Not many people can have paid closer attention, or greater tribute, to Toronto and its citizens during the coronavirus lockdown than the Star photographers who produced daily portraits of lives being lived very differently.
Since a state of emergency was declared in the city on March 17, their work captured the emptiness of abandoned streets, the isolation of housebound residents, the consolations found in simple pleasures, the pot-banging gratitude, the imaginative ways to maintain community, and the slow, slow re-emergence.
The 151 photos they produced, in a series that ends Saturday as Toronto enters Phase 3 of recovery, was beautifully enhanced by a writer who, until now, has been anonymous.
It was Star politics editor Jordan Himelfarb who illuminated the photo series with imaginative captions that amounted to micro-essays of whimsy, poetry, levity, history and philosophy.
With them, Himelfarb used a novel technique to turn a normally routine journalistic task into something special, treating readers to the daily delights of a curious, erudite and compassionate mind.
What he added to the photos was by turns amusing, uplifting and thought provoking.
“The idea was to capture every aspect of life in Toronto during the pandemic, in all its ridiculousness, and all of its tragedy,” he said. “The political dimension, the social and personal dimension, the eeriness, the surge of solidarity — all of that. All those facets of this strange time.”
Himelfarb would receive each day’s photo at about 4 p.m. from the Star’s visuals editor, Taras Slawnych, or photo assignment editor Tim Finlan, and study it to see what element touched him. Then, within a couple of hours, he wrote a caption of anywhere from 10 to 135 words.
He found inspiration, he said, in literature, history and mythology.
It is no small challenge to write succinctly, to express an idea, conjure a scene, deliver pleasure to the mind and spirit in so few words.
But, inspired by images from Star photographers Andrew Wallace, Rene Johnston, Rick Madonik, Steve Russell, Richard Lautens and Kelsey Wilson, Himelfarb did just that, inviting readers on an informative stroll — one day with Jonathan Safran Foer, another with Jonathan Swift — through centuries of thinkers contemplating how men and women face challenge and find purpose and joy, and how sacrifice is sometimes demanded for the common good.
On an Easter Sunday that was for many more poignant and symbolic than most, his cutline was pulled from a lot of religious traditions “to give people hope at a dark time,” he said.
As good writers do, he sprinkled gold coins along the reader’s trail, dropping in an explanation of how the penny-farthing bicycle got its name, or his twin haikus paired with a photo of blossoming cherry trees in High Park.
If some readers found it a little unusual, it was. And that was the idea.
“I was going for a little weird,” Himelfarb said. “I had a lot of fun. It’s been a real joy.”
The Star’s deputy editor Catherine Wallace said Himelfarb took the project “in just a beautiful direction.
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“We’ve heard from readers saying how much they appreciate his daily poetry and the unexpected references, and some of them wondering who the writer is,” Wallace said.
Now they know.