In Conversation: Jon Setter and Chris Shepherd
Chris Shepherd (b. 1963) is a Toronto-based artist known for his striking yet patient photographs that depict quiet moments in bustling urban settings. Jon Setter (b. 1989) is originally from Detroit, and now lives and pursues his art practice in Sydney, Australia. Jon’s compositions focus on light, colour, and unique framing to create abstract depictions of urban life.
Chris and Jon practice photography in opposite corners of the world and, until recently, have never met. The two photographers demonstrate an artistic kinship in their work; while the sources of inspiration for Chris and Jon’s work are similar, the delivery of the content is unique to each artist's process.
FFOTO’s Craig D’Arville suggested to Chris and Jon that they talk to each other about their art practices -- for their own enjoyment and to give collectors a glimpse into their lives. What follows is an earnest and heartfelt email conversation between the two artists that discusses influences, techniques, ideologies, and more. Their correspondence has been edited for ease of reading.
Chris: The first time I saw your work it struck me as being closely aligned with the work of artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Carmen Herrera. When composing a photograph, do you see your subjects more as a painting, or am I reading my own predilections into your work?
Jon: The most common perception when my photographs are on display is that they’re paintings. The way I light and compose my scenes requires people to get close to the work before realising it may be something real. But when I go out shooting, I don’t really think of it in terms of painting. I am enamored with photographers who were able to capture cities in new and interesting ways, which drove me to find a point of view that was different.
Chris: That makes sense.
Jon: The end result may be influenced subconsciously by painters who inspire me like Mondrian and Rothko, but my process of shooting is inspired by photographers like Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Michael Wolf.
Chris: I think that the subconscious influences you pointed out are a good way to describe the influence from other artists on my work as well. When it comes to the actual framing of a photograph, I'm typically utilizing a lot of ingrained habits from drawing and painting. I never finished art school, but I did do a lot of work in my formative years at galleries and art supply stores.
Jon: I’m glad you can understand what I’m trying to say, Chris, and that you agree with my statement on subconscious influences. I really enjoy your carefully composed scenes of the urban environment; I can see how we relate. Your work also reminds me of Struth, Ruff, and Wolf.
Chris: Thank you - it’s very flattering that you see echoes of those photographers in my work. That's a pretty inspiring list to be even remotely associated with.
Jon: No problem. Your photographs depicting isolation in places that are known for normally having tons of people around seem quiet at first glance. But the longer I look, the more depth is revealed. I particularly enjoyed the subway works.
Chris: There's never anyone there, but to me there's typically always someone present. The spirit of humanity lives in every object or place in the city. It's the hand of the human I'm interested in.
Jon: I appreciate that even when humans are physically lacking you are invested in human presence. When you’re out shooting, do you choose your locations based around aesthetic qualities or are you thinking about the stories the images can quietly tell?
Chris: Walking has always been a huge part of the process. I'd happily walk all day and shoot. It's about the meditation of the act of walking and looking and, as you suggest, I'm motivated to capture something for its aesthetic resonance.
Jon: Walking is hugely important to my practice as well. I always say I’m a sort of modern day flâneur, looking methodically while walking. Not at the people, but the traces they leave behind. I like how you said walking is a meditation, because I feel anyone looking for something new must be focused. In these times I don’t think that happens a lot as most people are distracted by the task at hand or their smartphones. I feel our work can act as a reminder for people to slow down and look more closely at what’s around them.
Chris: I love your term “methodical looking.” I've always related to the observational aspect of the flâneur (or flâneuse). I do get very lost in wandering.
Jon: I think the term “methodical looking” is just my way of saying how much a flâneur I am. When out with my camera bag I act very differently. My focus is laser-sharp and I only see the structures around me. I get lost wandering too, but I find that’s when I come across the best subjects.
Chris: I always carry my camera, which is not always helpful for hours and hours of walking. I will often go out for a few hours and not shoot a single frame, but I feel naked without the weight of my camera on my arm. I look forward to 20 years in the future when high-res cameras are compact and lightweight. Mine has had a 50mm Sigma Art lens on it for about 3 years and that thing seems to weigh more and more every day.
Jon: You are very good to bring your camera around with you everywhere. I use way too many lenses and actually two bodies at the moment, so I have to plan ahead on what days I want to shoot. If the weather isn’t great while at home there is no point in going out, but when traveling I push through and bring my bag everywhere. My shoulder would also like high-res cameras to be tiny one day.
Chris: To circle back to your question about aesthetic qualities vs. stories, I love the mundane, ordinary, and passed-over. The goal for me is less about telling a location or object’s story, but more about simply seeing things. I often revisit places multiple times before I can see things in a way that captivates me.
Jon: This also reminds me of what Struth, Ruff, and Wolf have said and done. I can see how you are simply trying to see things, but even if you aren’t focused on telling the story of a place, looking through your works as a series, I believe stories are present. The aesthetic qualities of your photographs are what draw viewers into them, but upon longer viewing there is so much to read below the surface of your subjects.
Chris: At the possibility of contradicting myself, I do think in terms of story when I'm looking at something and shooting. The human resonates in almost everything I do. Ghosts fascinate me. Not the supernatural idea of ghosts, but the idea that we leave behind so much, and those remnants can be part of a narrative. Dust is the physical example that comes to mind, but I've always wondered if there was more.
Jon: My thoughts are that people and their movements and uses of the urban environment over time are what shape a place's character. So capturing fragments of the urban terrain that are made by or marked by human touch is a way of telling a place’s story.
Chris: I often wonder - if the human brain and thinking work via a series of electro-chemical impulses, couldn't those super-microscopic, atomic interactions leave a trace? And if so, it seems logical that no matter how subatomic, they could accumulate over the years and resonate in empty spaces. I think about that a lot - not necessarily about the specific stories of these interactions, but the existence of them. This seems to echo how you describe the shaping of a place’s character.
Jon: I really like your idea of all the traces that fill and resonate in what appears to be an empty space. I now understand your approach and what you look for in a space when out shooting. I can also see how your subatomic concept makes you less concerned about one story of a place, but rather the many that can be envisioned by the viewer.
For me, the markings from human touch that I mentioned are what I interpret as the urban text. I try to locate these texts in the repeated patterns, textures and colours I see throughout a place. By capturing them in an abstract way I am looking to create an ambiguous portrait that can hopefully shift how people observe the urban environment.
Chris: That ambiguity is also a common ground. Your work feels more abstract, mine perhaps more literal, but I feel both are references that can lead the viewer to their own stories and feelings.
Jon: The urban text is, in a way, microscopic too. It’s written by the many people who use a space. Over time their movements create this invisible text that forms how a place looks and feels. I agree that, like the empty space in your images, the ambiguity of mine is what helps viewers read what they want. They can read the literal space documented, or reflect on their own memories and experiences with it.
Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
Chris: When I started to get serious about image-making, I was looking at the history of photography. Walker Evans was the big one and Paul Strand was a close second. It was Walker Evans’ later work with signs and storefronts, combined with Paul Strand's use of light that got me going.
Jon: It’s nice knowing you also looked into the history of photography when you became more serious in your practice. I did the same thing in the first year of my masters and that’s how I led myself to the Düsseldorf School of Photography.
Chris: It didn't take me long to start looking to contemporary photographers such as Ed Burtynsky, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Lynne Cohen. Those artists spoke to me about a mystery that I couldn't fully comprehend. I go to a lot of galleries and see a lot of shows. I look at a wide variety of contemporary art and lean towards the conceptual and performance-related stuff.
Jon: I often find myself taking a look at these same influences. I can also see lots of Walker Evans and Paul Strand in your compositions. Shooting mundane and ordinary places while at rest, or not in use, creates a similar mystery in your images.
I look at many paintings and photographs every day, leaning more towards colourful abstract paintings and conceptual or architectural photography. So like you, the way I process how to frame my work and choose a subject comes from all these images ingrained in me.
Chris: Earlier you mentioned lighting in your work and, indeed, I'm amazed at the clarity of your vision. I see an optimism that runs through your photographs that seems tied to the wonderful colour and the strong dominating sunlight. The more I look at the work, the more I'm drawn to what is, for me, almost a textile-like quality. The magic of your photographs is that they work on so many different levels; as photographs, paintings, and also patterns.
Jon: Thanks for noticing how important lighting is to my work. It’s a vital factor for getting my images to pop. Sydney is a very good place for consistent strong light, and being here is probably why I began to use that kind of light. When traveling the lighting is left more to chance, but I’m always hopeful I will get a few sunny days.
The optimism you feel from the works is something I have heard before - people have said how calm and relaxed the works make them feel. It’s funny to me how photographs taken in a noisy, chaotic environment can bring people calm, but I’m glad they do. I believe that the images not always looking like photographs allows for this to happen too.
Chris: Do you find that who you are as a person is represented in your process? Is there a philosophical, optimistic quality to your day-to-day that translates into your work? Or is the work more defined by your technical abilities and your clarity of vision? It's a personal question, but I'm curious.
Jon: An easy answer is yes, my personality is represented in my work. This is something I didn’t realize until my work became more controlled and simplified. I’m a bit of a quiet guy who likes things to be in a nice order. And maybe that’s what I am doing with the urban environment too. Reorganising it so it feels more legible.
Compared to my bright sunlight, your images probably need long exposures because they are taken inside. What kind of conditions do you look for when going out to shoot?
Chris: My process is different for each series I shoot. I say series because I gravitate towards the same subject year after year; the subway, empty rooms, wandering. I often do studio work during winter when the weather and lighting is prohibitive. I shot the subways with a tripod. The empty rooms were shot by resting the camera on the exterior glass of those spaces and shooting in.
Mostly I use aperture priority with the lowest ISO setting and the slowest shutter speed possible to get the smallest aperture and deepest depth of field. Overcast days are my favourite, where shadow and light are less drastic and contrasting. I prefer the mundane and the slightly seedy to the crisp and clear.
Jon: Your process of shooting is totally opposite of mine. Using a tripod and resting the camera on something makes sense for the spaces you shoot. You need to be able to make a longer exposure to compensate for the lack of lighting while still maintaining a sharp image. I never use a tripod as it slows me down, which affects how far I can walk before the sun sets.
Chris: I'd love to be as hyper-aware of light as you are. The results you get and the stories you tell with light are spectacular. You draw depth so well, even out of the two-dimensional. Your colours resonate so strongly, everything vibrates.
Jon: Grey days happen more often in Toronto, which is where you began shooting again and probably why feel you are drawn to them. Whereas starting my work in Sydney, where the light is super strong, is why I am more drawn to the sun. If I began where you live, my preferences for light would most likely be similar. We are creatures of our environment and I think the environment in which we learn photography plays a huge role in how we take photographs.
In regard to the subway shots, when did you visit the locations so that no people were around?
Chris: This is an aspect of flâneurism that's not really talked about much - waiting. I love waiting and thinking, and no matter what time of day almost anyplace will become empty for a period of time. As long as I'm not shooting in rush hour, I usually don't have to wait for too long. The physical density of Toronto has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, but we're still a long way from cities like New York. That solitude is very special to me. The idea of being alone in a crowd. It can be difficult for many in the city, but I love it.
Jon: You are a lot more patient than I, but it's something needed to create your kind of work. You shoot some of the busiest places in a city, where I try to find aspects off the beaten trail. Even if I see something in a densely filled area I will just stop and shoot. Being that in reality my compositions aren’t that large, so I only need a split second where no one gets in front of the viewfinder to capture my subject.
After hearing that you didn’t finish art school, I’m also interested to know more about how you got into photography and art. My path into photography was odd as well and I would like to be able to compare our journeys.
Chris: I came to photography through my father. He gave me a Brownie when I was about 7 for a school trip and I shot a roll of film and none of the images turned out.
Jon: You being given a camera by your father must have been so nice for the relationship between you.
Chris: Photography was a way for my father and I to communicate. He loved gadgetry, and because we were middle-class and privileged, he was able to build me a modest darkroom when I was a kid. That's as close as I got to training.
Jon: I think most people who had access to a dark room when young would have become photographers.
Chris: I didn't do any direct art study of any kind until university, where I also dabbled in film and philosophy. There were years along the way when I didn't shoot at all. It wasn't until I moved to Toronto and began the subway series in middle-age that I really got moving. The subway series is, at its heart, about being in love with the city.
Jon: I like that your path to photography wasn’t straight and narrow. I really relate to how you stopped shooting until your move to Toronto.
My journey is only in its infancy compared to yours, but it began because of my move to Sydney. Before moving here I studied animation and film in Detroit and then worked in Los Angeles for a while. When I came to Australia I sort of started over and took lots of art classes such as painting, drawing, and photography. At the same time I began traveling extensively with my partner. Many people suggested I shoot the trips and post them on Instagram. Doing that I started seeing my work as a travel blog, but I didn’t like how my images appeared similar to everyone else’s, so I wanted to separate myself by getting more abstract. After doing that, I applied for an MFA program and now I’m here.
Chris: Our conversation has me vacillating between the similarities of our work and the differences. It's weird. We came to our practices in similar, convoluted ways. The most remarkable may be our background in film.
Jon: That’s nice to hear as I too have been pondering all the differences and similarities of our photographic journeys. We both started in film but ended up pursuing the still image.
Chris: Yet for all our similarities, your journey seems more concentrated than mine. Along the way I did acting, played in bands, worked in art stores, as well as construction, retail and the music industry. I've always been all over the place. I think that slightly scattered approach has informed my work. I veer off and frequently change gears.
Jon: You have done a lot more in-between than I may have, but even if seemingly more concentrated I still don’t fully understand how I got here. Your scattered approach seems to have worked nicely as all your previous experiences and interests now inform your current work. Having done more helps generate lots of ideas you can play with, too. My main concentration has always been wanting to do something visual, and hopefully while continuing my journey I can be like you by building on my past interests to create new works.
Chris: I was looking at your work and your book The Urban Text and its relationship to The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau. That made me think of semaphore and symbol, but I'm not familiar with de Certeau and I wondered if you could talk a bit about how his philosophical ideas relate to your work and the city itself.
Jon: Thanks for getting a copy of my book and looking it over. I’ve already sort of touched on some of de Certeau’s ideas that resonate with me. Urban text was a term he used to describe how people move through space and form a text that everyone writes but no one can see, because we are all too ingrained in our everyday lives. When we can get above ourselves and the hustle and bustle, things become more visible.
At one point, de Certeau describes looking down upon a city from a viewing deck. When reading all of this I envisioned my photographs as being a way for people to see what they were previously missing. My hope is that documenting these aspects of a city in an abstract manner will encourage people to begin looking more closely at their own surroundings.
Discussing de Certeau’s influence on my work, I was wondering if you think about any philosophical concepts when shooting?
Chris: At one point I would have rattled off a list of existentialists. Those thinkers were the beginning for me, but lately I find philosophy to be coming from inside and being directed by the non-academic stuff I read now. I've fallen deeply into poetry and what's being coined as plotless fiction. I love both of those types of writing, and dream in another life of being a writer. I think this exploration has informed my recent work more than any other philosophy.
I'm reading a lot of poets, but have read multiple works by Sharon Olds, Mary Ruefle, and Matthew Zapruder. I'm also obsessed with W.G. Sebald, Clarice Lispector, and Ben Lerner. I keep re-reading those books. Interior by Thomas Clerc was also a recent favourite. I apologize for the literary tangent, but my spouse worked in the best bookstore in the city for a while and that has had a very remarkable effect on what I'm doing.
Jon: You are a lot more well-read than I. It’s good hearing you are interested in poetry and philosophy. Your works feel very poetic, and that’s the genre of writing I would tend to place it in. I don’t know many of the authors you listed, but that gives me something to research later. Your wife had a cool job, I always wanted to work at a book shop.
Chris: How about you? Are there authors, filmmakers, musicians or other artists that resonate and by extension that you feel might subconsciously influence what you're doing?
Jon: Other types of art that influence me would probably depend on the project. I really enjoy reading comics and hope I can do something with them together with photography one day. Subconsciously I suppose music is a big influence on my work, because when shooting I always have it on. It plays a role in how I feel and allows me to be in a focused zone while photographing. I prefer music with a nice beat and pace like rap, electronic, and pop.
Chris: More similarities. I'm always listening to my music library when walking. I've become fixated on certain bands lately and listen to their catalogues over and over again while wandering. Music has influenced me a lot. Not so much as of late, but when I started shooting more seriously I would say I constantly looked at things with a growing awareness of contemporary art, but through a glass that was tinted by graphic design in book and album covers; now it's more about poetry and writing. Everything shapes what we do, and that probably shapes my work the most.
I can totally see your work making an amazing graphic novel. That's a really interesting idea for a new collaboration.
Jon: You also briefly brought up your studio practice. I had a look at some images and really enjoyed how different it appeared from the city work. Could you go more in-depth about the process and thoughts behind these photographs?
Chris: I started doing that work in a fit of self-deprecation. I suffer from the typical artist's lack of confidence or imposter syndrome, and at one point questioned everything I was doing. One day in a very childish act, I started destroying prints and came upon the idea for Construct. The title of that show was intended as a play on the physical idea of construction and the term that references thinking, ideas, and concepts. In short though, it started with crumpling photographs and shooting those altered prints. It then expanded to curving, folding, and making sculptures of photography. It also amplified my fascination with the photograph itself and wanting to engage the viewer in a conversation of what art is.
Jon: I liked hearing how this came about. Even if the photographs were taken in a studio, the construction and sculptural elements of the images have a relation to your empty subway images.
I especially enjoyed hearing how the project started when you began questioning your practice. I can understand that. I feel like that a lot at times and want to just throw everything I have done away. What I tell myself at this point is to figure out what else can I do to grow my practice and learn more about photography. That's a bit of a segue from your project. I think it’s good for people to know that most artists can lose confidence in themselves at times.
I like how the title Construct was generated by your use of prints and paper that were previously seen as rubbish and discarded. You took what wasn’t worth anything to most, and made something new out of it. This really fascinates me and is something I have been thinking about for a few future projects I’m conceptualizing.
Chris: I'm genuinely curious. I think this work has been a real motivator into my investigation of the frame and ultimately has led me to sculpture and thinking of objects and places more for their shape and depth than for their narrative properties. I hope that doesn't sound too pretentious, but it's been like an alternate practice for me and led me to doing more studio work than I ever imagined.
Jon: After looking at more of the series it reminds me of some of Wolfgang Tillmans' work when he played with different photographic papers. Your exploration and what it has led you to doesn’t sound pretentious at all. I’m glad to know that doing this has helped your practice as a whole too.
Chris: Thank you for your thoughtful take on my studio work – this means a lot.
As we wrap up, I would just like to say that it’s been wonderful to have this type of conversation with another photographer, exploring how our practices overlap and diverge. I look forward to seeing how, as time passes, our work can be seen in relation to this conversation and the greater world.
I’m also interested in how we will continue to change as we grow: with exposure to new people, events, and changes in the world, will our visions change? I’m hoping the answer to this is a resounding and positively optimistic Yes. Thanks so much for taking the time Jon, and I look forward to someday continuing this conversation in person.
Jon: Thanks so much to Craig and FFOTO for organizing this conversation between myself and Chris. I really enjoyed the back and forth communication we had about our practices over the past few months. Particularly since most of our chat happened while we were both locked down in our respective parts of the world. Photography at times can be a very isolating process which was only amplified due to Covid-19. So, having another photographer like Chris to talk with helped me feel connected to someone of like mind, even though he is so far away.
Just hearing all about how Chris’ journey in photography differs and is similar to mine was a real pleasure. Receiving his responses to my questions and trying to come up with answers to his was a great way to pass time while at home. And now that the world is beginning to go back to normal and knowing more about Chris’ process as well as my own, I’m excited to see what we both create next. Thanks a ton for taking part in this dialogue with me, Chris. I also look forward to continuing this when we are able to meet in person.
Jon Setter's artworks are offered via FFOTO courtesy of Galerie Robertson Arès.
Chris Shepherd's artworks are offered via FFOTO courtesy of Bau-Xi Gallery.