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Photographer shares glimpse of Toronto’s past, lessons in hindsight

Ryerson grad Avard Woolaver has extensive archive of photos of Toronto in the ’80s
By: Michelle Grady
August 07, 2020
A young man rides a bicycle through Lake Devo on Ryerson’s campus

Avard Woolaver has spent a few years going through his photos of Toronto in the ’80s, reflecting on how the meaning changes over time. Here a young man rides a bicycles through Lake Devo in 1982.

When Avard Woolaver (Image Arts ’84) started taking photos of Toronto’s cityscape back in the ’80s during his degree at Ryerson, it was a big shift in focus from the rural farmland outside of Halifax where he’d grown up. “I’d have a course assignment to do, so I’d go out looking for things to capture and it would take me all over the city,” says Woolaver. “I remember the first time I took the streetcar over to Roncesvalles, I was amazed by how big the city was.”

Woolaver grew up on a dairy farm in Nova Scotia, with the closest town 10 km away; he’d never lived in a city before coming to Ryerson. “I’d just turned 22, and my photos were a way of reacting to this new environment. I liked that Ryerson was right downtown; you didn’t have to go far to see something interesting.”

Toronto, then and now

Woolaver lived in Toronto from 1980-86, then returned in 1993 after a stint teaching English in Japan. In 2005, he moved from Toronto back to his family’s farm in Nova Scotia. Looking at the thousands of photos he took during his Toronto years has been a labour of love as he assembles the photos by year and theme into books, external link

“Part of what this project really illustrates is all of the changes that have happened over the last 40 years. I have thousands of photos of Toronto, and going through and scanning them in batches is interesting. I’ve discovered a lot about myself and my former self. Some of the photos I can’t remember taking, some I can remember very clearly. It’s a journey of rediscovery for me,” he says.

Two men sit outside on the street with a wringer washer between them

One of Woolaver’s favourite photos from his Toronto days; he says he looks for moments of humour in everyday life.

Lessons from looking back

Looking back through this period, there are a few standouts for Woolaver, especially photos that capture the surrealism of everyday life. One is a photo he took in Kensington Market in 1983. “It has an element of humour to it, which I like to find now in my photos and have focused on in other photo series, external link. You don’t really know what’s going on – these guys were selling these appliances and they were just relaxing on the street, and there’s a wringer washer in the photo. That’s like a bridge in time.”

Not only do the photos function as a bridge between the Toronto of the past and present day, they also have given Woolaver cause to reflect on the person he was then and the person he’s become now. One photo in particular brings this to mind: the cover photo of his book, No Money Down, external link, with a broken-down car at the forefront of the frame near the intersection of Queen and Portland streets. 

“I took it because I thought it was really cool-looking, but there was a person living in the car. I didn’t stop to think about it then. I maybe knew it then, but it means more to me now; it affects me emotionally. I would have taken the photo in a different way now, and I understand it differently now.” That’s why the scanning process has been such an interesting undertaking for Woolaver. “It’s like detective work: figuring out where it was taken and why.”

A broken down car in an open parking lot in downtown Toronto.

Avard says an important part of reflecting on the photos of his past is thinking about what he’d do differently today.

Nowadays, since he’s living in the country once again, Woolaver says he’s mostly moved away from street photography and is focused on human-altered landscapes that have some element of whimsy to them. “Now I look for scenes that have a bit of humour in them or a visual trick of some sort. They all have something that would make you look again.”

Ryerson highlights

His Ryerson years were momentous, says Woolaver, because of the connections he made, the professors he had and the skills he learned. “One of my classmates is now a professor in image arts, Pierre Tremblay. He’s a fantastic artist. Don Snyder, who taught me all about colour printing, retired from the department last year. The two of them curated my exhibition at Ryerson in 2018. My experience at Ryerson helped me realize that even after your interest is no longer your profession, it can still be a big part of your creative life.”

As for what his photography practice consists of now, Woolaver says he’s been out documenting what it’s like to live through a pandemic, and he encourages the Ryerson community to do the same. “We’ve never seen anything like this. It’s  a very historic time that’s going to change the world, and it’s important to document that, for future generations.” Woolaver has been submitting his images to Canada Covid Portrait, external link, which is aggregating Canadians’ experiences during Covid-19.

One that he’s taken includes an homage to his “Wish You Were Here” work, and highlights the visual tricks he likes to capture: a car’s dash, looking through the windshield ahead to a clear sky and, in the rearview mirror, a storm behind. It’s meant to remind us that one day, the pandemic will be over. “You’re looking ahead to the bright light and in the reflection, you’re leaving the bad times behind.”

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