It’s 5:30 am on a brisk Saturday morning in Winnipeg. Josh, better known amongst his peers as “@yoshigrams”, is dangling his feet from a rooftop in the historic Exchange District awaiting the first signs of light. His mission on this crisp September morning is to capture the first beams of sunlight as they rise to cascade over the array of brick buildings set in Chicago style. The aged brick buildings proudly display the remnants of hand painted ads and signs from years past. These ghosted-signed walls will serve as today’s backdrop. Sitting outside in the brisk weather patiently waiting for the sun’s first light is a small price to pay for the stunning photo he will capture today through the lense of his trusty and well-loved camera.
Josh is not alone in his mission to capture the city’s downtown core and the people calling it home. This group of talented and creative Winnipeg photographers, whether they know it or not, is quickly changing the way in which we view our city of just over 700,000 residents.
For many, downtown Winnipeg has become a focal point and hub for photography thanks in part to its diverse cityscapes and character. A mix of late 1800s Chicago-style architecture that inhabits the Exchange, along with sporadic growth and revitalization in the downtown core, have all played a part in this resurgence of interest. New projects and spaces like True North Square, Museum of Human Rights, and the renovation of the Winnipeg Convention Centre have captured the imagination of many–tourists and Winnipeggers alike. This diverse area encompasses approximately 179.18 square miles and is enjoyably explored on foot or bicycle. One can cover a large portion of the downtown area in a 15-minute bike ride or 20-minute walk from Portage and Main; that is all the distance separating the Commons at the Forks Market from the steps of the Manitoba Legislative Building or the heart of the Exchange and Provencher Bridge.
To what do we attribute this influx and growth of interest in photography? We could sit around and debate the influence of good-quality and accessible entry-level camera gear, the evolution of the cell phone camera, or the popularity of photo sharing apps like Instagram and VSCO. While these all come into play, I think there’s something bigger and deeper at the heart of it all. I see a vast number of up-and-coming photographers with a yearning for adventure who are finding it all in their own backyard: Downtown Winnipeg.
This growing talent pool have proven their ability to capture the same city and locations in contrasting and unique shooting and editing styles. I can’t help but think that this friendly competition is the reason we are seeing such imagery evolving. While some may choose to shoot strictly on iPhones and others prefer investing in higher-end DSLRs, the well of creativity does not run dry. From romanticized skylines to whimsical street views. the variety of ways we can view our city has never been as interesting, as beautiful, or as diverse. This wave of both established and up-and-coming artists are transforming the mundane streets and views into beautiful works of art, ready to be hung on gallery and condo walls alike.
And it is not just the aesthetic quality these photos possess, but the way in which they engage the viewer. Sometimes a familiar space is seen in a new light or a recommendation unintentional is offered. Leveraging tools like social media have forged new paths for us to journey along with photographers as they explore the downtown. Thanks to apps like VSCO and Instagram, we find ourselves consistently screenshotting images taken by some of our favourite Winnipeg photographers. It might be a simple reminder to order a print or, even more often, a reminder to add a specific location to our “To Do and See” list.
On my phone amongst the clutter is an album labelled “To Do and See.” I enjoy photography, though I am far from accomplished; perhaps even labelling it a “hobby” is a statement of generosity. But in the interests of inspiring other local, amateur photographers to grab their camera of choice and hit the pavement for adventure, I took a minute to map out one of my recent excursions.
From the steps of 300 Main, camera in tow, I hang a right and walk the 7 minutes to Via Rail Union Station to marvel at the building interior. I have been here before, but years ago when I did not have the appreciation I do now. Not many people know that the Historic Building built in 1908 through 1909 was designed by Warren and Wetmore, architects of New York’s Grand Central Station. A few years back, an image of this space captured by Josh helped me to appreciate the intricate workings of the inner dome-shaped ceiling.
I keep moving. Depending on the time of year and day, it looks like I am heading west to grab a couple of photos at Upper Fort Garry Park. I have driven by on a weekly basis for many years, yet I desire to take it in first-hand. It’s hard to believe that more than 400 feet of steel and light went into the installation that scribe three continuous lines tracing the history of western Canada and of Upper Fort Garry.
Time for some refreshment. I am sitting down for a drink at the Sky Lounge behind Hotel Fort Garry. Sky Lounge offers a stunning skyline view overlooking downtown and the Forks and is located just a few floors from Prairie 360, with views of the city in its entirety. If the day was still young I may rather have opted to grab a coffee at Fools + Horses en route to lunch, served up on Broadway courtesy of the Red Ember Food truck just a block west from Fools + Horses.
At this point I have a few options. Option one, I can cross the street and do a self-guided tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building, hoping to adequately capture the extensive masonry work and do my best to make out the Hermetic Code written in stone (literally). Option two, I can walk up a block to hit the WAG’s rooftop terrace or walk to the top of The Bay parkade across the street. These are some of the greatest vantage points of downtown and all it has to offer. Option three, I can venture North and check out the newly renovated Winnipeg Convention Centre (which has some awesome exterior textures and lighting) before sitting down in True North Square to do some skyward shooting.
No matter which of these options I choose, I am then heading Northeast to continue the journey in the Exchange District. There I will capture some street scenes reminiscent of Chicago, some ghost signs that decorate the building landscape, and then stop for a bite at either King + Bannatyne or Deer + Almond before seeing who or what I can capture at the the Cube Stage in Old Market Square.
My last route will be Waterfront Drive, making my way Southeast to capture Shaw Park with the arches of Provencher Street Bridge in the background. My final stop will be the ever-popular Museum of Human Rights. All said and done, I will have covered a good portion of downtown Winnipeg – Broadway-Assiniboine, South Portage, the Exchange District, Waterfront and the Forks. I will leave Central Park and Chinatown for my next adventure. All these places and spaces appeared on my timeline at some point; and it was either the lighting or composition that caught my attention in a way I had not viewed before.
As Winnipeg’s downtown continues its renaissance, city dwellers and tourists alike are rediscovering all it has to offer. A vibrant city requires an active heart; a central core. Winnipeg has always possessed this active heart, yet at some points in time the vital signs have been seemingly weak. When the city of Winnipeg refocused its vision back to making a beautiful and accessible downtown, Winnipeggers took note. And they took their cameras.
Here are some of my favourite Winnipeg photographers capturing our great city and sharing their stories on Instagram.
Josh Lavallee @yoshigrams
Simeon Rusnak @simeonrusnak
Mike Peters @93mp
David Metcalfe @davidmetcalfe
Andrew Mahon @andrewmahon
Liz Tran @liz.tran
Anders Homenick @friendshipfilms
Byren Gregorchuk @fortheloveofwinnipeg