In Conversation: Chris Shepherd
Toronto artist Chris Shepherd’s photographs document and interpret the world around us. When Shepherd makes a photo, he’s asking us to join him in looking at familiar materials and settings in a new light; whether the subject matter is a normally bustling place that is temporarily devoid of activity, or an arrangement of materials discovered during one of his regular walks, or an in-studio assemblage of objects. His compositions are both formalist and playful - sincere but balanced by an open-minded, deadpan humour. We caught up with Shepherd to talk about his approach to photography.
courtesy of the artist
Craig D’Arville, FFOTO: Hi Chris. Thanks for making the time to talk to FFOTO about your art practice. Let’s get right into it - you walk a lot! I imagine you as a sort-of 21st-century version of the idea of the flâneur, but rather than observe people and how they interact, you instead walk around paying attention to the physical environment where interactions take place. Can you talk about the activity of walking as an aspect of your art practice?
Chris Shepherd: Hi Craig, thanks for asking me to do this.
Most of my work is the result of a perpetual series of personal, visual epiphanies that happened - for the most part - because of the necessity for travel. I’ve always worked full-time while maintaining an art practice and as a result spend an outrageous amount of time journeying to and from that work. I learned, early on, to utilize this time to nurture the creative part of my psyche; to use travel-time to think about things that were interesting. For me, this happens whenever I travel passively, on the subway or bus, or actively, by walk, drive or peddle. The best part of any day for me is the journey, it’s where I find solitude and creativity.
Commuting for me is about ideas and thinking. I write and think and observe. Of all the ways to travel only one, however, is truly conducive to actually taking photographs, and that’s walking. Walking allows me to carry the camera, and explore, and be present in the world. I can wander unhindered, concentrated but relaxed. I can move in on a subject, or around it, or play with a point of reference and consciously change my perception of an object or place. I feel we can only fully observe when walking. It’s the ultimate voyeuristic experience.
Walking is also meditation.
Because of all this, walking occupies a large part of my life. Lately I’ve begun to walk until I’m close to exhaustion, which in a few hours allows me to cover a distance of about ten kilometres. Since this has been a habit for about 20 years, my travels in Toronto - where I live - often end up being repetitive journeys. This leads to another aspect of my practice; familiarity. I constantly see the same places and things over and over again and through this familiarity and repetition I learn to look at everything differently, and I’m very aware when something changes.
That’s another aspect of my work. I observer change, no matter how slow and slight that change is.
With this in mind my process owes a lot to the idea of the flâneur but I think I came to the process though the necessity of travel, rather than through a privileged socio-economic stature. Yes, I’m a white, middle-class, educated male and I’ve always benefited from that privilege, but I can only imagine becoming a true flâneur - a term I also associate with the term dandy - when I’ve retired from the day job and I have that much more time available for a more regimented daily routine of walking. Even then, the term has a relationship to privilege that I don’t like.
"Club Monaco - Avenue Road and Bloor", 2013, from the series Wandering. © Chris Shepherd / Courtesy of Bau-Xi Gallery
FFOTO: Is there an intentional conversation happening between your photography and the work of photographers that came long before you? Some pictorialist photographers working in the late-19th-century, rather anxiously, set out to record a romanticized, “natural” beauty of the countryside in their own rapidly changing, industrializing world. To me, those artists engaged with environments in a similar way as you do today. Is the connection intentional or coincidental?
CS: I had to look up pictorialism. Therefore, I’d start by saying there’s no direct link. However, now that I’m familiarized with the movement, there appears to be a relationship.
My work is an emotional and aesthetic response to something. It may appear quiet and removed, but that ties to my personality - you can read into that what you like. The whole process of my image taking and the resulting making of work is rooted in emotion.
I’m not a perfect person. I may not even be a good person, but I think I’m empathetic. My subjects may be inanimate, but I empathize with the silence and invisibility of them and try to imbue places and things with emotions. There’s humour as you’ve mentioned. I truly find some of the images gut wrenchingly funny. But I also see that they are often melancholy, lonely, and isolated. These are often considered negative emotions, but to me they’re part-and-parcel of life and, as such, are inevitable and worthy of examination. Can we really ever experience happiness, for instance, without having experienced sadness? In this way I think my work is emotional.
Photography is more than just record-making. I use it to call people’s attention to what I find interesting, engaging - and if I dare say - beautiful. I also find a sense of companionship and a desire to advocate on behalf of the voiceless inanimate. All of these places and things have been touched or made by humans and there’s an unspoken, but clearly present humanity in it all. I take pictures of them to validate them and in a very basic way, to see what they look like as photographs.
Another common theme in the work is gentrification. To me this is one of our generation’s socio-economic blunders. I constantly wish we had more people like Jane Jacobs to help our city be a better place. I love urbanity and the city of Toronto, which hopefully shows in my work. It’s hard to imagine not living here.
In contrast to the group of late-19th-century photographers you mentioned, the majority of my photographs have a tight focus with a very conscious effort to remove blurred depth of field. I don’t attempt to make the photographs look like other mediums or other more traditional and accepted “artistic” mediums, as the pictorialists did. Conversely though, my work is informed by painting, sculpture, poetry, music, fabric art, video, film and more. I think that links the work once again to some of the pictorialists' themes and interests.
Alfred Stieglitz was included in the group we’re talking about. I know his work and appreciate it. What little I’ve seen of Margaret Watkins’ still-life work also resonates, but she was largely known as a commercial photographer rather than an art photographer in the period you’re talking about.
I’d say I’m more significantly influenced by a historic group that comes later than the pictorialist school and who had a more literate approach to photography. To me they represent a more concentrated beginning to fine art photography as I see it. This group includes Walker Evans, Eugène Atget, Man Ray, and Paul Strand. But it was the group of artists that came even after this--the post war photographer--who capture my heart. Bernd and Hilla Becher, Lynn Cohen, Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rene Dijkstra, Thomas Demand, and people like that.
"After Sunset, Lake Huron", 2016, from the series Construct. © Chris Shepherd / Courtesy of Bau-Xi Gallery
FFOTO: I definitely see Sugimoto’s influence in your work; in particular with “After Sunset Lake Huron”, from your Construct series, which used a long exposure to capture as much light as possible during a sunset, which ends up making a really diffuse, abstracted composition.
As we discussed earlier, walking leads you to subject matter in one branch of your practice, but a significant amount of your in-studio work complements those found/readymade settings of construction sites and other interiors. The “constructions” you make in-studio have a very “seriously playful” feel to them; how do those two aspects of your art practice inform and influence each other?
CS: My wandering work is daylight focused. I prefer to shoot in available light and without a tripod. I lose the majority of opportunity to shoot with available light in mid-October because of my ten- to twelve-hour, day job, workdays. I have to subsist with weekends and sick days until April or May if I want to shoot in daylight. The studio work is a partial solution to this and the resulting Seasonal Affective Disorder I suffer from. That’s a very practical relationship. I think the work you’re referencing as playful, is my most recent, Incomplete Architectures.
With that work - in the summer season of light - I was wandering and exploring architecture and construction sites. When autumn hit, and I began to get a bit melancholy, I was still captivated by those images. I began making scale models that related to building sites, and I shot them on a table with an improvised foam core backdrop. I then progressed to larger ½-scale models and built an elaborate white set - using framing lumber, drywall and plywood - to shoot the new, larger models in. From there I moved to full-size manipulation of safety fence as sculpture and shooting self-portraits wrapped in construction tarps. I’m still remarkably obsessed with rebar. I want to make structures out of it, concrete and 2x4s; as well, I’ve conceptualized large tarp work. To me, it’s all a very logical progression of an obsession. I’m trying to find ways to maintain my relationship with these materials and their sensibility.
I think the Incomplete Architectures work contains a very healthy dose of humour, and this, in turn, is an extension of my class-clown roots. But there’s also a very serious evaluation of my personality and psyche there which I perceive as dark, but that might just be me romanticising things.
The bottom line is that the studio work is related to the wandering work directly, and they both exist as manifestations of my geographic seasonality.
Underlying this somewhat practical relationship is another unifying idea: When I walk and shoot, a big part of the process is about finding what is already there. That’s what photography does for the most part. It takes a moment in time and freezes it so that the viewer steps out of reality and engages with a split second of time in a concentrated, unnatural way for minutes - or if an artist is lucky for more than a few minutes. I find what is aesthetically interesting to me and trap it. That split second then takes on a life of its own. Often it creates narratives of its own as well. I’m making art. Like you might make a sculpture or a painting. The process is just different, but it’s all about observation. The studio work – in Construct and Incomplete Architectures - is about physically making temporal sculptures and painting, and then capturing them on film. Once the photograph is framed it translates the sculpture or painting in a two-dimensional plane.
"Parking Elements Stacked", 2016, from the series Construct. © Chris Shepherd / Courtesy of Bau-Xi Gallery
FFOTO: The titles of your series suggest multiple meanings: Incomplete Architectures, Construct, Wandering, Transitions, etc. Can you talk a bit about the association between your art practice and the written word?
CS: I’ve always read a lot. Younger me read to impress people. Always carrying a book around, screaming “look at me the smart person”. That posturing rubbed off, and although my intelligence is average, I became a serious reader. Plays, poetry, philosophy, and novels. There’s also been a lot of mystery novels and a lot of New Yorker cartoons. Now the obsession is with poetry, plotless fiction, biographies and any art book about the lives of contemporary artists who are relatively mysterious. My very favourite thing is books “about” poetry. Like the subjects of my art practice, I’m obsessed.
Because, doesn’t everyone want to be a writer? Doesn’t everyone dream of that? Lately I’ve figured out that I’ve never really had the aptitude for writing but my art practice is very, very closely associated with writing, and in particular poetry. I’m actively and energetically pursuing poetry until I disprove that hypothesis with a goal of writing poetry through sculpture, drawing, painting, photography, performance or any medium.
"Black Safety Fence - Version 2", 2018, from the series Incomplete Architectures. © Chris Shepherd / Courtesy of Bau-Xi Gallery
FFOTO: Where does your work go from here? I've seen some examples of the "glitch" works that you've been workshopping and quietly sharing; I think they're very much in-line with your process - "found" subject matter but also made "in-studio", by virtue of the failure of technology. Can collectors expect to see elements of that work appearing in a future series?
CS: Yes. That glitch work is being printed and framed. I’m focused on calling it Misremembered.
It would be nice to show it in some other way than through traditional framing and hanging, but for now my radical departure from the norm is to print the works small and intimate. I have grand dreams of building a temporary space to show the work in. Or maybe finding a location is easier. I can’t stop thinking about a circular room with no breaks in the wall. This means you’d have to enter the room from the center of the space, from either above or below. Building the room is a big part of the dream exhibition.
Something to note with the work in Misremembered is that all of it was destined for the garbage. Every photo had been passed over so many times and none of them would have ever been printed. I only kept the files out of habit. I then fell victim to a major hard-drive failure about five years ago that, in conjunction with Aperture software issues created the messed-up files and subsequent broken images. I even sat on those files for a few years as well until they almost forced me to do something with them.
I’m glad that the Misremembered work appears as a logical progression of my process to date. The work has been received well in the very quiet and informal way that it’s being introduced so far. My plan for exhibition, though, is complicated. I’d like to not show the work at a gallery. I’d like to present it as the site-specific installation described previously, or as a book project. It’s not that I don’t like showing work in a gallery, but I want to push the envelope a bit and make a formal show of this work more approachable and less “white cube”. This series is, after all, about aging, technology and more recently, the experiences I’ve had in my family with dementia and mental health. These things fascinate me.
"Nova Scotia Bay Bisected", 2019, from the series Misremembered. © Chris Shepherd