I’m sitting here drinking a Trad and looking at these black and white photos. Jesus, how did this all get started?
I guess for me, it started many years ago. One warm summer day, I set out in a frenzy, desperate to find a place to write outside my house. The place had to be just right. Coffee shops were too bright, restaurants were too busy, and most bars were too loud. The point, after all, was to get lost in my work and let the world around me do as it would.
As my regular readers will know, I settled at last upon The Tavern on Whyte as my second home, sanctuary, and personal writer’s retreat. I’ve shared the reasons for that decision on this blog before (See: ‘My Abode’ and ‘Ode to The Tavern’), so this article isn’t about The Tavern itself, it’s about the people it impacts.
An industry bar on Edmonton’s busy Whyte Avenue—The Tavern sees its share of one-offs and curious pop-ins. Early afternoons usually had a good crowd for it’s famous breakfast menu—and stellar all-around meals—but the bar would generally remain quiet enough to get some serious writing done.
Nights were a different scene—the bar crowded with familiar faces as live music blared, and cheap Jager flowed.
I’ll confess this bit suited me just fine as well.
Then, just as the world was re-opening and learning to operate under the ongoing threat of COVID-19, I was enjoying a breakfast when my friend and the owner of The Tavern, Tim, mentioned that they were changing out the photos on the wall.
I think I managed to hide it well, but I was worried. The photos—a series of black and white tableaus from days gone (along with an assortment of band flyers and other oddities)—were familiar. They had adorned the walls since I’d started writing there many years ago. I still had a VIP card in my wallet from 2014, and was reticent to endorse anything that could in any way change the place I’d come to love so much.
Then, Tim mentioned he wanted to include one picture of my novel, ‘Edgar’s Worst Sunday’, which had been written by hand at table 7. This warmed me on the idea. It felt good to imagine being a part of the place forever—or at least until the next change of photos.
As things would pan out, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Behind the scenes, new ideas blossomed, and a tiny renovation project soon became a significant artistic undertaking.
The Tavern’s regulars are not a homogenous group. Its populace includes people of all persuasions: Punks, Metal heads, Karaoke singers, Muses, (one) Juggalo, Nerds, Painters, Writers, DJ’s, Musicians, VHS Connoisseurs, Horror buffs, Hippies, Industry Folk, and more. And there’s one, Owen Armstrong, who is a photographer.
Owen began taking photos when he was working as a projectionist in London, England. An idea started resurfacing during those hours spent working alone in a dark projection booth. It was an idea that had first appeared while he worked a previous job—assessing alcohol service in bars all around the city. He wanted to take photos of bartenders, with various themes for each shoot. The concept began to take hold, and years later the idea of ‘industry’ would become a predominant theme in his work. The aim was to reveal what people looked like when, rather than primped and posed, they revealed themselves simply and honestly as who they were during so much of their day—specifically, while they were at work.
With plenty talent for the task, Owen was a natural choice for the Tim to approach about the photos he wanted. He knew the bar, the patrons, and understood the perspective needed.
At first, the intention was simple—recreate one of the original photos with some of The Tavern’s regulars. The photo—one which sat just to the right of my head as I did much of my writing—featured seven men enjoying a drink. I’d often looked up at it as I searched for inspiration.
With Tim uninterested in appearing in the recreations, that left Owen to gather up another 6 regulars, which was an easy enough task. It took a few beers each, a couple of takes, and a good deal of cajoling, but eventually the likeness between the old and the new was undeniable. In an effort to document the process, Owen also opted to take individual portrait photos of everyone involved.
The shoot was a success, and the picture was shared around on a newly created Facebook group. If a small job was the aspiration, this may have been a crucial mistake.
It didn’t take long for interest to blossom, and the initial sprout of idea was soon a jungle of potential. The first photo was a recreation of a ‘good ole boys’ photo, so next came the challenge of recreating the image of an old social hall.
Soon the requests to take part seemed endless. Schedules dictated groups and shooting dates. For my shoot, I was asked to bring a copy of my novel, ‘Edgar’s Worst Sunday’. Owen had managed to find an old typewriter, which I was set up at as Black Dog’s own Joseph Rothrock read my book at the bar. This one wasn’t based on one of the original photos—Owen was exploring a mix of candid bar shots and scripted layouts.
This approach continued with the Karaoke crowd. By popular demand, this tight-knit group was brought together to strike a pose commemorating the incredible karaoke nights the denizens of The Tavern have sorely missed this past year.
The final shoot was an eclectic gathering that captured all the remaining key faces and regulars of The Tavern interested in taking part. With this last group of familiar faces gathered around The Tavern’s largest table, Owen captured a sense of communal atmosphere. This feeling of community is not only one of the hallmarks of The Tavern, it also became one of the highlights of this project—at least for this writer.
So here I am. I’m about three Trads deep at this point, and feeling pretty good. Trad does that, of course, as does good company. It’s something more than that though—an inexplicable understanding that has been welling up ever since I was fortunate enough to be asked to take part in this incredible project.
Owen set out to capture insights into the lives of industry workers, and I believe this was a great step towards that goal. More than that however, he captured the life of one particular bar—and the interconnected lives within it.
Over the years I’ve written in The Tavern, I’d often look up at the old black and white photographs, and wonder who those people were. What did they talk about, what did they drink, where did they end up?
Now, the combined portraits of everyone that took part in The Tavern Photo Shoot are joined into a mural that will also one day hang on the wall. On close examination, you can see the weathered, joyful, and mad faces of each in turn. Stepping back though, there is a clear Gestalt effect of something more than the sum of its parts. This project was about people coming back together who had long been kept away from their chosen habitat. It was a family reunion—a consummation and confirmation of a deep-seated understanding between many—perhaps all of them—that within the red walls of this tiny bar there was a lot to be found. There was employment, there was comfort. There were connections, relationships, heartbreaks, hopes, and some damn good memories.
There is life—as complex, messy, and downright beautiful as it can get.
I can’t help but imagine that far in the future, someone may look up at the new photos and wonder who we were.
There will be new connections then—a whole new set of regulars.
Industry can be seen as a cold thing, and the bars and clubs of Whyte Avenue will go on far longer than any of their current patrons. New groups will form, and perhaps new photos will eventually go up.
For now, my last Trad is finished. I’d planned to go home once this project was completed, but I think I’ll stay a bit longer. I often do. To chat with friends, watch strangers, and enjoy the moment.
The Tavern is like a second home to many. COVID slowed things down, and even now half the tables are blocked, and bar service is halted. Still, people trickle in, bump elbows, and chat like they always have. Behind the bar, the servers smile and laugh along with the rest.
In this place, there is a sense of permanence—a feeling of community. Despite the tribulations of the year, things continue much as they always have.
I hope they always will.
To learn more about The Tavern on Whyte, please visit here.
For more about Owen Armstrong and his ongoing photography projects, please visit:
To Purchase my novel, ‘Edgar’s Worst Sunday’, click here.
-Brad OH Inc.