People of Toronto: Jonathan Castellino

People of Toronto: Jonathan Castellino
the perch

Jonathan Castellino is a hobby urban archaeologist and photographer based in the city of Toronto. His photographs document the intersection of built environment and cultural landscape as it speaks to the social imagination. While focusing primarily on contemporary urban ruins, his work also tends to take a broader perspective, examining the place and meaning of these spaces in urban life.

After we’ve published some of his photos on Torontoism and found them really good, we’ve decided to ask him some questions for you, to discover what it means to be a photographer in Toronto, what are his favourite spots to photograph and much, much more..

What is it that drives you to take pictures? You mention in your Flickr profile that photo making is a pilgrimage for you. In what way?

Photography is always a journey, and not a destination. But I can only speak for myself. The idea of abstracting “moments” fascinates and motivates my work. I have always held that it is not answers, but questions that we seek in our lives. The more questions you find, the wider is your life. In this width, individual concerns diminish. So, I guess it’s about being open.

How would you explain your strong inclination to black and white photography?

Much of my work is a personal value study. The way in which our eye naturally reads a photograph tends to give primacy to vibrancy. In other words, I find colour distracting. Since (for the most part) my work is not staged, elements within the frame might take on unintentional focus were they shot in colour.

the hunger artist

How is the public space defined in Toronto, and what effects does it have on people?

Urban space in my city is defined by guidelines that are becoming increasingly meaningless. We are still expected to uphold them, but we are losing the meaning of space, and our own place within it. The rules of zoning speak only of original intention, and not lived experience.

There are exceptions, of course. The precedence set by places like 401 Richmond, the Artscape Barns and the Evergreen Brick Works is inspiring. Purely public space is more problematic. Enabling this space in ways that are meaningful to community is a value that Toronto cannot afford to disregard. Our environment affects absolutely every aspect of our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Are there any particular places in Toronto you like to visit more often?

While the places I frequent are varied, it has only recently occurred to me that many share a similar theme — that of an “open door” concept. Whether a fully vacant industrial site or an active building, I gravitate to places where fluid inter-travel is available — intentional or not.

The Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto’s Don Valley is a good example of this. I have a long history with the property, having explored it during its abandoned years. The revitalization of the site a few years ago as a cultural meeting spot has given me great hope in the possibility for enabling these places in a way that both involves, and speaks to, community.

For the majority of our built cultural history, the idea of the adaptive reuse of derelict space has centred around intended use. I prefer a certain looseness. While the Brick Works’ structure is still very much a memorial to its industrial heritage, the goings-on during its period of dereliction is consciously present. The accretion of graffiti melds seamlessly with her built heritage.

The rigid structure of regulated interaction with these spaces is pleasantly absent, weaving patterns of trust into their fabric.

Why do you think urban exploration is so appealing?

If one narrowly defines “urban exploration” as “the photographing of abandoned buildings, rooftopping, or something along these lines,” then the “appeal” is fairly obvious — especially in the era of the so-called social network. In this sense, it is easy to get hits on a website and likes on Facebook if you appear to be doing something out of the ordinary. The perception that an artist is overstepping the boundaries of conventional urban transiting has been exploited for quite a while now.

I would love to think that the appeal of it lies in “seeing the unfamiliar through the artist’s eyes,” or “seeing the familiar with new eyes,” or something trite like that, but the truth probably lies below even this superficiality. It likely has more to do with the vicarious merit assumed with (and by) posting something trendy. Without the self-consciousness of embodiment, it’s a pretty even fight out there on the web to be king of the “in.”

For myself, urban exploring is no more than approaching the built environment with a sense of joy, curiosity, and wonder. Who doesn’t want to live with that?

slow daze

Do you imagine hidden stories behind the places and the people you shoot?

John Koenig’s brilliant Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines “sonder” as such:


n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

So, yes. Except, the stories aren’t always so well hidden.

Do you shoot digital or film? Both? Why?

My photography includes both digital and analogue formats. I don’t like getting in to the compare/contrast debate, as it always seems loaded with false preconceptions. I will only say that I am very process-driven, and sometimes the (longer) process of making film picture teaches me about patience, disaster, and unexpected joy.

testing boundaries

I’ve noticed you accompany your pictures with text. How does your writing happen?

I would love to have a poetic, linear answer to this. But I don’t. If I am writing about a series (for a project), I will take my time. If it is a single line below an image, it is likely spontaneous. If I go on and on, it probably means that the image isn’t very good, and wasn’t clear enough with its own language. Sometimes I just use it as an emotional vent…

Do you think about the impact of your pictures on other people?

I am only a photographer in the presence of others. With time, I have realized just how little control I have over their reception. That being said, there is a very particular joy in knowing that you have just captured a moment that will be enjoyed beyond ones self. Or mutually despised.

the landscape of uncertainty

What future do you imagine for your city?

I have little control over the “out there” of my city — only my perception of it. I would hope that as a community, we would embrace a Cultural Landscape approach to the adaptive redevelopment of what we already have, that is going. And that we slow down a bit and re-evaluate our interaction with the space in which we live before embarking on future architectural endeavours.

For myself, I imagine a city in which we hide less, shedding our neuroses. We are made to be with people, flesh and blood, to celebrate life. I hope that we meet more — and that we have the spaces in which to do that.

critical distance

Explore more of Toronto in black and white over at Jonathan’s website,

Jonathan Castellino
Jonathan Castellino

Jonathan Castellino is a hobby urban archaeologist and photographer based in the city of Toronto. His photographs document the intersection of built environment and cultural landscape as it speaks to the social imagination. While focusing primarily on contemporary urban ruins, his work also tends to take a broader perspective, examining the place and meaning of these spaces in urban life.

See some of his other photo essays here.

Check out our interview with Jonathan!


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