"The light would be beautiful in these big spaces, in these decaying homes. That's the truth of decay, you get a sense that these houses were comfortable in their demise, we are all subject to impermanence."
— Interview with Peter Goddard, Toronto Star - The Bridle Path 2005
"One of the reasons I wanted to paint was an attempt to understand it. How structure, colour, form and surface communicate. I believe this has been an influence on my approach on how to take a photograph at the present time."
— In Conversation with Margaret Baxter, 2007
"I attempted to capture this uneasy peace. It's a very open space, yet claustrophobic at the same time, almost uncertain of itself, and in the process of disappearing."
— Excerpt from the book Toronto, a City Becoming, Regent Park Series - 2008
Johnston cleverly inverts our notions of the area by focusing on arresting architectural details. Stagnant pools, abject hockey rinks, denuded basketball courts and expanses of landscaping dotted with abandoned furniture are shot to evoke a feeling of serene prosperity gone to seed.
— Now Magazine - May 2007, David Jager
National Post | Leah Sandals, May 2009
The draw of Johnston's images comes from the fact that they lift a mirror to familiar scenes and settings, allowing us the time and space to consider what usually just flies past car windows or is glimpsed out of the corner of an eye during errands. Take, for example, Johnston's standout wide-angle photograph spanning Union Station's railway tracks, the Air Canada Centre and a condo contruction site. It's a swath often divided into discrete categories by maps and minds, but here possesses the feel of a geological cross-section - a system, however erratic, in process. Also refreshing is the way he strives to photograph Toronto as itself-not as Cartier-Bresson's Paris or Helen Levitt's New York, but as a city with its own flavour.
Obstacle | David Murphy
What is the meaning of the barriers mankind chooses to erect? Are they an ultimate dead end, a challenge to be transcended, or merely a reality to be contemplated? These are some of the questions Toronto-based photographer Scott Johnston seems to pose in his fascinating new exhibition "Obstacle." In recent exhibitions documenting the demolition of Toronto churches, abandoned homes in the Bridle Path area and the dying days of the Regent Park housing complex, Johnston has demonstrated his gift for taking overlooked and counterintuitive scenes of urban decay and transforming them into artistic imagery
"Obstacle" is his latest and boldest statement yet about how far one can stray from the more conventional and expected subject matter of photography to create striking photos of compelling originality. Indeed, some of the photos so cleverly avoid any recognizable form that they exist in a hazy continuum where photography ends and abstract art begins. The photos of "Obstacle" lack any obvious centre or focal point, and the actual objects represented --for example, parking blocks, rolled up fences, metal bars, stones--are so sterile that of themselves they are utterly devoid of humanity or intrinsic interest. Yet Johnston triumphs by recognizing composition in these most unlikely places; his framing of these lifeless obstacles radiates a tangible energy and constitutes a celebration of line, colour, pattern and structure. Johnston imbues his photographs with so much life that it is a bit of a shock to consider that people almost never appear in his images. As Johnston puts it, “I want the viewers to place themselves in the photograph, with their own sense of history or perception.”
In the case of "Obstacle," the viewer can approach the drama of Johnston's photography with a sense of wonder and consider the questions these images seem to force upon us: How can the individual deal with the things that physically or mentally stop us in our lives? Some people tend to throw more crap in front of themselves, adding to the crap that is already there, so stumbling through life is going to be unavoidable. Can we get around these obstacles or are we destined to be stuck in the same place? Despite progress, why does humanity always seem to run into a wall, usually of our own making? Can we break through, or are we doomed to continually make the same habitual mistakes? As always, in the wonderful photography of Scott Johnston the answers are both suggested and yet teasingly elusive, for one is never quite sure whether the curtain is rising or falling.
Regent Park | Toronto, A City Becoming, by: David Murphy
The photographs for Scott Johnston’s Regent Park document t the uneasy calm that existed just prior to the demolition of one of Toronto’s more notorious communities, revealing not a crime-ridden enclave of urban strife, but a sanctuary reminiscent of an old resort. Bulit in 1948, Johnston’s essay tells the story of the housing project located east of Parliament Street, between Gerrard Street East and Shuter Street.
Toronto’s Regent Park, Canada’s oldest and largest public housing project, represents one of city’s poorest neighbourhoods, with a reputation for drugs and violence. My photographic excursion into the community revealed something completely different: the quiet vibe of an old resort replete with amenities such as swimming pools and ice rinks, all within a quiet sanctuary removed from the urban fray surrounding it. The aim of the community’s original planners was to create a self-contained “garden city,” the vestiges of which still existed as I roamed the grounds before bulldozers and wrecking balls razed the neighbourhood in the name of urban renewal. The exhibition that grew out of the photographs presented viewers with a chance to look inside a neighbourhood that only a few outside of the community have actually seen, and to reveal the complexity and the unique environment of a well-known, but not-so-well understood, area of Toronto.
I did not seek out to expose poverty and deprivation, and discovered that the surroundings were quite nice, quieter than most of downtown, but there was a strange underlying tension. At first , I saw things on a large scale: the buildings, the vast green space, the landscape and the design. Then I started to focus on certain areas that I found particularly interesting , in visual terms. I attempted to capture its uneasy peace. It is a very uneasy downtown location, but somehow claustrophobic at the same time—a place that seems to be almost uncertain of itself, and in the process of disappearing. In photographing subjects for my other exhibitions, I captured dilapidated, aging homes in Toronto’s Bridle Path neighbourhood, and condemned churches in the process of being torn down.
Riverside Quarterly | James Sandham
Built in 1948, Regent Park is Canada's oldest and largest housing project. It is also, according to Toronto-based photographer Scott Johnston, kind of like "an old resort."
That may sound counter intuitive to most. After all, Johnston admits, "most people are (only) familiar with Regent Park's reputation as one of Toronto's poorest neighborhoods." It is often unfairly portrayed as a site of drugs and violence, and even Toronto Community Housing (TCH) concedes that "over time, as the Canadian approach to housing the poor evolved through a series of policy interventions, only the poorest and most disadvantaged households gained access to housing in the (Regent Park South) area," while the north sector came to primarily house the "working poor".
But this, Johnston says, is only half the story of the community located east of Parliament between Gerrard Street East and Shuter Street. His photography of the area, to be exhibited in May at Galerie Bertossini (783 Queen Street East), tells another side, one that is quietly but decidedly more optimistic – much like Regent Park's own origins.
"The aim of the community's original planners was to create a self-contained ‘garden city'," Johnston explains – hence Regent Park's self-contained detachment from the surrounding community – but now "the area is … slated for demolition and rebuilding. (So) this exhibition gives viewers a chance to look inside the neighborhood that only a few have actually seen," and that fewer still may actually ever see again.
But beyond the fact that he thought it "historically significant to document" Regent Park as it currently stands, Johnston explains that his goal was also "to reveal the complexity and the unique environment of a well known, but not so well understood, area of Toronto. It is my feeling that the photographs (like the present development) give off a sense of searching rather than finding, that (my photos) evoke or invoke more than they state or define."
Johnston makes it clear he "had no interest in portraying poverty and deprivation" – nor did he find much. "It's actually quite nice, quieter than most of downtown," he says, "but there is a strange underlying tension."
"Never having gone into the actual project, I wasn't sure what to expect. At first, I saw things on a large scale: the buildings, the vast green space, the landscape and the design. Then I started to focus on certain areas that I found particularly interesting, in visual terms. I attempted to capture its uneasy peace. It's a very open space, considering its downtown location, but somehow claustrophobic at the same time – a place that seems to be almost uncertain of itself, and in the process of disappearing," Johnston says.
Johnston's time spent photographing Regent Park also raised several questions for him. "First of all," he says, "it is an area in transition, an area about to change, supposedly for the better – (but) while the area is about to change physically, what about the people of Regent Park? Will they be pushed out into another housing project? It seems easy enough to tear down the buildings and put up new and better ones, but can the people be ‘revitalized' along with the buildings? So I was interested in the aspect of change, both for the physical surroundings and for the people."
Change has been a common theme in much of Johnston's work. His first exhibition in the context was a collection of photographs portraying dilapidated, empty homes in Toronto's ultra-rich Bridle Path neighborhood.
"The advent of overseas investors purchasing multi-million dollar homes (in the Bridle Path) and then leaving them completely unattended led to the much-unexpected phenomenon of mansions that were totally abandoned and in a state of decay," Johnston says. "I used this backdrop to create series of images that captured their curious desolation, as well as the echoes of the inhabitants who once lived there.
"Then I photographed several churches being torn down, to clear the prime downtown land for new condos and town homes. The images were unsettling, catching the final vulnerable moments of these once proud sacred buildings. The religious symbols and settings amongst all the wreckage had a disquieting effect," he says.
"Space can have an enormous effect on people, on how they view themselves and their place in the world," Johnston affirms. And his photography, in a way, is an exercise in the re-presentation of space – familiar places seen anew from an unfamiliar perspective. He is, however, unsure if this new perspective will actually translate into some kind of concrete social change.
"I'm not sure if art can change a community," he says. "But I'm interested in finding out what is behind the veil of Regent Park, if there is anything there to find out. I believe we create our own veil, not necessary to hide behind, but we definitely see the world through it. The hard part is to try to see the world through a new lens, or at least a better one. Even when we know the lens we are looking through is foggy and distorted, unfortunately we seem doomed to continue in the same habitual way. However, when we see situations clearly and with critical self-reflection," Johnston concludes, "we perhaps gain some control."
Contact - Art galleries, museums, artist’s talks | Scott Johnston | David Jager, Now Magazine
Contact: The month-long Contact Photography Festival of more that 500 Artists continues at hundred of local venues. NOW’s art writers deliver tips on what exhibits you won’t want to miss. Check out upcoming issues for picks
Where/when: Galerie Bertossini, (783 Queen Street East), to May 27, 416-466-3659.
What: Regent Park, Canada’s largest low-income housing project and one of Toronto’s most troubled neighborhoods, depicted as the gated community/luxury resort it never was.
Why: Johnston cleverly inverts our notions of the area by focusing on arresting architectural details. Stagnant pools, abject hockey rinks, denuded basketball courts and expanses of landscaping dotted with abandoned furniture are shot to evoke a feeling of serene prosperity gone to seed. By schlepping found mattresses and chairs into pleasing configurations and staying clear of graffiti and trash, he constructs a surreal alternative Regent Park that might have been.
Buzz: As he did in his acclaimed 2005 series Photographs From the Bridle Path, which featured abandoned and gutted mansions, Johnston cuts through our assumptions about place, prosperity and class.
Vie DES arts | Stories From the Bridle Path | John K Grande
Ruins can evoke a great number of emotions. They captured the Romantic poets and painters interest from Byron to Flaxman to Turner to David and Fuseli. It brought many of them to Rome to paint and write on the ruins firsthand. For those artists and writers the attraction was with a vanished history, some culture in the past were fragments, decayed buildings, and monuments all inspired the imagination. What attracted them in part was the notion of sublime past (that perhaps never truly existed as the Romantics saw it). We now live in a culture where ruins can be manufactured, and structures are conceived as temporary. Ephemera and pop culture drive us to accept different aesthetic prospects, formatted but not necessarily about grandeur or idealization. Reality is edited, manipulated, transformed, and even ruins acquire a different meaning and sensibility. For his latest series of photos, some C Prints and others archival ink jet printed, Scott Johnston has produced a series titled Stories from the Bridle Path that capture modern-day ruins, an unusual subject seen from the photographer voyeur’s point of view.
Situated in a wealthy sector of Toronto, the Bridle Path is home to some very upscale neglected buildings and modernist mansions. Abandoned by their owners for unknown reasons, they have a haunted quality, as if we feel the spirits of the people who once lived there. In this museum of memories the traces and details are all that remain. The specific rooms are all part of the scenario. Johnston captures these with an intrepid eye from seemingly haphazard points of view. The building, rooms-inside or outside-are stale constructs, abandoned shells whose crumbling structures were once grandiose and opulent in a cheap upscale way. Why were they abandoned? Who lived there? Such questions remain unanswered…What Johnston has brought into focus for this Engine Gallery show (part of Toronto’s Contact photography festival) are images that evidence a certain social and human neglect, something we cannot imagine possible in such a wealthy environs. As such, these photos are succinct paraphrasing of social and human neglect, and are about the neglect that so often accompanies the trappings of wealth-as if by accident. These photos objectify, are morose, scenographic icons of abandonment.
Like instant ruins, or an archaeology of the present, Johnston draws in upon these places. Traces of previous residents’ personas remains in the decaying details… We see a child’s painted mural and roughly painted words at the bottom of a derelict swimming pool in the C-Print Dream Dare Daze (2004). You Win (2004) captures a close up of a tennis court net, half of the net is down. Whether a wrecked deck chair or wallpaper remnants, all past life eventually peels away in these photos, is effectively reclaimed by nature. As the past wears thin, fades, disintegrates, original meanings evaporate into thin air. The changes these photos of built scenarios’ record are a decontructivist’s dream! We look through a broken window into the living room whose mahogany wall unit is still set into the wall. Something remains. Other photos capture other eery details; expensive tiling lifting up from a kitchen floor, the result of an absence of heat and a reminder of Canada’s extreme winter weather conditions. Other photos have paint peeling, weathered walls, leaves and scattered detritus. Light dark contrasts further the feeling that these are hidden spaces, mostly not entered into by strangers.
Scott Johnston’s photos are notably post Modern in that he does not heavily edit, or intrude into the way a photo is composed. Instead these photo images are fleeting, almost votive in their haphazard approach to the abandon. Johnston’s approach to photography is passive, environmental and phenomenological, as if these found props of past life were assemblages. Forlorn, weathered, withering, even faded in their coloration, these photos are testaments to neglect. And most of this is simply the result of the passage of time. Incongruous and real!
Eye Weekly - Best Bet | Photographs From the Bridle Path | Andrea Miller
Scott Johnston's montage of eerie, dilapidated properties documents a hidden trove of tension and decay in an unexpected locale: the Bridle Path, one of Toronto's wealthiest haunts, known for its equestrian tradition and curiously wide street. Johnston, a local painter and photographer, discovered the empty lots while biking along the picturesque street, documenting them for his series "Photographs From the Bridle Path." In some cases, he enen broke into the homes to capture their barren, gutted interiors. The stillness of deserted tennis courts, forgotten gasebos and bone-dry pools grants an intimate beauty to these scenes. A symmetrical shot of three windows looking outside, green foliage peeking through the mustard-coloured frames, looks simultaneously postcard-perfect and heart-breaking when you take in the discarded floorboards in the foreground (pictured). The demolished rooms appear so empty that nothingness seems to take up space, filling the houses with energy borne of destruction and making it easy to see the motivation behind Johnston's ode to wreckage.
Toronto Star - Wealth without the wealthy | Art by Numbers | Peter Goddard
As Scott Johnston would ride his bike through The Bridle Path in north Toronto, he’d watch people in cars slow down to gawk at the mansions, some distance back from the meandering road. Conrad Black lived there, they’d point out. That used to be Gordon Lightfoot’s place. Huge Hong Kong money was behind that monster home.
"Then I happened to notice some overgrown foliage and it piqued my curiosity," says the 39-year-old Toronto Photographer/artist. "I looked farther (at a particular house) and noticed how dilapidated it was, how the pool house was falling apart, how the tennis court was all overgrown. Then I noticed another home just like it."
"Photographs from The Bridle Path," a new collection of Johnston’s photos, is currently at Engine Gallery in a show he hopes will trigger some sort of response from the owners of the decaying homes. Bridle Path residents complained bitterly for years about the number of houses abandoned by proprietors who’d either lost their money or found a better address to park it.
So Johnston started shooting, hopping fences or simply going through doors left unlocked.
"With most places I’d try to get in and out as quickly as I could," says Johnston. "But the more often I went into a place the more comfortable I felt. Once I’d closed the door behind me, I’d had a sense of home. Yet there’d be sadness and innocence to it too, particularly seeing the kids’ stuff – that was like seeing a toy thrown into the garbage."
1. Decay: "The broken glass was in the backyard of this house, not a very big house because the older ones aren’t as big as the newer ones. But coming into it you felt a certain presence. I realize you expect shots like these to be in poor neighborhoods. But there’s wealth here. In my world, if I’m going to leave my house behind I’m going to sell the house. In their world, they leave this or that house and let them meet their own demise. Being inside theses rooms was almost a metaphor for being closed off and searching for some sort of clarity. Then you see the window, and you know there’s escape."
2. Empty Spaces: "This gave me more light to work with. It gave me a sense of what it was to be outside here. You could see people sitting around there with their lattes in the morning. The light would be beautiful in these big spaces in these decaying homes. You got a sense that these houses were comfortable in their demise. That’s the nature of decay. We’re all subject to impermanence."
3. Colours: "I used to always shoot in black and white. But I thought using colour would bring a sense of reality to it. In black and white there’s always more drama. With colour I could show just what I had seen."
"Photographs from The Bridle Path" is at the Engine Gallery, 1112 Queen St E., until May 11