CHRIS SHEPHERD

"the detail that winks"

Overview

Thirteen, five stanza poems for the city. 

Print five photographs—at a 12″ image width or height, with white printed borders making the total print dimensions 14″ x 14″—and mount each on a 14″ square substrate. Drop the prints into an archival aluminium storage or solander box. Somehow, include a pair of cloth gloves to handle the prints. Make a series of these 5-print sets.

For each set, write five descriptive, poetic or fictional pieces relating to each individual photograph.

Pre-Amble

Images will be the starting point of a writing exercise. The goal is to create poetry or prose that reflect who I am, how I think, and what the images themselves mean to me. 

I’ve bee an avid reader since childhood—despite a slowdown during the global pandemic—and I’ve realized that reading influences what I do and think, more than any other process. The impact of reading on me, is greater than visual art, film, music or any other medium. 

In recent years my reading has focused on poetry and fiction. One particular book that resonated deeply was, Interior: A Novel by Thomas Clerc. This novel is often classified as Plotless Fiction. Interior: A Novel hasn’t directly informed my work, but it echoes a sensibility that I’m continuously drawn to. The novel by Clerc could be described as a detailed description of the author’s apartment and where that description takes the author’s thoughts.

While researching the paragraph above, I came across another story by Thomas Clerc titled Nouit that was formulated around a Jeff Wall photograph titled No from 1983. This discovery reminded me that I saw a Jeff Wall exhibition in the 80s, at a space called Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto. That show was a series of large light boxes. I was introduced to the gallery by a former fine art professor from Waterloo University, on a trip that they organized. 

I then began to think about the professor. I’m not entirely sure who it was, but the visit is a cherished memory. It changed how I saw art. The thought that a professional artist was interested in showing his students important things, is so wonderful. The genius of that teacher, to show art students an exhibition in what has become one of the most influential art galleries and collections in Canada.

The professor’s names that I do remember—from my one year of study at Waterloo—were Rick Pottruff, Art Green, Virgil Burnett, and Tony Urquhart. I have an idea that Tony Urquhart arranged the trip to the Toronto galleries. If I’m remembering correctly, at that time, I had already quit school.

Gallery 1. (above)

Photograph 1 – Parking Barrier with Pylon, Blocks and Bricks

On an average west end street corner, this readymade sits dividing two sections of sidewalk beside a modest house. It appeared like fireworks on one of my everyday long-walks. It immediately shouted found art and sculpture. It smacked of luck and fortune. Smug in itself, despite being completely accidental. It looked contrived. It was that good, and it made me that happy.

Most of this city has gentrified like so many places around the country and around the world. There are pockets though, that never seem to change. Places, that for twenty years have looked the same. They’re unremarkable places. Never too clean or too dirty. They are undaunted by time and nothing about them stands out. In any given city, in any given country, these places are quiet, sentinels of time. 

I gravitate towards these places. I frequent them and find the familiarity with unremarkable places to be meditative. There’s something mystic about a conscious dedication to perpetual revisiting. This knowing is instrumental to how I take photographs. If you know a place, even the slightest change can feel remarkable and obvious.  This parking block is a good example of a tiny change that was very obvious. Another thing that awareness of a place allows, is a revaluing of what is always there. I can see more detail and appreciate the less obvious. Often, I visit a place over days, weeks or even months, before I see the thing I want to document.

The unspectacular nature of the everyday. To me this is the stuff of life. It’s the stuff worth looking at, remembering and documenting. These will be the forgotten and difficult aspects of the world to describe to future generations. The humbleness of the mundane. The quiet contemplative solitude, of the passed over.

Maybe that’s another reason why I’m drawn to these places and things. There’s a sense of peace that exists in shared solitude. A mutual understanding. 

Parking Barrier with Pylon, Blocks and Bricks is also funny. It has the same sort of the comedy you might see in the art of Marcel Duchamp or Sarah Lucas. 

I’ve re-visited this spot a dozen or more times since taking this photograph. I keep going back to make sure I captured it well. On the last visit I decided I had. I’m happy with it because the more I look at this photograph, the more I can’t imagine improving on it without physically re-arranging the piece. This is when I know I need to stop revisiting.

Photograph 2 – Coloured Concrete Forms, Stacked

The first time that plywood caught my attention was over ten years ago. Sheets of the multi-layered material were inside an old retail store that was being renovated in the east end of town. A full sheet, and a number of smaller sized pieces, were leaning against a wall. There was something restrained and elegant about their placement. Casually angled against a brick wall that had been painted or whitewashed. The floor of the partially renovated space was covered in a fine layer of dust. The front door was angled to the interior, so when the camera lens was rested against it—the window allowed me to stabilize the camera and use a slow shutter speed and small aperture—the interior could be shot clearly, on a wonderful angle.

Writing the above I realise that plywood is one of my fixations. It’s usually about the arrangement. I like the line, angle and unintentional composition of randomly stacked or piled things. At one point I thought about plywood so much that I began to make scale models using basswood arrangements. I would mimic the image described in the previous paragraph, and later, more original and premeditated arrangements.  Again I would photograph those models. The fixation continued and I graduated to full 4 x 8 foot sheets and started making life-size models and photographing those. I still dream of making more elaborate full size sculptures out of plywood.

A good artist-friend—like many artists, and myself—has worked in non-art type jobs throughout their life. They worked as a bus driver out west in the mountains. At another point, they worked making plywood. It sounded like a dangerous job and one that took a certain type of skill and care I love his stories about how plywood was made, and how he became proficient at making it. 

This reminded me we have two large bookshelves in our house that hold the bulk of our library. I designed and made them from plywood. We’ve had these functional shelves for twenty years and every time I look at them stacked with books, they make me happy. These plywood bookshelves rest on concrete cinder block. Cinder block is another one of my fascinations. But that’s a longer story.

Urban landscapes are about line and angle with the rare organic accent. They’re about the neutral colours of materials. The grey of concrete, beige of wood and brown of dust and dirt. Sometimes however, colours jump from the restrained canvas of the urban.

Plywood is a city staple Populating every block in one form or another. Rarely has a common pile of the humble building material presented itself with colours that rival the intensity and surprise of a rainbow.

Photograph 3 – The False Forest

When you walk a lot in the city, it becomes necessary to retrace your steps quite a bit. This photograph was taken on a regular route, and it makes me laugh ever time I pass, and I’ve passed it a lot over the last few years.  It changes subtly depending on what time of day, and what sort of day it is. It has also degraded quite a bit over the last few months.

What you’re looking at is not an actual forest. The scene depicted is an illusion created with plywood construction hoarding that has been sheathed in acrylic panels that have photograph of a birch forest printed on then. The greenery at the base of trees is real plant life, growing in front of the fake forest panels. Weeds, that are naturally reclaiming their place because of neglect. This is a not a high traffic area. I’ve never seen anyone walking on this street, or even loitering. The vacant lot the hoarding contains has been fallow for the entire twenty years that we’ve lived beside this “stockyards” neighbourhood in the west end of the city. The rest of the surrounding area is a mixture of ramshackle businesses, including a metal wire works, a really grungy garage, and a tremendously sketchy daycare. There was once a self-serve drive-in car wash, but it was raised and now it’s an empty gravel lot protected by grey frost fencing. 

It’s a favourite place, just because there’s never anyone around. It’s a forgotten, neglected area.

I noticed something else about the birch image today. I think the photograph has also been manipulated, because I’ve never seen a stand of birch trees that actually looks like this. The trees are way too close together to all be in focus.

I’m a marketer for my day job. I think of maketing as the devil’s work, even if I don’t belive in the devil. Really, what does a birch tree forest have to do with a downtown Toronto condo development project that is located right beside one of the busiest train lines in the country, in a neighbourhood that is predominantly populated by abbatoirs?

Photograph 4 – Grimm Bird House

Photograph 5 – Music Store Parking

Gallery 2 (above)

Gallery 3 (above)

Gallery 4 (above)

Gallery 5 (above)

Gallery 6 (above)

Gallery 7 (above)

Gallery 8 (above)

Gallery 9 (above)

Gallery 10 (above)

Gallery 11 (above)

Gallery 12 (above)

Gallery 13 (above)

First Text (inspiration)

The person who took these photographs likes them. They make the person happy, and they feel the images are personally valuable. They are also pleasantly surprised that, sometimes, other people like the photographs too, although they never expect that to be the case. 

To the photographer, the images capture an idea they’ve been obsessed with for a long time. Additionally, in the last month, they have also discovered an author, and that author writes about this idea. The photographer read the author’s idea in a work of fiction. They have read two books by this person and are currently reading a book of short fiction, and plan to read everything else the author has written over the last fifty years.

The newly discovered author’s ideas, are linked to another famous author, Marcel Proust. The photographer began reading In Search of Lost Time by Proust, but has only managed to make it through, Swan’s Way. Although the photographer hasn’t read the full work by Proust, the way that this author writes, as well as their subjects, are attractive to the photographer. They feel Proust’s writing relates to the photographs they’ve taken for many years in the same manner as the photographer’s newly discovered favourite author.

The photographer thinks their images are like books. This is because they are influenced by writing, in particular what many bookstore people call Plotless Fiction, or Poetry. The photographer likes writing and reading better than looking at other people’s photographs. Sometimes they have discovered fiction and poetry books by reading articles in newspapers and sometimes the books are recommended by a smart and well-read bookstore worker in a good Toronto bookstore that his wife knows and use to work at.

The famous author who has been writing novels for about fifty years often talks about “not” looking directly at something in order to capture certain insights about that certain something. The author also references “the detail that winks” in relation to their way of observing the world. This conversation by the author helped the photographer remember his father who died about ten years ago, and who taught this son about cameras and a method of seeing better in the dark. This trick involved not looking directly at something, but instead, looking with their peripheral vision to see more detail. Their father learned this way of seeing in training for World War II service. 

“The detail that winks” is a reference the Australian writer makes in relation to how they decide what they will write about in their works of fiction. It also references the process that was used by the French author previously mentioned. This line resonates with the photographer because he enjoys the work of both authors. “The detail that winks” also relates to the photographer’s own process, and it reminds him of his father who was important in how he learned to take photographs.