Toronto 1980s

A flashback to the gritty Toronto of the 1980s

Avard Woolaver arrived in Toronto in September 1980 to study photography at what was then called Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. Coming from rural Nova Scotia, the young photographer was dazzled by the big city that he now called home and immediately started shooting. Fortunately for us, the record of these wonder years is now available as a book titled "Toronto Flashback."

Toronto 1980s

For those of us interested in mining the visual archive of the 1980s, the Ellis Wiley Fonds at the Toronto Archives are indispensable, but for all the crucial documentation of the the decade, the photos are mostly snapshots. That's one of the reasons Woolaver's work is so fascinating. This is a record of Toronto with a soul.

Toronto 1980s

"Many of the early photos from '80 and '81 came from school assignments -- reflections, shadows, exploration of the frame, use of graphic elements, etc.," Woolaver explains. "Aside from completing these projects, my aim was to document the city, and try to show a sense of humanity, as well as to expand my photographic vision."

Toronto 1980s

Inspired by the work of photographers like Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, Woolaver's documentation of 1980s Toronto is gritty and delicate all at once. Along with showing just how different the urban landscape of Toronto was 30 years ago, the collection is a reminder that the city had more of a working class vibe during this period.

Toronto 1980s

"I started out feeling that Toronto was cold and impersonal, but that changed quite quickly as I got settled in," Woolaver recalls. "I realized the city was a multicultural centre with a vibrant arts and music scene. My friends and I rented a large storefront in the Junction and started New Image Studio and Gallery. It was before the housing bubble and condo era --ventures like that were still possible."

Toronto 1980s

Woolaver left Toronto to move back to Nova Scotia in 2005. Returning to the city almost 10 years later, he noticed profound changes that helped to inspire turning his Toronto Flashback collection into a book.

Toronto 1980s

"The book idea came up one night when my friend Michael Amo and I were looking at some of our old slide," Woolaver explains. "He and I shared a lot of experiences in Toronto back when I was taking these photos. I realized that the images from the '80s were quite nostalgic and portrayed a city that in some ways no longer exists."

Toronto 1980s

"The Brunswick House is long gone, as are the Edge, Nuts and Bolts, and the Twilight Zone," he continues. Eaton's and Sam the Record Man are also gone. But I feel the biggest change to Toronto, as well as to every city in the world, is the impact of digital technology. People interact with the city and with each other in quite a different way."

Toronto 1980s

Perhaps that's why Toronto Flashback inspires an emotional response from viewers who recall the era the photographs capture. Toronto was much less polished back in the 1980s. It was a grittier city, but in some ways also a friendlier and less cynical place. It was a city with character, much of which has been lost to the march of progress.

Additional Photos

Toronto 1980s

The Junction

Toronto 1980s

College at Yonge looking west

Toronto 1980s

Yonge Street looking south

Toronto 1980s

The Shuffle Demons

Toronto 1980s

Nathan Phillips Square

Toronto 1980s

Gerrard and Jarvis streets

Toronto 1980s

Kensington Market

Toronto 1980s

Elm Street at Yonge Sreet

Toronto Flashback (1980-1986) is available through Amazon and Blurb.


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