Photo of the Day – Sparks Street

I am going to come right out and say it – Ottawa is a beautiful city. Home to most of Canada’s national museums, the Parliament buildings,  the Rideau Canal, and almost a century and a half of history since Confederation in 1867, it was a great place to visit.

Being from Western Canada, Ottawa has always seemed very far away. Indeed, Google Maps pegs the distance from downtown Winnipeg to Ottawa at a whopping 2177 km if driving exclusively through Canada. By comparison, Vancouver is only 116 km further and typically takes less time to drive. That said, Ottawa has always felt as if it was next door. Ottawa, as the seat of Canadian federal politics, has a way of seeming as if it was only a hop, skip and a jump away.

Due to this vast geographical impasse, the first time I set foot in our nation’s capital was in 2008 while attending a conference. It was a bit surreal to see the Parliament buildings, or some of the most famous Group of Seven works hanging in the National Gallery of Canada. It felt like a sort of pilgrimage that I think every Canadian should complete at one point in their lives. I had a similar feeling when visiting London, England, where, standing in the shadow of Big Ben, next to the tomb of Queen Victoria, or face-to-face with Van Gogh’s Chair – suddenly, history was alive and vibrating with a kind of energy that even the best textbook, video, or history teacher could never deliver.

Ottawa, quite simply, offers a broad range of experiences for tourists regardless of the season. I found the people there to be very friendly, and almost exceedingly bilingual. I enjoyed being able to speak in both French and English with comparable ease, and everyone seemed to be making an effort to engage with the founding languages of Upper and Lower Canada. The transit system was easy to use, and there are plenty of freely accessible public spaces and parks. The Byward Market is a fantastic shopping/entertainment district within walking distance of Parliament, and is also home to boutique hotels and delightful B&B’s.


I chose this photo of Ottawa’s Sparks Street because I remember hearing about and watching big happenings on Sparks Street on national television through the 1990s. Sparks Street appeared to be this magical place, replete with all the wonders of late twentieth century life. It was lined with TV screens, buzzing with electricity, and always appeared to be full of people shopping, going about their day, and enjoying the various food and beverage outlets that lined the first floors of most buildings. It seemed to have a very European appeal, a kind of public space that is rare in Canadian cities.

A brief bit about Sparks Street’s history: The corridor, which runs parallel to Wellington Street, was once host to a streetcar line that was part of the Ottawa Electric Railway. As was the case in Winnipeg, streetcars were slowly phased out in the 1950s as transportation phenomena changed dramatically with the massive adoption of the automobile. It was pedestrianized in the 1960s, and has undergone several transformations since. In the 1990s, the “mall” was overhauled and given a fresh look, but an exceedingly 90s one at that. You can always read more on Wikipedia or read the City of Ottawa’s vision for the district if you’re really feeling adventurous.

I have to say, when I stood on Sparks Street’s sprawling mass of interlocking brick, I didn’t feel that same magic that I did elsewhere in Ottawa. Like many 1990s-era renovation projects in Winnipeg and Calgary (think of Portage Place or Eau Claire Market), the latest redux of Sparks Street had left it feeling a bit cold and distant, no longer a central social space for the capital region’s many workers. I also remarked how many businesses restaurants and cafes were closed in the middle of the day or would close immediately at 6 PM – something all too familiar in Winnipeg and Calgary’s business districts. All I could feel on the admittedly bleak November day was the bite of the wind and overhanging feeling of nostalgia as if the buildings were lamenting the days when they were put to better use.

If I could offer Ottawa’s planning department one piece of advice, it would be this: Reduce the available walking space in a constructive and deliberate manner. This concept is a familiar one to club scene aficionados. If the dance floor is too big, it will always seem empty and uninviting. If the dance floor is just small enough, it will always appear to be full, thereby reducing the activation energy for entry of the less dance-oriented clientele. In this context, leaving such a wide open (and very long) pedestrian space without adequate social “meeting places” kills the potential and leaves a vast ocean of pre-formed concrete between one pedestrian and the next. Without grounding influences like  kiosks, fountains, public art, and so on, it always ends up feeling a bit like walking over a moonscape.

Photo of the Day – Baker and Ward

I hope I’m not sharing too much when I say that I have a crush on Nelson, British Columbia. Have you ever felt that way when you’ve visited a place? Been so carried away by the feeling of just being there that it made you want to drop everything and find a way to move there?

I’m told that this sort of affectation often beguiles tourists visting Paris, France. Alas, to bastardize a phrase from Casablanca, “we’ll never have Paris” because I simply have not had the chance to visit la belle ville just yet. I can say that sort of feeling overtook me in Vienna, where the combination of beautiful architecture, amazing coffee, friendly people and intraurban wineries combined into an intoxicating and potent, dare I say, quasi-spiritual experience.

Nelson was different though. It felt like I was coming home rather than riding the wave. I felt like I was starting up a conversation with an old friend, who strangely, I scarcely knew and yet knew everything about. Paradoxical? Absolutely. Wonderful? Mais oui!

Baker and Ward


This photo was taken in Nelson, BC at the intersection of Baker and Ward. The KWC block was built in 1900-01 and originally served as a grocery store and market. Much of Baker street was built up around this time, and what is so wonderful is how much of it has been preserved. Nelson has over 350 designated heritage buildings which provide the space for all kinds of amazing artisans and artists to both work and market their oeuvres.

I am sure that I could go on and on, but I’ll let you as the viewer come to your own conclusions by investigating the photo above. Consider the people, the shops, the sun, the mountains, and the certain je-ne-sais-quoi that I think shines through loud and clear.

Photo of the Day – Chinese United Church

After a week celebrating wildflowers on the SML blog, I thought I would offer a more urban focus for this week: architecture and street photography. Technically speaking, architectural and street photography are worlds apart when it comes to the way photos are taken, the kind of preparation that is necessary, and what constitutes a beautifully realized photograph.

Architectural photography, in my view, is all about precision. Capturing architectural works in stunning detail that brings them to life in true-to-life, and quite often, truer-than-life portraits. Photography can show the viewer the entire building or an entire city in a way it is rarely experienced. It also can bring the viewer close to details such as gargoyles, embellishments, graffiti or decay in a way that are not available to the casual viewer. The building as person, an extension of cultural expression and the basis for our urban existence makes it both an engaging and challenging subject for photographers. In as much as buildings themselves create (and restrict) space within the city, the photographer is the one who frames them. As such, they are a canvas for the pigments of each photographer’s own particular affectation, whether it be happy, sad, questioning or indifferent.

Street photography, however, is all about being in the moment. Twentieth-century masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugène Atget, and Robert Frank are all names that resonate in this discipline. Street photography freezes moments in time, captures the good, the bad, and the ugly all around us. Photographers who excel in this medium are eagle-eyed observers with quick reflexes who can tap into the vibe of the location and the people around them. Technique here is just as important as in architectural photography, but it is not about complicated setups or perfectly level horizons. In my view, street photography is an attempt to hold a mirror up to the world, and ourselves, and in so doing, invite the viewer into the moment and experience that is pictured. By attempting capturing moments that are often unseen, or places that may be overlooked, street photography is far from “random snapshots” – it is an artform that requires many hours of practice.

Calgary Chinese United Church


This photo was taken in Calgary, Alberta in the Chinatown district. What struck me about this scene is the way in which old and new have fused into a hybrid structure, much in the way that old and new Chinese culture continue to collide both in the country itself and around the world in the global Chinese community of expatriates and pioneers. In a city like Calgary where old is always making way for the new, and history has a way of disappearing, this building certainly stands out.

Photo of the Day – Echinacea

Echinacea (also known as coneflower) has a number of subspecies that are native to Canada and the United States, of which many are also grown as ornamental plants due to their natural drought resistance and of course, the beautiful flowers. That is, of course, notwithstanding those which are cultivated for the purposes of creating herbal supplements or remedies!

I believe this variety is Echinacea angustifolia, which, like me, would be a ways from its prairie roots in Peachland B.C. where this photo was taken. It was a beautiful summer day with Lake Okanagan in the background and a pleasant westerly summer breeze cascading down its mountainous shores. Peachland is, first and foremost, a resort town these days, and it was abundant with a kind of genuine charm that I had previously encountered when visiting Huntington Beach in California. People, whether locals or travellers like myself, just seem genuinely happy to be there.

Echinacea Augustifolium

What strikes me about this photo and the previous photo of the day is the way in which the flowers can be appreciated in the context of their surroundings. I often find that photos of flowers centre too much on the flowers themselves, as if it was a kind of “flower portrait,” when, in fact, flowers are rarely if ever appreciated in this way. While it does serve to highlight the intricate and often fascinating structures that make up these plants, it also gives the viewer little else to satiate their visual palette.

Photo of the Day – Fireweed

Anyone who has spent time hiking in the boreal forest across Canada, or even just driving though the Canadian Shield or Rocky Mountains has undoubtedly come into contact with this hardy species. Fireweed, aka Chamerion angustifolium, is a pioneer species that is known for colonizing recently disturbed patches of land, such as after a forest fire.


It typically grows best in full sun, and so it was when pictured here along the banks of Two Jack Lake in Banff, Alberta. When the plant goes to seed, the seeds deposit in the soil, where they can stay dormant for years until the area is disturbed once again. This plant in particular caught my eye because of the sharp contrast to the blues and greens of its surroundings.

Photo of the Day – Great Blanketflower

With  many other names such as “Common Gaillardia,” I figured that Great Blanketflower had a much nicer ring to it. Gaillardia aristata is common across Western Canada, and is a member of the Gaillardia genus. This group of drought-tolerant plants derives its name from M. Gaillard de Charentonneau, an 18th-century French Magistrate who was a patron of botany.

Great Blanketflower


Like the smooth aster, the great blanketflower is a composite flower as you can see clearly pictured here. They are highly visible even in the middle of a meadow because of the radiant coloration. They tend to grow in clumps, as was the case with this one. It is approaching the later stages of its growth cycle as evidenced by the weathered-looking ray flowers.

This photo was taken in Banff, Alberta.