Jonathan Castellino 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, Image, Spacing, and Now, 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, and 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. Here, he presents “Generation”, shot with the Leica M (Typ 240).
How would you describe your photography?
My photography documents the transformation from space to place. I tend to operate at one speed across all of my work. The attempt is to document the physical and emotional landscape of buildings, as they change with use. Technical accuracy is important, but should always be at the service of creating an image (or series of images) that are organic, and that describe the entire essence of a place within each detail. The idea is to go beyond what something looks like, and show how it feels.
Please share insights of this project, what did it entail and what were the objectives?
The project Generation began in a meeting. I made a request to stop by the festival site during construction, following some of my archival material of the location being used in its promotion. After some coaxing, I ended up spending almost every evening and most weekends on-site, during the occupation.
I was allowed to pursue my own style, while being made aware of key events and installations that would be happening at the location. Granting me this freedom allowed movement through the building at my own pace, to encounter all of those involved as they worked. And so my relationship with the building and its temporary inhabitants flourished.
The event would either mark the beginning of a new kind of inhabitation of this abandoned place, or else would be the most spectacular temporary exhibition the city has seen. My objective was to document, in a sensitive and truthful way, this seemingly impossible feat. That this documentation was made possible from a single perspective (mine), for the entire duration, is significant: most cultural events are reported or recorded from a very narrow perspective. With only the surface skimmed, they are constructed to deal with spectacle, rather than purpose. I was given an opportunity to transcend this.
Considering these were almost ruined buildings, what was your creative approach in maintaining the rawness of the building while giving a breath of fresh air for the new art space?
I did not have to consciously maintain a balance between the raw and re-imagined, as I let the pre-existing structure and shape of the space dictate what and how I shot. My creative approach, you might say, was concentrating on the present, and not trying to mould my surroundings into any preconception that I might have had.
Your images show the essence of a building, making the viewer imagine the people who have passed along its walls or how it grows old over time with weeds and plants. How do you describe this “organic” feel your images suggest? How can one achieve this?
I try to remain as grounded in the present as possible. Time distorts what it cannot destroy, so that capturing the entropy is mostly a matter of placing yourself in front of it. I maintain that nothing is as spectacular as things, just as they are. Presence in the midst of this encounter, unattached to my own ideas of a place, generally results in a great experience, and with it, meaningful images.
Architecture and city planning are intertwined, enabling citizens to re-discover in a way their own city through activating spaces, parks and other abandoned buildings. How do you conceive your photography as part of this overarching objective?
Visiting beautiful buildings resonates with me. And ten minutes later, I completely forget my experience. It is through photographs that we can approximate what we made memory of. If the images that I make can suggest significance, or still better, re-awaken experience of a place in others, I become the mediator of an experience which I have no ability to contain or constrain. The original intent, though, is far more personal: I visit these places for the solitude. That the resulting record can be used to activate these dormant places is beautiful, of course, but at the same time serves to remind me that even the quiet I’ve found is temporary.
Please talk about the Luminato Festival, what was it about and how did it complement the space you mention as one of your favorites?
Toronto’s Luminato Festival — a global arts festival which brings together visual and performing arts, music, theatre, dance, and much more — celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer. Set inside the ruins of the R.L. Hearn power station, while extremely challenging, opened a public discourse surrounding the site.
This was also the final festival under the artistic direction of Jörn Weisbrodt, a man who truly loves the Hearn ruins. Spectacular music, visual and performance arts, and food were brought together seamlessly under one decayed roof. The work, artistry, and dedication poured into this transformation is inspirational.
My interest in architectural conservation is always rooted in the belief that “we can’t save them all”. Some places are not, should not, or cannot be saved. Many do not need saving, but rather transformation.
The soundscape brought to the Hearn ruins through the Luminato Festival, in particular, seemed to help me further understand the building. I joke that the music could have believably been written by the building itself (Roly Porter, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Kid Koala, Tim Hecker, just to name a few).
You used the Leica M (Typ 240) for this project, highlighting its ease of use with ‘minimal disruption’ when taking pictures. Yet again, you mention the idea of creating ‘organic’ pictures, how do you think this camera helped in this process as opposed to other cameras perhaps?
One of the great joys of working inside of a massive project is that most people have no idea who I am, or what I am doing. I like to keep it this way, collecting natural reactions along the way, free of preconceptions. Using only available light, a tiny tripod and a small rangefinder is the perfect fit, here. Leica M’s always respect their surroundings – in that they do what I tell them; the camera responds, as long as I do. The distance between heart and hand, camera and presentation, is fluid. And any mistakes I make are my own.
Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Maybe other projects you might be working on?
I have several ongoing documentation projects examining physical areas facing massive transition (www.jonathancastellino.com).
I value consistency above all else, in my work. My goal is to have material to show, every day. With this in mind, my most valuable photographic project is a daily photo website (www.sacramentalperception.com). While life continually awakens and surprises me with beauty and challenges, the architecture of my day requires rigor at its foundation. The project confronts issues of personal motivation that challenge this: in the face of discomfort, when my brain lies and tells me I ought to feel a different way, when I feel avoidance is the easiest route, it forces me to go for a walk, to see and attempt to capture what is really present – and reality has never betrayed me.
Thank you Jonathan!
To know more about Jonathan Castellino’s work, please visit his official website.