Mike Morris has spent years honing his craft in an attempt to portray the fringe, underexposed stories of his native city, Toronto.
In recent years, Canada’s largest city has been thrust into the global spotlight, a post-industrial hub that is slowly becoming gentrified, filling with artisanal food boutiques and identical condo complexes, skyscrapers populating the skyline at a rapid rate. Beneath this shiny veneer, however, Morris knows there are narratives worth exploring, people, worth exploring.
Whether this is from behind bars as he works as a bartender, photographing the patrons and his friends, or as he roams the streets capturing unknown subjects, Morris is aware of how “each person reads differently from one image to the next”, highlighting the joy of observing “the passage of time and try[ing] to capture them from moment to moment”. Morris’ work stunningly balances the motif of capturing people both as individuals and as part of a wider collective, his photographs exuding a sense of human warmth and familiarity.
As part of his photo series Pool Hoppers, Morris follows a subculture that sees its members breaking into the cities’ outdoor pools to escape the heat of the summer’s nights. Morris embeds himself within the community, actively participating in the revelries. He jumps the fences, he sheds his clothes, he swims as part of the group, and when the police turn up he is one of many who frantically their belongings and to continue their night in the city, barely dressed but rejuvenated.
For Morris, being a photographer is not a case of separating himself from his subjects, but instead establishing a connection with them, utilising cameras with ground glass viewfinders that do not block his face from them. He even extends this personal involvement when he displays his work: his development process requires commitment, printing his photographs onto large sheets of costly archival paper which require delicate handling. A deeply intimate method, Morris believes it has allowed him to capture a joyous instance: “Beautiful people running around doing whatever they want”.
Hi Mike, when going into this field of work, was there a specific moment that you can recall that made you want to pursue photography?
“As a kid, my parents had an automatic Nikon SLR’s from the ’80s kicking around with 50mm lens on it. I remember taking it in the backyard all the time, framing my small world—bringing the pieces in and out of focus.
“I wasn’t the best student in high school. I figured I liked cameras as a kid, so why not take photography? Little did I know that I would fall madly in love with the darkroom long before I found my passion for actually taking pictures”.
Your work focuses on capturing the authentic moments of city life in Toronto, treading a line between the candid nature of street photography and the intimacy of portraiture – how did you discover that this was the form that you wanted to work with?
“I’ve lived here all my life and I feel a deep connection to this city. Toronto is a big city, but it’s a small town, and there is so much to sink your teeth into here. I love photographing people, I think they are the most dynamic subjects.
“People are so emotional, each person reads differently from one image to the next. I love photographing friends and loved ones — it’s interesting to see the passage of time and try to capture them from moment to moment”.
With there being little to go on in terms of objective street photography literature, what has inspired your artistic choices and work?
“I’m really inspired and influenced by Robert Frank — I’ll never forget the day I picked up The Americans at the Toronto Reference Library in high school. I also love William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Joel Meyerowitz, Nan Golden. There’s a ton. I think it’s important to have an understanding and appreciation of art history to be an effective image-maker.
“I’m constantly getting inspiration from my city, the people I meet, films I watch, and going to galleries around the world. My family isn’t high brow, but my parents have always valued art. My dad started taking me on trips to see galleries when I was young. It’s because of him, and these trips — both seeing art and taking photos — that I knew this was all I ever wanted to do.”
What do you think makes a certain photograph stand out from the norm? What makes a certain photograph memorable?
“I’m terrible at editing my photo selections. When I have an exhibition, I’ll usually print out all my contact sheets and have my friends pick the ones they think are the strongest. I get way too sentimental.
“For example, if I had to psych myself up to photograph an intimidating stranger, I’ll choose it over the stronger photo, because that person trusted me enough to allow the image to be taken.”
What made you choose to document the pool hopping subculture?
“From the moment I started pool hopping over ten years ago, I was hooked. I had never experienced anything that exciting or sexy in Toronto. Then, three summers ago, it was a wild night and the energy was so great — I was elated to be in the water swimming that I had to document this momentous occasion.
“What really got me though was how willing these strangers were to have their portraits taken. I shot like crazy putting my camera down on my dry clothes, jumping into the water, then hopping out soaking wet, trying to sustain the balance between being a joyful participant and photographer. And that was that. I ended up shooting the project for two more summers.
What did you seek to capture most in your series?
“I really just wanted to depict an accurate portrayal of what pool hopping looks like, especially for those who have never experienced it. It was important for me to show the whole experience: the initial hop over the fence, the interactions with the water and the small intimate moments that happen between the people who are there.
“The energy of pool hopping, there’s nothing like it. I hope my images convey that. I want the sense of urgency and elation to come through.”
Most of your photographs seem to be taken in analogue, black and white formats. What was your reasoning behind this decision?
“I shoot black and white because it’s a more affordable film to buy and to process. You get sick of always having to run off to a lab to drop off and pick up. These days as well, the cost of processing colour is equal to or more than the cost of the film. I just don’t find it worth it. Instead, I tuck away into my studio and develop the film myself, which I can only do with black and white film.”
How have you developed your own distinct aesthetic?
“Working in the darkroom really is my happy place. I like working with my hands. I love how the film reacts to different types of situations and it can all go south at the drop of a hat.
“Temperatures fluctuate, chemicals can go bad, there are so many variables to consider. Because of that, my images end up having a certain roughness to them, which informs my aesthetic.”
What do you find to be the advantages over digital and colour formats?
“I find people are more receptive to being photographed on a vintage film camera over digital. In the context of pool hopping, the people I’m photographing see my old Rolleiflex and are put at ease. It legitimises what I’m doing as an artist. If I had a digital camera, I think it could probably feel pervy, which is not my intention at all.
“My cameras all have ground glass viewfinders, which means that the camera never covers my face. I’m always connected to my subjects, never hiding. With film, it’s just shoot-and-go, nothing else to think about.”
Were there any challenges when immersing yourself in the subculture?
“As I said before, pool hopping has been a part of my summers since I was 19. I strip down to my birthday suit and get into the water with them. My friends and I are usually the ones to demonstrate to the new hoppers how to fill a plastic bag with water and bring it up to the top of a waterslide in order to make it slippery enough to slide down safely.
“Some of the fences can be quite dangerous. If I see people struggling I usually offer to help. At any moment police can come and break it up. I’m usually the guy that goes around telling the kids to quiet down so we don’t attract unwanted attention. I’m also the first person to speak to the police when they arrive assuring them all garbage will be cleaned and we’ll be out in a timely manner.”
There must be a certain vulnerability that comes with the act of pool hopping, with members often swimming nude and in the dark, as well as the collective act of breaking and entering – How would you describe the mood of the moment?
“It’s exciting. People are running around free from the worries of their daily life: paying rent, issues at work or lack of work. The focus is purely being in the moment, trying to get in as much time before the authorities arrive.
“You might be having a normal night out, getting drinks, blowing off steam. Then BOOM! You’re jumping over a fence, frantically taking off your clothes, jumping in the water. Suddenly you feel summer all around you, the only source of light is the moon and far off street lights. It’s romantic and freeing.”
Did the atmosphere change when you began to photograph people?
“You can see heads turning when the flash starts popping off, and people start asking questions, but I have my spiel down now and quickly explain that, ‘I’m an artist and all of this is for a project I’m working on’. It also helps that I’m usually just as naked as they are.”
Any tips for prospective pool-hoppers who may be reading this?
“Be safe out there. Always stick by your friends hopping over the fence in case something goes wrong. Be quiet and respectful so the neighbours don’t call the police. When the police arrive don’t be mouthy. Leave no garbage and for god sakes don’t bring glass on deck with you.
“Oh! And if you are a bigot or if nudity makes you uncomfortable then pool hopping is not for you. Lastly, you can’t go down the waterslide in your underwear, it defeats the whole purpose and you’ll get stuck.”
Do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of city life you may be exploring next? What attracts you to a certain subject or field?
“Some friends and I opened up a studio two years ago. My bike rides up there have me pass by a large, desolate building that on weekends happens to be a fully functioning flea market. Toronto has less than a handful of markets left. I want to document the vendors before they vanish and new condo developments pop up.
“I’m generally attracted to what’s around me. As a bartender in a busy, rock and roll bar I’m privy to many wild nights in Toronto. I’ve been photographing at this and other establishments for many years now and would like to put together either a show or a book in the near future.”
All images are owned by Mike Morris, see more of his work here.