Tuesday, October 9, 2018


Self-portrait for passport photo, 1998

I STARTED THIS BLOG OVER FOUR YEARS AGO. Whatever I thought about the idea at the time - a make-work project to force me to go through my old pictures and post what looked interesting - it has turned out far better than I imagined it would. Which is to say that, as I began going through those first boxes of prints and contact sheets, I wasn't expecting much.

The good news was that I rediscovered photos that I'd either forgotten completely about - alarmingly, if you're the person who's relying on that memory - and gave a second, sometimes profitable life to images that would have been unseen, entombed forever in binders full of negatives or on hard drives. But I wasn't expecting that to happen when I made my first posts here.

What I was most afraid of was digging up photos that would remind me of the low points, in both my career and my life. And I knew there were a few of them. Ultimately they'd lead to writing a post that summed up thirty years of life and work, which would oblige me to be honest about my successes and failures, and especially the bad decisions I might have made. This is that post, at long last, and it hasn't been easy to write.

At the analog wall, going through contact sheets, July 2018. Photos by Jonathan Castellino.

I had no idea I'd become a photographer when I bought that first camera from a pawn shop on Church Street, and I'm still fuzzy about the precise point where I thought that I might make a career out of taking pictures. I didn't go to school for photography and I never had a clue about how you made a living from photos, but I blundered ahead regardless, fueled mostly by the energy of ascending a thrilling learning curve and making better photos all the time.

I probably wouldn't have persevered as long as I did except for two financial factors - the incredibly low overhead I maintained by living cheaply (no car, no vacations) and the low, low rent I was paying on my Parkdale studio space through the whole of the '90s. There have been at least two times in my career when I wondered whether I could call myself a photographer any more. This blog forced me to confront both of those moments, and helped dredge up a lot of painful memories besides.

Many years ago, my (now-)wife and I appeared as an item in a gossip column in Quill & Quire, a magazine about the book trade in Canada. We had been seeing each other for a while; she had been an editor there once, which is what occasioned the item, while I was described as a "very successful photographer." Even more than appearing in a gossip column in a literary magazine, I was shocked to see myself described as "successful."

Never mind that my career was entering the first of those two major crisis points at the time; the fact is that I had never seen myself as "successful" as much as "struggling." I had an idea what a successful photographer looked like (though I didn't personally know any at the time) and I knew it wasn't me. Looking back, maybe having a little bit of notoriety, an established byline and no other visible means of support was what made you a "successful" photographer in Canada. If so, it set the bar pretty low. 

Scanning and retouching, July 2018. Photos by Jonathan Castellino.

For the longest time, staying in Canada was what I considered my first big mistake. I had always intended to move to New York and try to make it there - a move that was probably inspired by my brother, who went to New York in the '60s to work for Albert Grossman, manager of Bob Dylan, The Band and Janis Joplin and many others. It was the place to be a really successful photographer - a really successful anything - in ways that Toronto obviously wasn't.

But I didn't go to New York, for a lot of reasons. The first was that I never felt like I had enough of a financial cushion to take the risk, which might have just been an excuse. The other was that, just at the point when I should have made my move, I was in no sound emotional shape for it. A really bad break-up at the turn of the '90s put me in a tailspin for years, and looking back now, I was battling depression on and off for most of the decade.

Leaving Toronto would have meant a huge financial risk, to be sure, but it also would have deprived me of most of the network of friends and family I had here - not a great place if you're slipping in and out of black moods. The advantages of staying in Toronto - low rent, friends and family, work I could (mostly) rely on - outweighed the risks of potentially making a career in a place where being "successful" paid more considerable dividends, both in money and reputation.

Basically I was afraid, and my lack of the classic middle-class safety net - living parents, a home to go back to - made that fear more acute. Fear and depression - not emotions you associate with "success," but maybe I'm wrong about that.

After a while I stopped making regular trips to New York to look for work there. I'd still get the occasional job from friends like Edna Suarez at the Times, but as it became obvious that I probably wasn't going to make the big move, the beginnings of a network of friendly venues over the border fell away. And when I left both my studio and NOW magazine near the end of the '90s my freelance network here had shrunk as well. So by the time I was described as "very successful" I was struggling to make my rent.

Goofing around in Michael Vendruscolo's studio, 1990. Photographer unknown.

I've been reading a lot of biographies of photographers, mostly to get some perspective on my own career in the business. In a recent book about the late Anglo-Irish photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, his friend and fellow photographer Crena Watson (born 1957) talks about the photo business as it was by the time Clarke died in 2006:
"It changed so much even from when I started. You used to be respected and paid properly and appreciated for your skill and knowledge. And that just suddenly went. He (Clarke) was like a god, and that was just taken away. The big budgets didn't happen any more, there were all these younger art directors who didn't know who anyone was, or what was good and what was bad. It changed so quickly - it was shocking. Nothing to do with digital, actually. When people say, 'It was digital,' that's rubbish. That's just a tool."

"It was in the early 1990s that things changed. They had the recession and stopped paying proper prices, and then they found that young people would do it. They could use someone who's not so good and then retouch after, so I suppose digital played a small part...Those changes frightened him enormously, and he could see that it would never change back. It frightened me too. I was on the cusp of the good times, but he had had the good times all his career, and then suddenly things drop, and no one knew who he was or wanted him much. Quite apart from the worry about money, you'd feel that everything you had worked for your whole life - all your skills and talent - is now nothing. And a lot of photographers commit suicide. It's quite common."
I used to think that, like Watson, I was there for the last of the "good times" in the business, but when I read this it occurred to me that, from her perspective, I was probably one of the "young people" who would "do it" for less money. What I do know is that my own specialty - editorial portraiture - was a notable part of the business when I started shooting in the '80s, that it was in steep decline by the end of the 1990s, and that when I reemerged as a freelancer in the late 2000s, it had effectively ceased to exist.

When I started this blog, I was resigned that I would end up telling a story about failure. The failure to get the work I really wanted, to create a career and a reputation, to make a living in the business. When I turned around and looked at my binders full of negatives - the "analog wall" I talked about in the first post on this blog - it reminded me of this feeling of failure, and promised a long, slow opportunity to revisit and confront my own failure, which is something everyone wants to do, right?

I could talk about bad luck, or the constantly declining state of publishing in Canada, or "digital" and the changes in how we consume media. That might do a lot to explain the context of my career in photography, but if I blamed them for my failure I'd just be making excuses. The simple fact is that I made decisions, and they led me to this point in my life.

The hardest part was separating all of this from the work. I'm the least objective critic of that work, but the pleasant surprise at the end of four and a half years of exhuming my old work is realizing that it stands up on its own, and might actually be on the way to being a body of work. I began this blog expecting to write a eulogy, and I'm finishing it with a sense of purpose I couldn't have imagined four and a half years ago.

And that renewed sense of purpose - I'm unwilling to call it a career by this point as much as a kind of vocation - will be the subject my penultimate post.

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