On a relatively sunny, mild Saturday in early May of 1975, I sat for several hours late in the afternoon on the grassy knoll just outside the main entrance to Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Montreal. In front of me was Ste – Catherine Street, to my left, Union Avenue and to my right, University Street. With me was my newly – minted 35mm Konica SLR camera, which I intended to use with an eye to history. Other than that one precious item, I was, as I recall, alone.
Long before the fashioning of digital photography, I examined my subjects carefully before capturing an image on my Kodak black and white camera film. Celluloid, and its development into prints, was relatively expensive forty-one years ago, especially for someone comparatively young with limited financial resources.
In the last analysis, I snapped 32 photos that spring day, nearly completing a 36 PLUS X Kodak roll. To this date, I still have them and even now gaze at the glossy shots with an ever – increasing fascination.
They are above all photos of people, individuals who, just by chance, found themselves on the sidewalk, on the north side of Ste – Catherine Street, at the same moment of time that I was there. One is of a former colleague, now deceased. Others are of passersby apparently unaware that I had photographed them, albeit in a public setting: a taxi driver (seemingly staring right into my camera), a cyclist walking his bike, a couple of aged nuns, an artisan flogging his creations over the then unfenced half-wall of the church property. A few characters, who were well aware of the camera’s presence, actually play acted for the occasion. None seemed annoyed.
Looking back, they were ostensibly all Montrealers captured in time, with the vagaries of clothing style separating them from those who pass that very spot today.
There are also in the images businesses to be seen on the other side of Montreal’s principal commercial artery. The iconic, yet long gone clock of the Birks store recorded the precise instant several stills were captured. In the middle of the block could be observed an ‘Information Canada’ bookshop, the federal government’s voice in Canadian cities in the 1970’s. Finally, at the corner of University, can be spotted Hemsley’s Jewellers, complete with its apostrophe in those pre–Bill 101 days.
I remember thinking when I snapped the photos, now so long ago, that I would conserve them in order to observe the changes that would take place over the years. This I have done.
Last spring, I returned to that very corner with my latest camera. The popular site is no longer as conducive to shooting stills as it used to be. An iron grill has been erected on the half-wall separating church property from public property making it considerably more complicated for photography when compared to 1975.
Regardless of that fact, however, I noted that I was now more hesitant to take photos of people who were perfect strangers to me, and I didn’t know why. Perhaps, if noticed, they wouldn’t play act for the camera but rather become quite angry. Indeed, rage seems very much a part of the daily lives of many in the twenty-first century.
In any event, I used my recent presence in front of the Anglican cathedral to make other observations, a few of which I believe to be rather interesting.
Firstly, there are many more automobiles on the street today than in 1975. Visibly, there are also parking meters now while there were none forty-one years ago. Nevertheless, there appears one item in the photographs from the middle of the 1970’s which is no longer with us today, and that is the outdoor newsstand!
But the relatively recent arrival of the mobile phone is truly that which separates contemporary Montrealers from those who appear in my pictures taken all those years ago. Today, many more individuals walk the streets alone, all the while texting or talking on their smartphone. In contrast, most people forty-one years ago are perceived to have been in pairs chatting with one another as they ambled merrily along la rue Ste – Catherine.