One normally associates architecture with buildings. Yet, under the ground of most modern cities lies a network of locales that are equally as engaging as any building. In the series Waiting, Chris Shepherd explores the underground world of the subway station and discovers structures and places of beauty. Shepherd moved to Toronto from suburban Ontario 20 years ago. Ten years ago he gravitated towards a unique aspect of his new city, the subway. He discovered that in the stations’ moments of emptiness in-between receiving trains full of commuters, the mix of Modernist and modern stations became sanctuaries for a kind of institutional architecture that was at once both beautiful and unseen.
In Waiting, Shepherd displays images of both Toronto’s and New York City’s transit systems, drawing parallels between the two through architectural similarities that sometimes leave viewers confused about the subject matters’ locations. Originally interested in pursing a career in painting, Shepherd thinks of his photographs as “found paintings.” The spaces displayed in Waiting show a sense of shape, form, and colour that Shepherd inherited from such abstract painters as Mark Rothko and such photographers as William Eggleston. Shepherd’s simple, clean compositions and attention to line reference such stringent documentarians as Berndt and Hilla Becher or Candida Hofer, all of who focus on municipal architecture, such as water towers or libraries.
Unlike architectural photographers who use large or medium format cameras to capture their spaces, Shepherd shoots with a DSLR and a 18-35 mm lens that allows him the flexibility necessary for capturing tight or close underground spaces. He always uses available light and prefers to crop in-camera. He keeps post-production to a minimum, removing lens distortion and adjusting exposure.
While his access to New York’s subway system is in part facilitated by a project he is working on for the Art for Transit program, to photograph in stations run by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), Shepherd had to get $2 million in liability insurance and pay $250 for a permit that allowed him to shoot on platform level. The challenges in securing this access were not easy to overcome — it took him four years to set up the permission to create the recent TTC images in Waiting, having originally nervously shot illegally. Shepherd insists on getting the right permissions, stating that if he can’t get it, he won’t shoot it, and that this approach has improved both his confidence and the legitimacy of his work. a space’s future, a kind of latent “energy” that he sees in the five minutes between trains, when the space is not necessarily empty or abandoned, but simply waiting. “Waiting is something I think we, as a society, don’t do very well. We somehow think it’s a waste of time,” Shepherd says. He sees a peace in these environments that most would never think of as tranquil. Waiting was recently exhibited at the Bau-Xi Photo gallery. The next step for Shepherd is a proposed exhibition of his subway images as part of a lightbox program in the NYC subway, which he hopes will connect his visual and psychological experience with the multicultural commuters in one of North America’s busiest cities. Next, he says he’d like to explore other public and private spaces, such as schools, gymnasiums, and hospitals, or other mediums, such as performance, publishing, or painting. Ultimately, his interest in these areas continues, as he keeps looking for spaces that are “straddling the line between new and old, [to] record the beauty of stuff people just don’t see.”
Amanda Rataj for PhotoEd Magazine