crafted by photobiz

When first looking at Stephen Brookbank’s series, Live / Work, the photographs frequently appear to be concerned with the ongoing tension between residential and industrial land use, a fairly traditional theme in the cultural landscape. This would be a misconception. Instead, by framing where people live in close proximity to where people work, Brookbank reveals more subtle aspects of the relationship. That these images are not harmonious in a visual sense is clear, but, in their very discord, they tell a story of co-joined un-identical twins: co-existing despite themselves because of their interdependence.Today it seems all too easy to view industry as a sinister manifestation of Capitalism: denuding nature and invading the serenity of residential communities. On the other hand, the conversion of factories and warehouses South of Queen Street West in Toronto, into artists’ studios, art galleries, expensive restaurants and extravagant condominiums suggests that the struggle for space is a double-edged sword. The gentrification of neighborhoods creates higher income housing and forces some earlier residents to have to move away to more affordable dwellings.In many cases large remnants of an industry have been demolished to accommodate city planners’ dreams. Le Corbusier was said to have commented that the grain elevators along Montreal’s St. Lawrence shoreline were the best architecture he had seen in Canada. They have since disappeared to be replaced by parks, housing and museums.In these photographs there isn’t a simplistic black or white, good or bad– no misguided missionary zeal. We always seem eager to leap to the rescue of perceived endangerments to our environment: even extending our moralistic point of view to the extent that some animals (often snakes, sharks and lawyers) are inherently evil and that others, such as otters, kittens, and meerkats are not just good but cute.In Brookbank’s eye, these images of the codependency between industry and housing are magnified, quietly dramatized, by the close juxtaposition of the home and the factory. These factories, oil depots and warehouses are still functioning, and the adjacent houses are still occupied- forming an unexpected symbiotic relationship.The panoramic view of Hamilton, Ontario acts as an introduction, an overview to an anthology of smaller vignettes. Hamilton is an industrial city, owing its very existence to the steel industry. Without the factories, smelters belching smoke, there would be no houses. In the past, many industrial developments included housing for the labors: accommodations ranging from row houses to dormitories. So, the proliferation of housing was a natural extension of industry. The more removed, elegant homes of the owners and upper management were also a byproduct of the factories. So, the residential areas grew up around the factories. Plants did not invade the space of the housing. Virtually all of these photographs are reminders of that earlier time. A time when workers may have been underpaid and unappreciated, but at least the walk to work was an easy commute.Aside from their visual strength, Brookbank’s images are beautifully printed. Prolonged discussions of technique in photography are usually about as effective as trying to put a square peg in a round hole. In this case, however, the method is important to the means of perception. As is suggested by some blurring of light traces and pluming of smokestack emissions, most of these shots are time exposures, usually from between four to five minutes. This means that the photographer can’t actually see what he is capturing as an image. It is somewhat similar to a pinhole camera, where the result can only be seen once it’s developed. So, Brookbank has to imagine, conceive, and predict his end result. He is trying to catch an elusive world, a world distorted by time beyond normal perceptions.There is an ethereal quality to many of these images- an otherworld appearance. The strange light effect doesn’t reflect a surreal world. Rather, it is akin to a Luminist landscape, such as the mysterious illumination reflected by the moon in the works of Casper David Friedrich. This eerie sense of reality is heightened by capturing details such as the blue in the snow in Faulkner Street, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia or the shadow of an adjacent building in Douglas Avenue, Saint John, New Brunswick.Interestingly, these images are not threatening. Without being at all sentimental, they exude quietude, a sort of old hometown nostalgia. The modest roadhouse diner in Restaurant, Notre Dame, Montreal, Quebec exists in a weird kind of limbo-land, surrounded by oil storage tanks suggesting protection-not invasion. The effect is reminiscent of the opening theme of Trailerpark Boys with the music and the 50’s sepia film of boys on bicycles. In Dominico at Copper Cliff, Sudbury, Ontario beyond sheer curtains, there is an elderly woman sitting napping. She obviously feels comfortable in her community. This woman’s position resembles a Vermeer interior. Instead of the light from a window suggesting the turmoil of the exterior world, everything is reversed, turned inside out. She can relax, because the towering “Big Smoke” beyond her house was constructed at an enormous height to ensure that pollutants were no longer disturbing her world. Instead, the contaminates are said to flow through the atmosphere as far as Scandinavia.Rather than being a photographer who is documenting a situation at the expense of people and exploiting their way of life, Brookbank feels a true affection for these people, their lives and their workplaces. It’s the way many of us may be attracted to a mutt as opposed to a graceful purebred. He is clearly more interested in mongrels that poodles. As he says: “I am attempting to deal with the humanity of a neighborhood in the omnipotent presence of such things as a transmission grid or industry or the power plant…to emphasize the resilience of our working towns and cities.” In the midst of the phenomenon of out-sourcing, Stephen Brookbank is concerned with the fragility of the human condition, the cloistered fear, or void, within North American working and middle class society that can erode our integrity and distort our sense of responsibility. In the end, he exposes the difference between what our eye is accustomed to seeing and what really is there: forcing a new aesthetic, a strange and unusual beauty, something closer to the truth.