Notes about Picture Background and (by the by) a Visit to Toronto’s R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant

Andy Michaluk waits in Spitfire N730MJ at the button of Runway 26. The background is appropriate, including the original Toronto Island Airport hangar built circa 1938. The vessel tied up beside it is the old Maple City, a former TIA ferry boat.

We were always taught in photography classes by the likes of Nick “NJW” Wolochatiuk to chose (or at least be aware of) the background in our photos. Background often needed to be neutral, we were instructed, so as not to distract from the central subject. There was a list of pointers about overhead wires and such, i.e., look out for what you really don’t want in your photo “back there”. On the other hand you sometimes wanted a certain background. If the subject was an Otter bobbing at the dock, composing your shot to include the Beaver taking off behind would be ideal. That usually took a bit of patience or happenstance. So background can polish your shot.

Back on August 29, 2003 I was with the gang down at Toronto Island Airport checking out the Canadian International Airshow action. There were a number of participants present from an American-registered Spitfire Mk.IX to the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association from Woodstock. In the usual course of milling around with the gang, I soon got chatting about doing an air-to-air shoot with Spitfire pilot Andy Michaluk.

Andy takes his Spitfire over the Eastern Gap. Next he crossed over Cherry Beach, Ashbridges Bay, the Eastern Beaches, the R.C.Harris plant, then reached the Scarborough Bluffs. His Spitfire was built in 1943, fought with the RCAF, then served the Italian and Israeli air forces postwar. It eventually returned to the UK for restoration, flying again in 1988 and coming to the US in 2000. Its markings are those of the CO of 32 Squadron while stationed in Greece in 1944.

Originally from Baltimore, Andy had his commercial pilot’s licence by 1960, then joined the Maryland Air National Guard. He trained on the T-37 and T-38 at Williams AFB, advanced to the T-33 and F-86H at Nellis AFB, then flew the F-86H with the 104th TFS Maryland ANG from Baltimore. A later stint was on F-100s with the 136 TFS at Niagara Falls, NY. Andy wrapped up his ANG career on the AT-37 and left the ANG in 1977. Meanwhile, he had been flying for American Airlines. Starting on the DC-6, he moved on to such types as the Electra, 727 and 767, off which he retired in 2001.

In 1988 Andy restored an AT-6, which he painted in Maryland ANG colours. He later checked out on the P-51 and recently had added the Spitfire. After we briefed for our photo trip, we taxied out and departed on Runway 26, the Harvard leading. As we turned back eastward, over my shoulder I spotted Andy blasting off down R26.

He soon was sitting on our port wingtip as we passed over the islands, crossed the Eastern Gap and headed for the Scarborough Bluffs, which always make such a fine background for air-to-airs. Nearing the bluffs we flew over my neighbourhood — the Beaches. Then in seconds we were over Toronto’s magnificent R.C. Harris water treatment plant. I banged off a few shots as we moved along at 130 knots. This was a photog’s dream scenario! A few rolls of Kodacolor later and we were on final back at TIA, another great “Kodak Moment” happily noted in my little passenger log book.

Passing over the magnificent R.C. Harris water filtration plant at the east end of Queen Street. Not surprisingly, this property often is used as a movie set.

A few weeks ago photography sidekick Andrew Yee called to remind me that there was an upcoming open house at R.C. Harris. This was too good to miss, so on May 29, 2011 there I was at (instead of over) this great Toronto landmark. Designed in 1929, the Harris plant was constructed 1932-37 and finally opened in 1941.

The Harris plant from ground level in a view that features many of its architectural fine points.

The guidebook published by the City of Toronto tells the story of the place:

The architect was Thomas C. Pomphrey [whose] career revolved around water supply and treatment plants … Dubbing it “The Palace of Purification”, critics attacked the plant’s appearance as early as 1938. The use of rich materials like marble and bronze in the interior, plus the extensive limestone carvings on the exterior is … characteristic of the times. While unusual for Toronto’s utilitarian structures, lavish treatment was typical in water treatment plants built across North America prior to World War II… The R.C. Harris is the largest unified ensemble of Art Deco buildings in Toronto. Inside and out, the plant features stepped, or set-back, profiles and a wealth of flattened, geometric and highly stylized ornament in stone, brick and metal. The plant is an excellent example of how the Art Deco style (1925-40) could integrate Late Romanesque Revival and Modern Classical forms, which are represented by the round-arched openings in the filter Building and the simplified pediments and pilasters on the Pumping Station.

You’ll chuckle at the bit about the critics. Those often-clueless cases are always out there casting their stones. Toronto gave us the R.C. Harris plant 75- years ago, thank goodness, but where are the dopey critics today? Long gone, lucky us! Every community has its landmarks, which the hobby photographer can always have fun shooting — day or night, summer or winter, rain or shine. So have a look at what’s around you where you live or travel and get to it. If in Toronto take the 501 streetcar down to R.C. Harris and enjoy the many photographic possibilities.

Some of the pumps in the low-lift room. The larger ones bring in raw water from Lake Ontario, the smaller ones pump filtered water into the city’s distribution system.

The data plate on one of the big old pumps. Such detailed photography adds to the overall picture, if you are building up any sort of a story line — some photos are wide, others are right in close.

Another useful and informative close-up.

Many historic photos and artifacts add to the tour of the Harris facility. What well-rounded aviation fan wouldn’t enjoy a visit to such a remarkable urban treasure!

Peter Mossman is one of Canada’s great aviation artists. On July 30, 2011 he sent me some reminiscences of boyhood days during WWII at the Harris plant:

“I saw your piece on the waterworks in the east end–I grew up playing there. We had a sophisticated baseball club going urged on by a local retired pro player. We played football being careful not to tackle near the steel water tank covers, hockey down by the turbine building, and handball on the fountain terrace. We sleighed down the hill before they added the other wing. And soap box derby was held on the roadway. We also used to dive off the pier,  sun on the beach and fly our rubber powered model airplanes.

During the war, when my big brother was flying operations overseas, there was barbed wire and guards in huts to protect the place. Then one morning when I went for my walk with my 2 spaniels and it was all gone — the grass which had not been cut was up to my waste and I couldn’t see my dogs running through it! I could not begin to guess at the hours of my childhood I spent there. Never once did we get told to leave or go play somewhere else. You sure opened a floodgate of great memories. It’s funny, but we kids never knew the name of the place — it was always just “the waterworks” to us.

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One response to “Notes about Picture Background and (by the by) a Visit to Toronto’s R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant

  1. Pingback: What’s in the Background? It Can Be Fun | CANAV Books Blog

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