Ruins, darkness, silence, dust, rust, obsolescence, city lights, steely structures, concrete skyscrapers – these are the usual subjects of Toronto-based photographer Jonathan Castellino. His work explores the intersection of architecture and culture, and of personal meaning and the built environment. The images—shot across Toronto, Southern Ontario, New York State and Michigan—are simple yet epic in quality. They exude a reverence for and even sense of wonder towards material reality and the mundane.
Jonathan’s photography has appeared both nationally and internationally in magazines, journals, newspapers, books, websites and galleries. He recently discussed with me his inclination for the aesthetics of decay, his love of literature, his thoughts on cities, his role as an instructor…
Firstly, your title and tagline: “Sacramental Perception: Everything is Holy, Wholly”. I am a cradle Catholic so understand your vision. At what point in life did you begin to realise the supposedly grace-filled nature of all matter and space? Or has this way of looking at things always been a matter of the unconscious?
In living, consciously or unconsciously, at some point we cross a line where ‘the present’ moves from the miraculous into the mundane. I saw a talk recently, where a clinical psychologist asks us to observe what it is like to walk down the street with a 4-year-old, for whom the objects of life are a source of eternal mystery – just look at his or her face. What changed in us? When? What is it that so darkened our world?
We consciously maintain a vast collection of place-holders for the things that we encounter on a daily basis; actually ‘seeing’ the everyday is a seemingly impossible task. Even if we want to be in front of things truly, this usually gets shelved for a later time that rarely comes.
The task of the artist, then, is to force us to re-see the ordinary – that collection of things which we have replaced with place-holders. In this way, we are able to see that every single thing can be raised up, as it were, can be re-seen, as if for the first time. But who can live this way?
Decay and dust are major elements of your work…abandoned sites, industrial refuse, rust, crumbling walls, urban ruin in general. I especially liked your portrayal of obsolete computer monitors and keyboards. There is a certain affection to it. We don’t need these but they were once such an integral part of our life, you seem to say, and honour them for that short-lived yet important functions. Why do the disintegration and disrepair of physical things interest you as a photographer? Is it because they can help the viewer confront his/her own mortality?
There is certainly a poetic joy in the small, quiet things found in a state of decay; it’s an aesthetic lost-and-found. In this way, they are reclaimed. You’ve absolutely nailed the attraction, in your final point. So, let’s unpack the concept a bit:
Dust is the smallest form of ruin that we encounter daily. It is also, like the architectural ruins that I explore, never static. In this way, death ‘has no sting’, and is seen as part of the cyclical nature of dis-integration. Every created thing contains within itself the seed of its own destruction; we are building ruins, from the outset.
As W. G. Sebald wrote in Austerlitz (2001): “At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”
You have spoken of the relationship between built environment and interior life. How do you see architecture shaping emotions? I mean, what kind of architecture results in which sort of emotions?
Let us start from the premise that architecture is the physical manifestation of the collective unconscious. For those interested in the shape of buildings that we live with, attraction is based on a mapped interiority cast outward. So, the cyclical question is this: how do buildings shape us, and in turn, how do we shape buildings. The human heart is the objective guide, in this equation. The more we learn about our brain (‘our heads’), the more we realise that the seat of wisdom lies elsewhere – likely in that ‘tiny voice’ that seems to guide us in our decisions, big and small. We build, then, in the shape of our heart. In this way, we can live inside of the Truth.
Literature is quite an inspiration to you. W. G. Sebald, certainly. I also think I saw you quoting Marilynne Robinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins (did you?) some time back on Twitter. Tell us about your reading habits – and how have they informed the images you capture/make?
W.G. Sebald and (more recently) Marilynne Robinson are very close to my heart. I would add perhaps Annie Dillard, and say that they are artists for whom I have to actually give pause before I speak their name; written-out, there would be an empty space before the first character. I don’t know what this means, or how this kind of literature affects me. I only know that I cannot untangle their works from the way I see.
W.G. Sebald seems to have mapped my own emotional landscape in a way that makes his tragic death almost anger me, as I now feel unaccompanied. For Sebald, the landscape of memory and that of the physical world are indistinguishable. This relates to your previous question, in a way.
Robinson, like Dillard, understands the Darkness, the void. And that void-gazing is a two-way street. These women write in a way that is emotionally bold, true, and ultimately, emptying. The story becomes ‘we’, a hand is held, and off into the darkness we go. Maybe I am still accompanied. Who knows.
The city – particularly the modern city – is a subject of immense interest to me. I feel it is place of great loneliness but also endless exploration and adventure. You maintain on your biographical page on Image journal: “Cities are layered, with many converging landscapes. Somehow, we imagine a unified view of their structure. The fact that there are different, conflicting and yet overlapping cities within cities, as it were, is difficult to convey in any single image.” The idea of cities within cities sounds fascinating. I’d like to know what you like and dislike about the modern city?
I hunt silence, in the city. You can see this visually in my work, with rooftops and desolate places occupying a central role in the narrative.
Variety and uniformity stand out as features of the modern city. The interplay changes with scale and distance from the city, as a subject. I enjoy playing with this theme, and choosing my perch from which to make images about it.
What are your thoughts on Toronto – in its organisation and culture? I have visited it and find it quite friendly…
Toronto is a relatively new city, in a relatively new country. As sophisticated as we think that we are, and layered (read as ‘deep’), it’s all still in the experimental stages. And this experiment is manifest most prominently in its art and architecture. Again, the variety is astounding. The Estonian musician Arvo Pärt said, brilliantly “with art, anything is possible. But, everything [that] is made, is not necessary”. We’re still figuring it out.
You love working in black and white. Why so? What is it about monochrome that you cannot achieve in colour?
Much of my photography is a value study. Monochromatic images make this far easier. The value of dark vs. dark, light vs. light are much simpler when colour is not present as a distraction. This presentation also simplifies the message (if there is one!), for the viewer. And for me, of course.
Who are your favourite photographers? What do you like about each specifically?
I admire the work of the friends who form my own photographic community. For each, this work includes, and is encompassed by, the ongoing body of work that is their life. That is to say, I cannot distinguish between them, and their work.
I get the sense — when I am near them, when we are working together, or talking — that they want what is best for what is best in me. They constantly challenge me, and speak to me in a way that allows me to burn-off what is not useful in my craft. That their life ‘between photographs’ makes them great is obvious to me.
Which project of yours is your favourite? And what would be your dream project – any particular event/group of human beings/place that you are keen on recording?
I have an on-going series called ‘mimesis.’, which documents the surreal world of film-sets. There is so much that is attractive to me, there: the temporary nature of the structures, the fact that I go uninvited (i.e., the social engineering-aspect), and the insane variety. The ‘hidden gem’ is constantly revealing itself; it’s amazing.
In terms of dream projects, I would love to document the quiet life behind specific automotive tuner shops in the U.S. and Japan — and the artists who work there (Magnus Walker, Akira Nakai of R.W.B., and Hoonigan, to name a few). While this may seem like a strange departure from my usual subject matter, to me it is yet another manifestation of the ongoing manipulation of material culture by human hands. Having an insatiable love of cars helps. I have little idea of where to begin with this task, but I am paying attention for clues.
You are an architectural photography instructor at the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Queenston, Ontario. Tell us about this role and the classes you teach.
My involvement with Willowbank is actually a very small fraction of my photographic work, and my work in general. I have a day-job that has nothing to do with photography or the arts, I do short and long-term architectural documentation projects, have shows, write, and lecture. But I am happy that you mention it, since my yearly stint at Willowbank is one that informs the rest of my work, disproportionately.
Almost ten years ago, I received an e-mail from a gentleman at a tiny school that I had never heard of (they were just shy of two years old at the time), inviting me to give a lecture series about photography, there. It was one of those e-mails that very narrowly avoided dismissal. I agreed to at least come down and have a look.
I fell in love with Willowbank after one visit, and have been sifting through its layers ever since. I was tasked with creating and implementing a short architectural photography curriculum, which, at 25-years-old (then), was quite a daunting task. The rest, as they say, is history.
The freedom I am given at Willowbank allows me to challenge my students, and explore new territory with them. The course I teach each winter has the subtext of ‘exploring architectural photography and the aesthetics of decay.’ Almost a third of my time with the students is spent inside contemporary ruins, as well as buildings that are in the process of, or have already been transformed.
At Willowbank, I was introduced to the Cultural Landscape approach to heritage conservation, the tenets of which articulate feelings I have always held deeply, with regards to the transformation of the built environment, the accommodation of nature and culture, and the transiting from space to place.
When she first visited Willowbank, my fiancée (then girlfriend) said, “You told me about the place, it sounded beautiful, and I had no idea how it could exist. Now I’ve seen it, it is beautiful, and I have no idea how it exists.” That sounds about right.
You can find Jonathan on his websites (www.sacramentalperception.com, www.jonathancastellino.com) and Twitter (@JonoCastellino).