- By Manda Rataj
Chris Shepherd: Waiting
Chris Shepherd explores the underground world of the subway station and discovers structures and places of beauty. In his series Waiting he finds moments of emptiness in-between receiving trains full of commuters, and sanctuaries of institutional architecture.
In Waiting, Shepherd displays images of both Toronto’s and New York City’s transit systems, drawing parallels between the two through architectural similarities that sometimes leave viewers confused about the subject matters’ locations. Originally interested in pursing a career in painting, Shepherd thinks of his photographs as “found paintings.” The spaces displayed in Waiting show a sense of shape, form, and colour that Shepherd inherited from such abstract painters as Mark Rothko and such photographers as William Eggleston. Shepherd’s simple, clean compositions and attention to line reference such stringent documentarians as Berndt and Hilla Becher or Candida Hofer, all of who focus on municipal architecture, such as water towers or libraries.
Unlike architectural photographers who use large or medium format cameras to capture their spaces, Shepherd shoots with a DSLR and a 24–105 mm lens that allows him the flexibility necessary for capturing tight or close underground spaces. He always uses available light and prefers to crop in-camera. He keeps post-production to a minimum, removing lens distortion and adjusting exposure.
While his access to New York’s subway system is in part facilitated by a project he is working on for the Art for Transit program, to photograph in stations run by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), Shepherd had to get $2 million in liability insurance and pay $250 for a permit that allowed him to shoot on platform level. The challenges in securing this access were not easy to overcome — it took him four years to set up the permission to create the TTC images in Waiting, having originally nervously shot illegally. Shepherd insists on getting the right permissions, stating that if he can’t get it, he won’t shoot it, and that this approach has improved both his confidence and the legitimacy of his work.
In an attempt to modernize its stations, the TTC put into motion a plan for station makeovers, and have redesigned Museum station to reflect the street-level cultural attraction that gives it its name. Shepherd feels ambivalent about these changes, which he thinks are “less likely to age as well” as older, more iconic stations. But at the same time, he says, his images are not inspired by a drive to preserve these spaces, but by a desire to document the transitional, fleeting nature of overworked infrastructure that is constantly in flux.
Although he feels this work may elicit a gloomy or melancholy response, Shepherd finds his compositions “exciting;” he often revisits and reshoots a place until he can capture what originally drew him there. He speaks about the possibility of a space’s future, a kind of latent “energy” that he sees in the five minutes between trains, when the space is not necessarily empty or abandoned, but simply waiting. “Waiting is something I think we, as a society, don’t do very well. We somehow think it’s a waste of time,” Shepherd says. He sees a peace in these environments that most would never think of as tranquil.