Last Updated on 09/02/2018 by Mark Beckenbach
All images and text by Derek Boswell. Used with permission.
I am Derek Boswell, a 23 year-old social documentary photographer from Southwestern Ontario, Canada. Presently, my work consists of seeking out and recording those most banal and unappreciated inanimate objects which surround us in our everyday lives. In spite of their ubiquity, they are nevertheless critical to shaping the world we live in. As such, I believe they deserve recognition. By treating their photography as a form of portraiture, I aim to elevate their status from unary, functional objects to those whose aesthetic qualities are worth considering as well. Essentially, it’s an experiment in transforming the roadways, telephone poles, fake plastic grass, and half-built houses into objects of pleasure, rather than mere utility.
With my “Forest City” series in particular, I apply these principles to the often monotonous, seemingly lifeless suburban sprawl that has eroded and transformed my birth town’s identity. When traveling — something I do quite often — I like to bring those principles with me. As I’ll elaborate on later, the “suburban experience” is present throughout much of North America, yet there are subtle differences in how that’s manifested.
One of my favorite things to do as a photographer is to seek out similar subjects in the locations I visit, record them, and compare them with each other. Whether those be suburbs, natural landscapes, people, the disparities come evident as a body of work is compiled. A common theme almost presents itself in some cases, which I find utterly fascinating! Photography was developed as a medium or relative autonomy compared to, say, drawing or painting. As much as I don’t like to use automatic-mode cameras, I do find other uniquely autonomous aspects of this medium appealing, and ripe with creative possibility. Most of my photographs are taken on color negative medium format film.
The “Forest City” project has gone on for several years, and during that time, I’ve gone through many different cameras. I have since settled on a Rolleiflex (which was gifted to me by a kind albeit inebriated stranger from Reddit), Sony A7, Linhof Technika 70 and a Linhof Technika V for 4×5 and medium format panoramas.
I believe readers will find interest in my “Forest City” project because it speaks to those banal, neglected places and objects we are all surrounded by — something anyone can identify with. However, it’s been captured in a very personal manner: We all have similarly unappealing places and things in the environment around us, but this is my environment, my things and places in that sense.
I find “Forest City” appealing in that nearly anyone can relate to the concept, but the personal element can inspire the reader to say “Hey, I’m going to get out there and explore my backyard with a new set of eyes”. Every city, town, suburb, etc. has this story within it, but the resulting images would be unique from my own.
Phoblographer: Why did you get into photography?
Derek: I first got into photography as a young child while exploring my uncle’s hobby darkroom. I was fascinated by everything, but a bit too young to understand the process. As time went on, I rediscovered photography after receiving a DSLR as a birthday present. I was even more intrigued, but not yet enamored. It took a photography class at a local art institution (Bealart – which is in my opinion, a world-class art institution) to find out just how deeply I could fall in love with this medium. That happened when I discovered film. If anything speaks to the magnitude of my adoration for photography; a year later and still a student, I was in charge of their darkroom. Normally this would be reserved for a teacher, but they let me take the position if I wanted it — I of course did. Working as Bealart’s photography technician was truly one of the most formative and enjoyable experiences of my life. I left it as a better artist and as a whole, a better person.
Phoblographer: How long have you been shooting?
Derek: I have been shooting film for about five years now. If you count digital, I’d say eight altogether. Nevertheless, I’ve been surrounded by film for much of my life, being that my uncle had a darkroom in his house.
Phoblographer: What photographers are your biggest influences?
Derek: Since beginning photography, William Eggleston has long been one of my favourite photographers. His use of colour had always captivated me, as colour was not merely a superfluous component, nor “just another” compositional element, but often the subject itself. Stephen Shore, and really, any of his peers within or around the New Topographics movement (Ed Burtysnky comes to mind), could be considered influential. Todd Hido would fit on that list somewhere as well, but I had only discovered his work mid-way through my Forest City series, and largely by the comments of others: I’ve often been told that my work is reminiscent of his – quite the compliment, considering how spectacular Todd Hido’s photographs are!
Aside from the more well known names, there’s a plethora of lesser-known contemporaries from Europe who I often collaborate with, form dialogue with, or simply just admire: Isa Gelb, Jordane Prestrot, John Sanderson, Marina Richter, Sofia Lee, Tony Wright, Dimitris Tamvakos… the list could go on forever. There’s so much excellent work hiding out there among the Internet’s tinier, less traveled corners.
Phoblographer: Tell us about the project you’re pitching, or your portfolio.
Derek: To give my current series a bit of context, my city has earned the moniker of “Forest City” due to its vast number of forested areas. However, as time has progressed, the status of this city has changed. From one moment to the next, London’s identity is always fleeting: New roads are paved, more skyscrapers rise, and countless new homes dot what was once green space. Slowly and steadily, London, Ontario transcends itself and at such a pace that it’s hard to catch up with all that’s going on. We have little time to ask ourselves “Who are we as members of this city? What is our collective identity?” If we’ve torn up the forests and sold our past identity for the abomination of suburban sprawl, what have we left? The monotony of seeing the same streetlights, the same post boxes, the same generic automobiles day in, day out, can be tiring. That is especially so with automobiles, which formed the catalyst to my second “sister-series” of photographs; “Vehicle”. Both “Forest City” and “Vehicle” serve a similar need; fulfilling a documentary purpose as it does a personal, therapeutic one: To alleviate the often-depressing reality of growing up in a suburb of cookie-cutter houses (which only continue to propagate, like an unfettered infection) and come to terms with the confusing and often-lacking sense of community inherent to such places.
The irony of all this is that we call these places that spring up out of the ground, seemingly overnight, “planned communities”. I think the term “planned” exhibits a presumption of idealization, that experts with grand titles and grand money conceived of this — and so, it must be well thought out: There are transit infrastructure and wide, paved roads. There are playgrounds for the children, and adequate greenspace, so why must we worry? Just build, build build! Suburban sprawl can be so rapid, that little time or interest is granted to its critical, thoughtful consideration. This brings me to why I enjoy photographing at night. The reasons are numerous, but one of the most relevant is simply how much calmer things are at this time. Of course, I don’t always photograph at night, but I think calmness the common denominator in my work, though perhaps it’s less obvious with the daytime images.
Phoblographer: What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically.
Derek: I derive the most pleasure in my photography when I create it at my own pace, if only because I have more time to consider the constituent elements of the photograph, and I believe that sense of contemplation best comes through in the final print when I can experience that calm contemplation as I am working. From a technical standpoint, that means taking my sweet time setting up the tripod, the camera, evaluating the scene and my chosen perspective for as long as I can. While this is happening, I like to take in the scene through other sense beyond my vision. What does the place smell like, what am I standing on? What sounds do I hear? Considering all these things, I can input their culmination into how I capture the scene. This is also why I enjoy big 4×5 cameras like the Linhof, or even the smaller Rollei – both allow for some degree of monkeying around and provide a wealth of creative tools (e.g. various image formats, high detail, unique lens characteristics, lens movements).
Phoblographer: What motivates you to shoot?
Derek: Essentially, I want the viewer to vicariously experience what I do, as I explore these spaces at a calmer pace — not in any hurry to beat rush hour, to go drop someone off at school, etc. By doing this, I believe my photography can help the viewer become mindful of those latent, less obvious characteristics which define our spaces of habitation. Outside of the home itself, suburbia is often seen as pragmatic and utilitarian. After all, these are public spaces where roads and paths get you from point A to B. Perhaps there’s a park or bench here and there.
Suburbia’s aesthetic qualities seldom seem to be critically considered, yet I believe beauty and comfort are just as important outside of the house as they are inside our personal spaces. Even if these exterior spaces are not ours to mess with, we do spend a lot of time navigating them, so why not find glimpses of beauty amongst them if we can? This returns me to that notion of personal therapy; the challenge of finding beauty among spaces I’ve long considered devoid of beauty (as have many of my peers) gives me purpose when surrounded by a landscape pandering to the monotonous “9 to 5 lifestyle”. I don’t necessarily wish for the viewer to see my images as pleasurable, nice as that may be. I really have no desire for my images to do anythings apart from inspiring more critical engagement with environments that we have collectively built for ourselves.
Phoblographer: Tell us a bit about the gear you use and how you feel it helps you achieve your creative vision.
Derek: The 6×12 panorama is an especially important format to me, as is the 6×6 square. Both come with a certain amount of baggage; the former having ties to the classic cinematic “widescreen” image, and the latter to casual family photos. I believe both of these attributes can be used as creative tools; the format of the image is just as much of a compositional element as the subject on the opposite side of the lens is.
My typical photography loadout will include a Manfrotto National Geographic backpack, two cameras (picking between a Rolleiflex, Sony A7, and Linhof Technika V), space for two additional lenses, and a couple of rolls of Portra (the emulsion which I shoot almost exclusively). I often shoot with especially wide lenses, as it really helps envelop the viewer within the photograph. Recently, I had machined a helicoid for my 47mm f/5.6 Super Angulon. This will allow me to shoot ultrawide panoramas — of course, I’m very excited for that! Self sufficiency is a big part of my lifestyle, so I do all of my own repairs, cam machining, and modifications to my cameras as well.
In the future, I hope to add the Technika 70 to that list as a handheld option for panoramas/medium format with lens movements. In addition to those cameras, I’ll include a venerable Vivitar 285, flashlight, tripod, Swiss Army Knife, water, and medical kit. Since I often find myself amidst the middle of nowhere, at night, the latter three items have proven quite useful.
Phoblographer: Why is photography and shooting so important to you?
Derek: Photography, as I had touched on earlier, serves as a personal therapeutic tool as much as it does a documentary one. I have always been one for the underdog — it is one of the reasons why I’ve devoted much of my time to attaining a degree in human psychology — and why I think those silent and unglamorous things and places in our world do deserve to go noticed: If not for being appreciated, at least for being made aware of their existence. Above all, I think it’s important to understand the environment around us, even the less conventionally attractive or intriguing things: They are still a slice of the Gestaltian whole that makes up all which we experience.
Phoblographer: Do you feel you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?
Derek: Certainly, I would consider myself a documentor. While there is of course an art — a creative aspect — with what I do, but nearly all of the compositional elements lie before me. Other people have done the work and set the stage, in almost a literal sense. I see the lens’ field of view as projecting upon a theatrical stage which lies before me. From my perspective as an onlooker, I can point a light at the stage and illuminate certain portions, while unexposing others. Light is immaterial, constantly changing, and often dependent upon the viewer themselves (we may navigate a space with a flashlight, a car’s headlights, natural light, etc). However, I don’t usually believe it’s my place to modify the actors themselves – all those tangible objects which make up the scene. I generally prefer to leave a space untouched, like it was before I arrived. For one thing, I am often on someone else’s property — I’m not going to vandalize it. Secondly, I think it erodes the narrative I am trying to develop around these things and places if I “create” the scene.
Phoblographer: Want to walk us through your processing techniques?
Derek: Growing up in Southwestern Ontario in a rural area far from Toronto, I had limited access to the infrastructure of film photography; the medium I was truly enamored with. I often had to go at it my own way by mixing and using C-41 chemicals myself. Daunting at first, but I quickly familiarized myself with the process. Color processing has received an unnecessarily bad reputation, but I’d say you’ll be perfectly fine if you’ve ever cooked or baked before. For us Canadians, Argentix.ca is a great place to buy from. Lovely staff, good prices, and easier than shipping from the US (which may not even be possible due to ORM-D regulations).
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into your genre?
Derek: This was certainly one of the more difficult questions to answer. I can’t put my finger on any one antecedent to my life as a social documentary/New Topographics photographer. In truth, I’m not even sure if that title does my work justice, as I find parallels in my work and that of completely different genres, let alone mediums! I suppose one of my strongest influences would be having a keen interest in understanding how things work. Ever since I was a child, this had always fascinated me, even with the most banal objects, such as a traffic light or a culvert, I always wondered, “why was is there, who put it there, and what is it supposed to do”? That mindset translates well to my current photography practice.