CHRIS SHEPHERD

TPW Photorama 2022

A five stanza poem for the city.

Stored safely inside a solander box are five 13.3″ x 20″ photographs. Each printed on archival Canson Rag, and mounted on a 13.3″ x 20″ aluminium panel. Also in the box are a pair of cloth gloves for handling the prints and five written pieces. One text to match each of the prints. This writing can be framed with each work, attached to the back of each framed print. The texts will be descriptions of the images, thoughts related to each photograph, or fictional/poetic pieces.

Each print is ready for framing. They can easily be dropped into shadow box frames with non-glare or museum glass, or they can sit in the solander box, protected indefinitely.

This particular grouping, in this specific print size is an edition of one. There are other sets planned, in what will be an onging series, but these specific images will not be reproduced in this size again.

Click on any photograph below to see a higher resolution, larger image.

Photograph 1 – The False Forest

When you walk a lot in the city, you retrace your steps quite a bit. This photograph was taken on a regular route and every time I see it, I laugh a little to myself. I’ve passed it a lot over the last few years.  The scene changes subtly depending on what time of the day or year I’m there. It’s degraded quite a bit, over the last few months.

What you’re looking at is not an actual forest. It’s an illusion exaggerated by how the photograph was framed. What the bigger—out of frame—scene makes obvious, is that the “woods” here, are sheets of acrylic material with a photograph of a forest printed on them, which have then been mounted on plywood construction hoarding.

This is a photograph of a photograph. The plants at the base of the trees are actual weeds growing in front of the fake forest panels. Weeds, that are naturally reclaiming their place because of neglect. My guess is that the forest image is also a composite or created image, because I’ve never seen a stand of birch trees that actually looks like this. Everything is way too close together for it all to be in focus, and where are the branches of the trees?  

There’s not much traffic in this “Stockyards” neighbourhood. I’ve never seen anyone walking here, or even loitering. The vacant lot the hoarding surrounds has been idle for over twenty years. The surrounding area is a mixture of ramshackle businesses, including a metal wire works, a really grungy garage, and a tremendously sketchy daycare establishment. There was once a self-serve, drive-in car wash close by, but that was raised and in its place is an empty gravel lot that’s enclosed by frost fencing. 

What does a birch tree forest have to do with a downtown Toronto condo development, that’s located right beside one the busiest rail lines in the province, situated in a neighbourhood that was originally named The Stockyards, and that was heavily populated with abattoirs?

This is a favourite place. There’s never anyone around and I think its funny on so many levels. It’s also a treasure to me because it’s been forgotten and neglected.

Photograph 2 – Bin, Door, Muffler

 

Every image I take typically goes through a predictable lifecycle.

There’s the moment I see something and it makes me pause. This is what I’ve been referring to lately as the “detail that winks”. An expression borrowed from the author Gerald Murnane, who if you have not read and you like strange, but very well written plotless fiction, you should explore. It’s also a moment in time that is usually accompanied by tangential and often surprising thoughts.

Then there’s the moment when I start to frame the subject. More often or not I do this through the camera itself. It’s also at this point that I decide to either take a photograph or not to.

I don’t delete too many things. I don’t shoot a million different shots of the same thing, then decide which one to use. I typically shoot one or two different orientations and leave it at that. Lately the most important step for me is then living with the image. Time changes how I feel about things. That seems obvious, but with photography I find something that images that can be awkward or uninteresting initially, can—over time—becoming compelling and meaningful.

This particular image was very close to being deleted.

Bin, Door, Muffler is one of those photographs that slowly crept up on me and that I’ve become very attached too. I warmed to this particular photograph with a niggling sense of pleasure, that was predominantly derived from the colour. Then I figured out that everything pictured was new. The recycling bin, the car door, the muffler and the concrete wall. These are all “young” objects. Then I became attached to the sense of order and organization. These stuff wasn’t just thrown into this little cubby hole in the side of a building, in an alley beside two auto repair shops. Everything here had been meticulously placed. It was arranged, and fit together like a puzzle. I like to image it was done with a sense of pleasure, to create a weird sculpture that was very pleasing to the eye.

Photograph 3 – Parking Barrier with Pylon, Blocks and Bricks

On an average west end corner of the city, beside a modest yet still unaffordable house, this assemblage prevents cars from parking on the sidewalk. It looks surprisingly like found art or a sculpture. It’s confident, despite being accidental. It looks contrived but also a bit funny.

Most of this city has gentrified, like countless others around the country. There are little pockets though, that never seem to change. Neighbourhoods, that for decades have looked the same. They’re unremarkable places. Never too clean or too dirty, they’re undaunted by progress and nothing about them immediately stands out. In any city, in any country, these areas exist as silent markers of time. 

These spots are like time capsules and if you revisit them over and over again, they can become familiar and almost mystical. Repetitive visiting can be instrumental for discovering things. If you know some place well, even the slightest change can feel remarkable or obvious. Parking Barrier with Pylon, Blocks and Bricks, is a good illustration of this. It marked a tiny change to this familiar corner, but it stood out dramatically. This awareness of a place allows you to re-evaluate what may have always been there and spot the most subtle change. You can find a new detail with every visit and the less obvious things, are often the most bizarre or pulse quickening. It’s not uncommon to visit a location over days, weeks, months, and years before you might see something that imprints on your imagination.

The unspectacular nature of the everyday feels important. These things are worth looking at, remembering and documenting. They will be easily forgotten, and because of that, they’ll become the difficult things of the world to describe to future generations. The humbleness of the mundane. The quiet contemplative solitude of the passed over. 

Parking Barrier with Pylon, Blocks and Bricks is also unintentionally funny. It’s a accidental visual gag. It has the same sort of wittiness you might find in the art of Marcel Duchamp, Sarah Lucas, John Sasaki or countless others.

This spot has been visited over a dozen times since this photograph was taken. On the last visit, this assemblage had be re-arranged. Now there are plants, and cage like structure to hold those plants and the pylon is gone. The parking block is still a central element to the structure, but the whole thing looks markedly different and now seems purpose built, rather than mistakenly sculptural.

It’s as if the builder caught wind that someone was interested in their work, and intentionally broke it down to avoid the attention.

Photograph 4 – Grimm Bird House

I studied Art History for two years and during that time, learned a small amount about the Medieval, Renaissance, Gothic, Roman, and Contemporary periods. These were all survey courses. All were taught by middle-aged, white, men and all focused on predominantly male, white artists. The professors who taught the Contemporary course—and this was over 35 years ago—was good enough to acknowledge this shortcoming in art history. In his defence, the curriculum for that course included women.

This bird house, outside a church on a busy west end street, caught my eye immediately. It reminded me of a Renaissance Art History course I took, and all the crucifixion painting I had to stare at during it. I’m an atheist, but I do love a good crucifixion painting. I’m not being facetious.

Matthias Grünewald was a favourite. His brutal depiction of the inhumanity of crucifixion always fascinated me. The tree that’s been trimmed around this birdhouse made me think of his way of painting of Christ’s crown of thorns. It’s a bit strange, because the tree structure around the birdhouse isn’t really thorny, but it reminded me of thorns. There’s another Grünewald painting about the temptation of St Anthony that features a host of hellish creatures too…and one of those is a demonic bird with human arms brandishing a club like stick over its head. The stuff of nightmares.

The brothers Grimm lived and worked 300 years after the Renaissance and Grünewald, but the folk stories they anthologised seem to echo some of that inhumanity and torture depicted in his paintings. Grimm Bird House, rolls of the tongue a bit better than Grünewald Bird House. It also feels slightly less pretentious.

Honestly I’m not sure if birds actually live or have ever lived in this house, or even if the the tree is alive or dead. The more I look at this photograph the more it feels other worldly and frightening. I can’t imagine a less hospitable looking tree or birdhouse. The whole weird thing was growing out of the pavement, surrounded on three sides by building and on the last by the sidewalk and roadway. 

The last time I walked by this spot the stump and the birdhouse were gone. I imagined I could see the imprint of it on the blank wall still, but it was more like the memory of its shadow. 

Photograph 5 – The Golden Bough

A wilting yellow-brown tree branch is partially submerged in the early morning lake. Floating, half-in and half-out of the water. The remaining leaves, still above the surface, glow golden in the warm, direct, summer sunlight. 

I picked the title for this piece very quickly. The expression, The Golden Bough jumped up from my memory.  I knew I hadn’t simply conjured the expression from thin air, but I also had no idea why I remembered these particular words and why they came to mind so readily.

There’s something magical about this image. The contrast of the bough above and below water, and the deep mysterious darkness of that water itself, all contribute to the otherworldliness. Despite simply being a dying branch in the water of Lake Ontario, this scene reminded me of the tragic drowning of Ophelia from Hamlet, or The Lady of Shallot, another tragic female figure who died on the water from another epic poem. 

The Golden Bough, is an episodic tale in The Aeneid by Virgil. In Virgil’s poem, a magical bough is taken from a sacred tree and used to gain admission to Hades. 

In the photograph, you might imagine Aeneas’s Golden Bough, now no longer useful, being tossed aside. We see it floating here, forgotten and mere shadow of its former glorious self, moments before it sinks forever below the water. 

The Golden Bough is also an influential book written in 1890 by a Scottish Social Anthropologist and Folklorist. It’s a study of ancient cults, rites, and myths. This book was inspired in part by a Romantic era painting of the same name by Turner, which depicts the original episodic narrative from the Aeneid.

I researched all this to write the information above. I had a vague idea about the Aeneid and The Lady of Shallot, but I wasn’t aware of the anthropology book, or the Turner painting.