Monday, May 29, 2017


Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, April 2017

MOST OF THE TIME, PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABOUT THE RIGHT MOMENT. Some of the time, however, it's about that, plus access. That's true whether you're talking about a portrait or a cityscape, and sometimes it helps to be able to go somewhere most people can't.

Several times in the last month or so I've been lucky enough to gain access to spots that most people can't go, either with or without cameras. Once was in my own hometown, but the other two were while on assignment, aided by the privilege that is one of the perks of travel writing.

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, April 2017

I was walking back to my hotel from the harbor in Vancouver when I looked up and noticed the carved gargoyles on the corners of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Normally I would just bookmark a detail like this in the hope of some future access, but on this day I realized that I had the business card of the regional director of public relations for the hotel chain in my room, so I called and left a message as soon as I got off the elevator.

In a few hours it had all been sorted and I was let out of an inconspicuous door and over some slightly rickety scaffolding onto the roof terrace where the gargoyles - real and fantastical animals - have been glowering over Vancouver for almost eighty years. I was particularly drawn to the pegasus that looks down over Hornby and West Georgia, with the thin patch of bright green moss on its back and the colourful patina on the copper flashing by its hooves, the result of years of rain and pigeon shit.

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

Before I left for Vancouver I'd gotten an e-mail from another PR person I'd worked with years previous, inviting me to an event at the old bank tower that was once the Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. It was home to one of the loveliest banking halls in the city, but the building also featured a now-closed observation deck behind four quartets of long stone faces near the top of what's probably Toronto's finest art deco skyscraper.

I lacked any sort of outlet for the photos besides this blog, but my contact was kind enough to add me to the list regardless. I showed up on the day with a bag full of cameras and lenses for a reception in the banking hall, where I snapped that ceiling in between canapes, and also took shots of an architectural model of the building, on display alongside other artifacts from the vaults of the bank's archives.

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

I was assigned a number, and when our group was called we headed up in the elevator and got a short safety lecture before being led out to the 32nd floor observation deck, which has been inaccessible to anyone but building security and maintenance workers and bank executives for decades. (Though that hasn't stopped some intrepid friends of mine from getting out there.)

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

With just fifteen minutes we had to move fast, and I shot as much as I could of the deck, the financial district skyline, and the "Giants of Jordan" with my new fisheye and my trusty Fuji.

A week later I was in Buffalo on a travel gig, on a private tour of the architecture of the old downtown, when my guide noticed Michael, the chief engineer of the Electric Tower building, as we were just about to leave the lobby. He asked if we could get a quick tour of the locked portions of the building, which is how I ended up in the abandoned offices of Niagara Mohawk Power on the seventh floor, and then in the "amphitheatre" at the base of the spire on the fourteenth floor, and then on the windy and never publicly accessible observation platform outside.

Electric Tower, Buffalo NY, May 2017
View east from City Hall, Buffalo NY, May 2017

The observation deck at Buffalo's magnificent City Hall, unlike the top of the Electric Tower, is very publicly accessible - though ringed with a high glass wall in keeping with modern health and safety (and legal) standards. I was there just a couple of hours after I'd been high in the Electric Tower, trying to get a decent shot of the skyline past the reflections on the glass.

I finally noticed this view of the city's park-like suburbs past the twin Lady Liberties on the roof of the Liberty Building, meeting the horizon just beneath the overcast sky.

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