JESSE BOLES at Edward Day Gallery (952 Queen West) as part of Contact Photography Festival, until May 14. 416-921-6540. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The lightly tanned photography whiz Jesse Boles has just returned from the curvacious beaches and French cuisine of St. Martin. Not bad for an artist less than a year out of Ryerson.
I catch up with Boles on the patio of an empty Vietnamese restaurant on Ossington to hear the story of his rapid rise from student to one of the city's most sought-after photographers.
Squinting into the April sun in a green army surplus jacket, a beer in hand, Boles still seems mildly surprised at all the success. Shows at Xpace, Alliance Francais and Edward Day Gallery, winning awards two years in a row from the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, have brought on a good buzz about his work.
You can easily recognize a Boles photograph. Shooting in the port lands and industrial spaces of Toronto and Hamilton, usually at night, Boles brings an eerie beauty to a familiar but alien world.
Amidst the warehouses and endless nests of pipelines, bright lights glint off black water and smoke stretches across entire horizons from towering chimneys. Something about the long exposures gives these massive chemistry machines a unearthly glow of their own. Yet in their stillness, they appear more natural than the land that surrounds them.
He tells me about the inspiration for his long exposures of industrial sites and his old-timey approach to taking pictures.
"People make fun of me for being a bit of an old man," Boles jokes. It's true, shooting landscapes on film with a large format camera does sound a little antiquated, but Bole's twist rejuvenates it all in fascinating ways.
AS he's talking, he chooses his words carefully, scratching the back of his sandy-blonde head, relaxed but aware of the mic I've attached to his lapel. The attention he now gets elicits a wry humility through which you can see the confidence of an artist with a vision.
Boles's shots depict what he calls "landscapes of a system." So, rather than lambasting a particular company with a reputation for causing environmental damage, Boles takes an interest in the phenomena of industrial sites, asking the question, "Why is this stuff here?"
"These sights represent the built version of our lifestyle, something that exists to fulfill some need for some sort of product that everyone wants to consume or feels they need to," he pauses to add pointedly, "or does need to. It would be naíve to think that, given the way we live, we don't need these things."
His subject matter has garnered comparisons to famed Toronto photographer Ed Burtinsky. Boles doesn't discourage the compliment, but he's quick to point out some differences between them. Where Burtinsky often shows the relationship between nature and the man-made, Boles seeks out entire sites that were artificially created for the purpose of industrial production. And there's no shortage of those.
"Everything in Toronto south of Front Street is landfill," he states. "You can smell all the garbage coming up."
So what started with English proto-Impressionist Joseph Turner painting the sickly beautiful smog that industry brought to landscapes of 19th-century London finds a logical conclusion here, with Boles photographing the complete yet gorgeous erasure of nature from the landscape.
Naturally, nabbing pictures of restricted sites like these has led to a few run-ins with authorities. Once, while shooting on-site from a public sidewalk in Hamilton in the middle of the night, a security guard confronted Boles and wrote down the plate number of his girlfriend's car, resulting in a 3 am phone call to her parents.
"Luckily, they have a sense of humour about their daughter dating a terrorist," Boles laughs, but adds, "It actually pisses me off when I know I'm doing things that I'm well within my rights to do."
Where once sites that had no limitations on access, paperwork and police checks for uninvited visitors are now required.
"I find it almost comical that the Hamilton port is being paranoid about some sort of terrorist attack. Especially from me."
Boles is not easily deterred, though. It's supposed to be impossible to get anywhere near the the Fort McMurray tar sands, for example, but, as Boles points out with a sly grin, the cartel that controls the sands doesn't own the airspace. He plans to enlist a helicopter pilot-friend in Alberta to fly him over the site.
The current body of work emerged from a more savvy arrangement with an unnamed Alberta company. After seeing his photos at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition last summer, a company rep approached him with an offer of a commercial contract to shoot images for the company's annual report and Christmas card. Boles negotiated in the right to shoot around their plant for his own purposes and the company agreed, provided he keep quiet about who hired him. Both parties are happy with the deal, and in fact, the Albertans even sent Boles a Christmas card.
As Boles is telling me all this - and I'm imagining the cocktails, white sand and turqoise sea of his Caribbean vacation - my inner activist suggests that the deal makes the photographer complicit in the Albertan's pollution.
But his point is, aren't we all?
Boles reveals the industrial world as a problematic system on which we currently depend for economic stability, not to mention food. Beyond consumerism, we have become products of industry ourselves.
The new show that emerged from Boles's trip to Alberta, now on at Edward Day, includes seven large, striking lamda prints of what he found, shot mostly in daylight. Storage Tanks features three large silver balls, each draped with a staircase garland, under an ominous sky. Off to the side two empty cable spools and an acetylene tank litter the ground in front of a shed.
A rare shot inside a sulphate warehouse, lit beautifully through two rows of skylights in the ceiling, captures a pile of the white fertilizer ingredient through air thick with dust. First tire tracks, then a tiny step ladder leaning against a metal post give the image a human scale, revealing the enormity of the operation.
Seen as parts of a massive, repetitive system, these cooling towers, storage tanks and warehouses don't seem likely to disappear, or even change, anytime soon.
"Other than maybe the surburban house, they are probably one of the most ubiquitous built forms around, and our biggest, arguably our most impressive. They'll probably be the things that survive the longest. After all the suburbs and civil centres and everything else we build break down, there will still be factories left. They were built to last." Assuming that our industrial way of life will not last forever, these thoughts leavs you wondering what future generations will think when they start digging it up.