It is perhaps a condition of ascension, could be the impossibility of seizing the moment for what is in one’s own truth or a momentary intuition in which the elements align themselves forming a perfect sense of constant direction.
It is as if Daniel Castonguay was asking us for nothing more than a precise attention to the flow of events from which, with a slight immersive effort, we can extract the crystals containing the moments that he himself proposes to us in a process of photographic impressionism which, by nature, partly takes its starting point from Pictorialism.
But it is precisely here that the transitory nature of reality manifests itself in Daniel’s mind and in our eyes: through the filter of his consciousness, we are allowed to experience an instant in its purest form, in its natural chaos. Therefore Pictorialism is not the key to the work, but the great starting point from which Daniel’s mind starts in perceiving space and time.
His pictures talk about what is the condition of man in the environment in which he exists, they talk about a close connection between him and space, but they also talk about his memories and what those places have become to him over the years. They talk about how everything those places are and have been will never be again. And it is, at this point, like being hit by a hot wind that freezes us and isolates us from the rest.
We are led to walk the streets of his photographs, to observe with his eyes and with his particular sensitivity. All that gives us the precious opportunity to look beyond, to think about another reality in order to be able to observe our personal reality once again with new eyes. We are now passive observers in action, but active in perception.
Observation is the first key: as Daniel remains a step behind the reality that unfolds in front of his eyes, we do the same and it will be our personal need and our condition that dictate the law on emotional capacity and perceptual modality.
The result of this is an impressionistic and instinctive manipulation of reality, and it is none other than the second key concept of Daniel’s work. Each moment lives of its own uniqueness and cannot be reproduced and the photographer makes this concept the cornerstone of the birth of the works.
Daniel shows us his path when he is still walking and perceiving it. He does not give us a path but a way to observe it. What we can draw from it is the world encrypted by his consciousness, filtered by his mind and his experience. And we, staying a step behind, will discover the ephemeral nature of reality and the transience of existence.
To me, Daniel’s path sounds like William Basinski’s Cascade.
Now to the interview. Enjoy.
Hello Daniel and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Please, tell me something about yourself, your background and how you grew your interest in photography.
It was in 1979. As part of a youth association, I had to choose an activity for the upcoming session. Not being gifted for sports but rather for science, I opted for photography which seemed interesting since I had access to a darkroom where I discovered my passion for the manipulation of images and the use of textures. I continued my studies until obtaining, in 1989, a diploma of professional electrical engineering at “University du Québec à Chicoutimi”. Without completely putting aside my passion for photography, I devoted myself to my profession as an engineer. For the past ten years, I have returned more seriously into the imagery business.
Taking a look at your work, I can say that it’s very reminiscent of the pictorialism era: the look, the atmosphere and the subjects they all seem deeply related to the latest part of the19th century. What were and are your biggest inspirations in your work? Are there any photographers that are inspiring your work?
In my readings on the history of photography, I was fascinated by one of the pioneers of modern photography, Alfred Stieglitz. At the end of the 19th century, in the collective mind, photography was not really recognized as an art form since showing only what the eye could see and nothing more. Stieglitz contributed to show us a new dimension. Audacious and ingenious at the same time, by manipulating negatives and using gum bichromate for example, he showed us a new facet of photography by bringing it to the level of mystery and poetry and that’s when the pictorialist movement was born. Without naming them all, Leonard Misonne, Robert Demachy and Alvin Coburn contributed enormously to the pictorialist movement taking root. Unfortunately, the movement gradually died out with the social concerns of the moment, the first world war being declared. However, between 1890 and 1914, the pictorialism movement occupied an important place since this movement was formed around the idea of bringing photography into the fine arts.
With all this in mind, and strongly motivated and inspired by this movement, I started in the digital age to shape my work not to reproduce the work of the masters but rather to bring the imagery to the level of poetry, the very essence of pictorialism.
Just like in pictorialism’s era, it seems that the intention in your work is not to document reality for what it is but, rather, to transfer your personal vision of the world around you, making the image a part of your experience and returning it to us spectators filtered by your conscience. How did you approach this type of photographic expressionism? What is the mental process that pushes you into manipulating the shots and returning them with their final look? How important is it for you that the places are familiar to you at the moment of shooting and what is your relationship with the very moment you decide to portray?
In fact, seeing life as it is or we perceive it is part of reality and it is given to each of us and suggesting another vision is a bit what I try to do. By respecting the spirit of pictorialism, I raise my imagery to a level of poetry and sometimes mystery and all this is filtered by my state of mind at the time of shooting but especially during the processing of the image. In the field, when shooting, my goal is to collect banal stories from everyday life, all in a technical framework that is more focused on geometry and image framing. In fact, all busy urban places offer the potential for both important elements. First, a favorable geometry in the sense that the static elements are harmoniously framed, leaving it up to chance to decide what will happen, thus representing the second element, the story.
Apart from the use of post-production tools, image processing completely sets aside the technical aspect of the image in favor of emotion and I don’t know how to put it, but it’s more like a spiritual thing. The fact remains that when I approach an image in processing work, I always wonder what “story” I have to tell but it’s something that comes from within.
It would be very interesting if you could explain to us about how do you see the question of observing reality in relation to your shots: do you feel you are a passive or an active observer? What does it mean for you to observe a scene? How do you go about capturing what interests you?
As I previously mentioned, there is field work and image processing work. As for the field work, the first thing to focus on is to look at what is happening around us and we are no longer talking about photography, here we are talking about our own relationship with the environment. Do the exercise of going for a walk in a busy urban neighborhood for an hour and on the way back try to remember everything you saw and I bet you will have a hard time remembering. If, on the other hand, you go to see a play with actors, sets and a story, you will remember almost everything. It’s all in the perception and the state of mind in which you are that will make you receptive or not to what is happening around you. In fact during my outings, I am passive in the sense that I do not instigate the situations that will become the object of my images and active in the sense that I just follow the unfolding of what is happening in front of me.
In my opinion, a large part of your work is based on a concept of transience. Each of your images seems to have an ephemeral, distant aspect, it almost seems that the world to which you are introducing us is in continuous development and continuous transition. It could be said that the images never portray a specific moment, but give us an unconscious portrait of an entire period in progress and, therefore, nothing appears as clear and limpid as an exact moment, but everything can appear to us in motion, in transition. Do you agree with these statements? Do you think it could be a basic aspect of your work or that it could be a consequence in the viewer’s thoughts?
You have exactly targeted the idea of my work. Technically, what I do is to represent slices of life of 1/100th of a second frozen in time. Certainly, these moments are ephemeral and will not return since what happens in time is chaotic and one thing begets another without knowing where and how it will evolve. We live in a dynamic environment and what we live in the present depends on what happened before and all this is woven like an improvised scenario. I am convinced that we could open the door to great philosophical discourses and the re-engineering of chaos theory but from a photographic point of view what I am striving for is to take these 1/100ths of a second slices and present them in a poetic and a simple form so that the viewers can make their own story.
There is another aspect I find fundamental in your work: it is the idea of loneliness that your shots convey. The subjects have their own way, it seems that they are following their own path and that everything around them cannot influence them. What meaning do the subjects in your shots have for you? What symbolic functions do they perform within the images and what is the need behind this aspect of solitude? Is it possible that this aspect comes from the nature of the cities you are portraying?
The idea of this solitude comes from two fundamental concepts in imagery. The detachment of the subject from the rest of the image and the feeling of relating to the subject.
The detachment of the subject, or more technically the figure-background relationship, causes the subject to isolate itself from the rest of the image. Admittedly this adds to the poetry and the feeling of loneliness. Often, we will see the subject alone in the image (or with an accessory) and in other occurrences we will see a subject standing out from a group and this will have the effect of accentuating the feeling of loneliness. It is also much easier to relate to a single or isolated subject than to a person part of a large group and it is a concept that pushes the viewer to make up a story.
Nevertheless, the concept of solitude does represent me in a certain way since I’m not necessarily a crowd person.
The city and the environment in which your scenes take place almost give the feeling of a creature with its own life and consciousness, certainly not of a static and inanimate environment. And there is also a strong feeling of ascension, a vertical direction almost aimed at suggesting an abstraction from the reality of things. All this suggests to me, as a spectator, to start a search for the beyond, a tension towards another condition perpetrated through a perpetual and tireless way. Do you find that this aspect can be related to the imagery you are going to research and create? What do you hope your work can bring out in the viewer and what nature can this tension that I have just mentioned can have?
In the spirit of pictorialist imagery, I have to find a balance between what is real and what is not in order to reach a level of poetry. The subject is real, the viewer can identify with it. The accessory characters which are generally isolated are semi-blurred and the street furniture can be identified in the event that it will help me to balance the geometry of the image and for what is the rest they are only shadows, here is for which is the body of the image and this is technical. Still, during the production stages, my own imagination is very much in demand to the point where I become a spectator myself in the same way as anyone else and that’s where everything happens and that’s where I feel if the image is viable or not. I would even go to say that this abstraction of the reality of things as well as the perpetual and tireless path are induced by the imagination since imagery in general draws on memories which can themselves sometimes be blurred by time or even resurgent thus creating a tension, a duality. But art being what it is, all of this remains very subjective and it is still an “unmeasurable” concept since the connection with an image is different from one viewer to another.
Your work is presented in the vast majority of cases in monochrome or total black and white, rare are the cases in which a sort of duotone can be observed within your images. What role does color play in your works? And what mental process do you pursue in choosing to keep or emphasize the color?
As I said earlier, when I work there is the mood of the moment of the shot and also my mood during the processing of the photos. My state of mind at the time of the post-processing is often different since there can be a period of time with the shooting which can vary from 1 week to 5 years and this gives interesting results in terms of post-processing and use of colors. Let’s say right away that the colors of my images have nothing to do with reality and that’s intentional. The impact created by the use of complementary colors makes my imagery harmonious as well as the choice of colors since they have a psychological impact. I invite you to read about the psychology of colors since it has been the subject of many studies.
As I said before, almost all of your work is presented in black and white or monochrome. It is certainly not a classic black and white, the intention does not seem to respond to reality but to investigate it further through a personal filter. What significance does this color treatment have in your work? What symbolism is connected to the use of black and white?
The black and white photography is raw and bold, it is pure emotion without any color bias. The composition and a basic treatment alone will call on the viewer to instinctively draw on their experience and memories. I also have a very special attachment to black and white since the technique itself is part of my own memories when in 1979 I started photography exclusively in black and white in a modest darkroom.
Talking about the technical aspect, if you like it, I’d like to ask you to tell us what equipment you carry with you in order to take the shots and to explain to us what procedures and techniques you use in the manipulation of the image and how did you come up with the idea of manipulating images in this sort of tactile way, resulting in some sort of multi-sensory product.
My equipment is very unpretentious. You know, in street photography, you are a spectator and almost an intruder in a theatrical sketch and you have to make yourself low profile, this is not the time to put on a show, you risk disturbing and having all kinds of problems.
I use a Pentax-Kx (APS-C) DSLR and a 16-50 lens which gives me plenty of room for composition. Certainly in 2022, I consider reflex cameras to be obsolete and will be upgrading to mirrorless in the near future.
As for my imagery manipulation techniques, it’s pretty simple. It comes down to the use of selective blurs and selective textures as well as work on the level of saturation and use of colors. To answer a question that comes up often, I don’t use commercial filters and everything is homemade on a per photo basis. Certainly I have my library of textures but that’s all.
The basic principle is that since each image is unique, its processing must be too. Art is not an industrial work of mass production, art is the product of thought and the representation of emotions.
Is there an image or a series in your work you feel particularly attached to? If so, which one or which ones? If you want, speak freely by telling us about the birth and process of the image or images.
For four years, I have been working on a unique series called “Quotidian life” which illustrates slices of everyday life in an urban environment and this series nourishes me artistically and intellectually. This series is appreciated by the arts community and the public and is returned to me in many ways. What is given back to me, gives me energy to keep creating, it’s a spinning wheel and everybody is happy. The day this wheel stops turning, my motivation will follow and it will be time to move on.
There are certainly some pieces of this series that are more dear to me since beyond my personal artistic appreciation, these images have allowed me to raise my series to the forefront in world class competitions and exhibitions. Images like “Walking Brutus”, “Mom” and “Old friends” are some examples.
Producing and processing an image is one thing, selecting an image to process is another. Personally, it is not possible to take something soulless and turn it into a masterpiece and the pre-selection of an image to be processed is in my opinion more important than the processing itself, the raw image must call me . The composition, story and geometry must be there and it is at this moment that we witness the birth of the image without even having touched it.
As in many other cases, your work also has a strength that, in my opinion, is linked to some sort of musical language. In this case, I find your work incredibly close to some kind of Jazz Noir mixed with some Drone. Is music a source of inspiration for you? If so, do you find that the influence of what you listen to is conveyed through your work and appears in it?
I love this question and it’s a perfectly normal process to associate music with imagery regardless of the musical style.
The famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Photography is geometry”. Geometry being a part of mathematics which aims to study figures in space, we can thus claim that photography is mathematical and that makes sense.
Back to the music without focusing on a specific style. The Toccata and Fugue in D minor by the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach is certainly the most famous organ piece in the world. It was composed between 1703 and 1707 and is a remarkable illustration of how the art of musical writing can be explained by mathematics.
From a Cartesian and logical point of view, music and imagery have two things in common, mathematics & proportions.
As the 18th century German philosopher Leibniz wrote: “Music is an exercise in secret arithmetic where the mind does not realize it matters.” and humbly, I would add that the same is true for photography.
We have reached the end of the interview, before saying goodbye I ask you the last questions: do you have any projects you are currently working on? Do you have any particular plans for your future that you would like to talk about? Thank you for your time, it has been a pleasure to chat with you about your work!
Of course I will keep on growing my collection but above all, the work that remains to be done is to extend my representation globally but this represents a continuous work, it is a dynamic world you know. Representation in galleries is essential and I will keep on forging links with various curators, art brokers and art dealers. My perception of art will never change, that of the world, yes since it is in perpetual change and new avenues are opening up, the NFTs to cite just this example. But it will remain that the basic essence of why I make images is first and foremost for them to be seen and that makes me happy.
Thank you very much for allowing me to express myself on such a prestigious platform and a special thank you to the readers. I hope you had as much fun reading me as I had contributing to this interview. See you.
It was a pleasure talking about Daniel’s work, I hope you all had an interesting time exploring his philosophy. I’d like to thank Daniel again and, in case you missed, you can find his Instagram profile here, his Facebook profile here and his website here.