100° Fahrenheit. I saw two young girls illegally showering on the tracks. The pipes that fed the cars were letting some water rush out. The station master also saw them. I ran the length of a train station in the heat with a heavy camera bag bouncing off my hip faster than I thought my short little legs would carry me. The younger sister had bolted by the time I arrived. I got one photo.
As a restless and curious human being, I have been to a few different places for a few different reasons. What has stuck, what got burnt in, are the differences in how people do the same thing. Our similarities in what we need and the different ways that all gets carried out fascinates me.
That adrenalin rush of single-mindedness exists in other parts of my life. Saying my wedding vows was a very strong sensation of that. If I have been away for work, seeing Michaelin at the airport makes me feel the same. She is all I see.
The fabric of our lives is now much like it was before Covid. Facilities are open, you can congregate. You don’t have to have cocktails in the woods, but I sometimes do. I go to Cedarvale less often, but I go. It gives me all the things I learned from it. I like to get up early, and I like to see the sun rise.
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."