From the Toronto Star, Sunday, January 25, 2004

Toronto Profile #15
The People who Make the City



Dumb (but serious) question: What's the difference between a violin and a viola?

"A viola burns longer," says Ronald Hurwitz. His laughter is infectious. "I hate viola jokes. Except that one."

Viola jokes. Who knew? Must be a classical musician thing. Hurwitz has played the instrument with the TSO since 1975. He doesn't venture into negative humour, though he's equally qualified to do so. Just as he's a native Clevelander, a resident Torontonian and a spiritual Parisian, he describes himself as "a concert violist by profession, a photographer by vocation."

And not just any old photographer. Since he first seriously picked up a camera in the late 1970s, Hurwitz has built a worldwide reputation for the artistry of his black-and-white prints. Though he has a couple of Toronto projects in mind, his favourite place to shoot is Paris where, influenced by the work of Brassaï, Eugène Atget and Édouard Boubat, he imparts a haunting, pre-war feel to the modern city.

"I hope I'm working in my own style," he says. "And I don't have the pressure to do this for a living. My primary career, my day job if you like, is musician. But photography has become the larger focus of my life."

Hurwitz, 58, took up the violin at age 8 and switched to the viola four years later. But seriously, folks, what is the difference? "A viola is one-fifth lower in range than a violin. It's bigger and heavier. It's the difference between driving a Maserati and a truck. My school orchestra was short of violas, so I was encouraged to do it. Or I could say there were more good-looking girls in the viola section. Either would be right."

He spent four years as viola soloist in the U.S. Marine Corps Band's White House orchestra and string quartet. "Oh yes, I was a Marine. You audition for the band and if you get in then you have to enlist. You're immediately promoted to staff-sergeant and sent to Washington."

This was in the days of presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. "I had very little contact with them. I prefer to avoid the major criminals."

Hurwitz was introduced to serious photography by Harry Sargous, then principal oboist with the TSO "and a wonderful photographer. He helped me pick out a camera and pointed me in the right direction. And then I taught myself."

When did he realize he was going to be very good at it?

"As far as seeing things, I think you've either got the talent or you don't. But, I mean ... when did I first play a piece of music that was pretty good? It's impossible to say. It's not a contest. It's not whether I can play a piece five miles an hour faster than anyone else. It's about doing something that makes people react emotionally — good, bad or angry. If the picture doesn't have emotional content ... it's an illustration."

"Kodak did people a great service on the one hand by inventing the Brownie — `You click the shutter and we do the rest.' But they may have done the artistic side of photography a disservice. People think it's something anybody can do. It's kind of become the elevator music of the arts."

Hurwitz lives in Riverdale and has his darkroom in the basement. He regards digital cameras as "a useful tool. But unlike a lot of people, I don't mind putting my hands in chemicals. It's a great change from working with a viola on stage. I'm very lucky to be doing both."

Is it luck? "Okay, I'm fortunate. No, sure, it's luck. It depends on how you define luck — 90 per cent preparation and 10 per cent something else?"

For a closer look at his work, visit Just out is The Gryphons of Paris, a handmade book "which for three years has been the centre of my activity." It's limited to 200 copies with 33 pictures of the city. A deluxe edition of 26 copies includes a signed platinum/palladium print.

Hurwitz tries to visit Paris at least once a year. Why? "Because ... I have to go there. And I have five friends who own six restaurants. I always say you can do anything in Paris. I think, `I'm going to banish the word 'no' from my vocabulary and go with whatever happens.' I've been in some ... interesting situations."

One, that he tells with a certain circumspection, involved a friend, "a top-notch photojournalist." They started out in a brasserie (Hurwitz is devoted to good food and wine) on the Île St-Louis and stayed drinking until the place closed. From there they went to a club on rue Dauphine where the friend promised jazz and "some nice women''.

"We walked in and it was full of women," Hurwitz recalls. "There seemed to be nobody there but women. I said, `They look like hookers.' He said, `I haven't been here in a long time. It seems to have changed.' But we stayed. We drank. We talked. We danced. We left at about 6:30 in the morning."


He laughs again. "Isn't that what three dots are for ..."

All photographs © Ronald Hurwitz 2019
Ronald Hurwitz Photography 32-5 Tyre Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M9A 1C5 416 465-5890