Midnight Tram to Humber

Midnight Tram to Humber

Award-winning Toronto photographer Joel Charlebois captured this atmospheric photo of a streetcar as it began its westward journey along Queen street just after midnight on a foggy October night.

A year ago, there had been a few foggy nights in Toronto, and every time I would walk home in the dark, I would wonder what it would be like to capture those eerie moments on camera. So one night, I wrapped up warm, took my backpack and little point-and-shoot camera and spent three hours waiting for the perfect shot in the street. I wasn’t working at the time, so I could afford to be up in the middle of the night.

It  is a thrilling achievement. More so that I won with a photo I shot on a Canon Powershot SD500 and $20 plastic tripod. It’s motivation for anyone with an eye — but not necessarily the fancy tools — to keep shooting.

There’s an archetype here, a heritable memory that haunts our dreams and recurs in our literature. The backstory might be one of isolation in an unfamiliar place, waiting alone at night for the way home. It might be a middle-of-the-night escape from danger to the unknown. It could be an allegory of the final westward journey. It is the physical or spiritual turning point when the silent darkness is suddenly broken by the tramcar’s lights piercing the fog. Or perhaps it is just there, suspended in time, waiting for us.

Charlebois’ observation of anxiety and destiny is reminiscent of the haunting glazed tempera painting of a horse and train, one of Alex Colville’s best-known works.

Horse and Train

Abandoned and solitary in the world, human beings are forced to confront their own freedom, a freedom to choose that is both demanding and deadly serious. Horse and Train goes straight to the heart of this source of human anxiety and raises an essential question: can destiny be altered? A helpless witness to imminent disaster, the viewer of this painting can never know the outcome. Clearly, the train cannot deviate from its track, but the horse has a choice – we think. Is it mesmerized by the light? Is it challenging a foe? Is it aware of the terrible danger? If not, can the engineer stop the train in time? The animal may be driven by instinct, but the human faces an ethical dilemma: Is it worth stopping? How much does the death of a horse matter? Which is more dangerous – to brake and cause a possible derailment, or to keep going and risk a deadly collision? Can we halt time – the little that remains?

In Horse and Train, the artist seems to be emphasizing the unavoidable need to make choices: despite the apparently hopeless situation and the magnetic power of the train’s light over the animal, we are witnessing a confrontation between two freedoms. The horse is free to change direction, the engineer to engage the brakes.

Joel Charlebois won a Nikon D700 for his winning Canadian photo entry, Midnight Tram to Humber, in the 2008 Metro Global Photo Challenge. His photo beat out more than 50,000 entries from across the world to Metro newspapers in 20 countries, and won him a trip for two to Paris and $2,000 CDN spending cash.

Joel Charlebois posts his photographs on flickr here.

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One response to “Midnight Tram to Humber

  1. Thanks for the plug! :)

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