This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, their stories, goals and learnings along the way. This month’s interview is with Jonathan Castellino, a photo artist who explores “cities within cities” and urges us to think about the issue of a single image vs. its part in an overall narrative.
Q: To start, can you give me an overview of your project, its title & its main theme?
A: I have been exploring and documenting unseen and forgotten spaces in cities for quite some time. While much of my work might be considered urban exploration photography, I tend to let the themes natural to the experience of these places define my ongoing project. That is, the experience of space before and after people: unmanned space. I would describe the project as exploring the landscape of uncertainty. I encounter these places with an open heart and let the unexpected guide my lens.
Q: And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?
A: Exploring the city is something I do every day; I do not define landscape narrowly. People tend to carry out their urban lives along pathways, but when the city is seen outside of these pathways it becomes a playground for those seeking unusual perspectives.
Because I approach the familiar from unfamiliar angles, I never know what I will find. I see the fences and boarding synonymous with urban life as psychological, rather than physical barriers. And so the story becomes one of exploring the grey areas within cities. Over time, an urban archive is created that documents places that an ordinary account of history tends to overlook.
Cities are also layered, with many converging landscapes, and yet we tend to have a somewhat 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 visualization of this is manifest in some of my more recent work, where I show the multiplicity quite literally, in the use of overlaid images.
The story is also about friendship. The bonds I have made with like-minded people over the past decade or so have been powerful. Our encounter with vacant spaces educates daily life, to the point that the project and day-to-day living become seamlessly interwoven. Doors have been opened which can never be closed.
Q: Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause-related end in mind?
A: The project is a way of presenting images to the public of places which they will likely never see. It is also a project for my lifetime, so in a way it is just for me. We live in a culture obsessed with living inside a screen. I hope that my images can serve to remind people how brilliant and exciting the world outside really is, and that the physical landscape has the ability to shape our interior lives. The hope with all of my photography is to transcend what things look like and to explore how they feel.
Q: What photographic choices have you made: colour palette, composition, use of flash, etc.?
A: My work remains primarily monochromatic. I find that colour often hinders my images. For myself, the work is, at its core, a value-study – one of contrast and comparison – and thus best executed in black-and-white.
Stylistically, at a certain point along my journey, it struck me that the traditional method of photography – giving the viewer a slice of time – is not entirely accurate to how we encounter cities. I moved to composite images that record this realization. It is largely a thought experiment, with results that are quite visually appealing when done correctly.
Q: What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?
A: At this point, the project guides me. Our pathways in cities are layered with manipulation. The surface of the structures we live with has become overwhelming. The wallpaper of our lives affects us so deeply, and yet often goes unnoticed. Advertising screams at us from every available surface. Combined with the overly prescriptive nature of modern urban planning, ideas of where to go and how to live seem dictated.
I like to think that my images offer a glimpse into a landscape that, while it is somewhat familiar, holds these elements at a critical distance. For myself, the places I explore offer a blank canvas and a sense of solitude, or else, harken back to a different time. They are quiet. And since these are places that go mostly unseen, they offer a landscape that is not engineered to make one think in any particular way.
If I have conveyed this through my imagery, I feel the project to be a success. But how is one to judge these things?
Q: Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?
A: While I am certainly moved by the work of many of photography’s masters, it is the community of friends that I shoot with that inspire me the most. Not just by their work, but by their constant encouragement.
Contemporary music and writing affects my photography as well. The music of Arvo Pärt, Tim Hecker, and the writings of W.G. Sebald have been a particularly strong influence in recent years.
Q: Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?
A: There are many risks inherent in my style of photography, ranging from safety concerns to potential issues with authority. One has to keep in mind that the photographs that you see are often the end result of quite a lot of work – whether physical or social engineering.
People often wonder about my work in terms of legal access. Trespassing is not actually essential to my work, and people overstate its importance because of a misplaced fascination with its allure. Exploring is really about seeing things in a new way, not going to a place you shouldn’t be; it happens when you change your perspective. It is only when I later step back from the work, and take stock of both the physical and artistic journey, that I can unify both through images.
I know my intentions in these endeavors. I love these places deeply and seek to honour them with my photography. I tend to obey the spirit rather than the letter of the law, and I have always found it easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.
Q: Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?
A: My biggest challenge seems to be people viewing my images in isolation, rather than as part of a narrative about the life of a city. I want my images to challenge, to provoke, and to make people re-encounter their environment in an exciting and joyful way. My photography serves as a reminder that the city belongs to its people and not the other way around.
Q: What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
A: I use a Leica digital M rangefinder primarily, as well as smaller Leica compact cameras.
The discreet nature of a Leica camera is something I have always been drawn to. Its ability to slip under the radar, to remain unnoticed, and to deliver remarkable results are things that I find very appealing.
I prefer something that does not get in the way. It allows me to engage more fully with what is at hand. And any mistakes I make with a Leica are my own, due to the simplicity of the cameras.
In terms of the machine itself, an aesthetic beauty is achieved when something is created purely with function in mind, which will always surpass that of the item or tool created for the sake of beauty itself. The refinement inherent in Leica design is unmatched, and I fully understand their attraction.
There is nothing as remarkable, as beautiful, or as inspiring as things, just as they are. In exploration, in photography and in life, we are often duped into thinking that meaning is created through an accumulation, when really it is about a stripping away – a stepping back in order to be present to the present so that we can see things just as they are.
Thank you for your time, Jonathan!
– Leica Internet Team
To see more of Jonathan’s work, check out his other projects and daily photos.
Jonathan is a photographer based in the city of Toronto, Canada, and an adjunct architectural photography instructor at the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. His work has appeared in magazines and journals such as Brick, Spacing, Now, several books, national newspapers, and has been featured in galleries and on photography websites, including several ongoing series pertaining to his exploration of the city. His main photographic subjects are urban and industrial spaces, within which he explores the intersection of architecture and culture, of personal meaning and the build environment. While most of his work documents these intersections in his own city, he has pursued similar projects elsewhere in Southern Ontario, New York State and Michigan.
Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 5,300 members. In June 2015, Olaf will be co-teaching Visual Conversations, a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport. If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: email@example.com or www.olafwilloughby.com.