An Interview with Cristian Ordóñez

Cristian Ordóñez is a Chilean artist and photographer based in Toronto, Canada.  C4 spoke with him about his work, current and upcoming projects, and his opinion on poutine.  

C4: You’ve made more than 600 photographs for your project Frequency. What was your process like making this work? How did the initial ideas come about, and what are your plans for the project in the future?

CO: The process started organically, but soon enough I put a structure to the way I was going to make work. The constraints were dictated in a way by my mood, interests, but also by my financial situation as well as the economic situation that was happening in the city because of the pandemic. My commercial work stopped and the labs were closed. I focused on walking routines in a variety of places mostly around my close surroundings. This methodology became a constant and repetitive act, as a kind of therapy to refresh and ease the mind, an act that gave me the opportunity to distance myself from the worries and anxieties in the environment. 

Even though I started to shoot in colour and monochrome, soon enough I decided to focus on the latter, giving me a more streamlined process towards processing, printing in my darkroom and editing the work. These parameters unified not just the subject matter, but also my general process, the making.

In terms of ideas, most of them came on their own by the accumulation of work I was making. In a very organic and intuitive way I started to see patterns and topics in them, understanding where my focus was going. The monotonous process I was following helped me to see these connections and helped me form or decide how to approach my next walk. Now looking back, I realized it had a degree of connection to certain worries and conversations I was constantly having with friends and peers in relation to the idea of living or not living in the city and our relationship to open space and nature, so these themes were present in my subconscious. I moved to this territory thirteen years ago, and these actions helped me to rediscover and connect to it through making pictures.

For the future, I am planning to make it a book and hopefully exhibit the work some more. [Frequency was recently exhibited at Galería Animal in Santiago de Chile in October, 2022.]

C4:     The images in Frequency show a keen eye for clean compositions from quite mundane and sterile scenery. What is it about these environments that draws you to spend time exploring and photographing them?

CO:     The observations were formed by the focus of the vernacular, architecture and nature, always avoiding people basically because I wasn’t seeing anyone outside of the people in my household, so I wanted to reflect that human separation that most of us were experiencing. For the most part my interest was in capturing scenarios or details that are not easily recognizable for even local people, yet they should keep a certain recognizable form or aspect to them. Here is where the sterile point of view, light, or how the photographs were framed, were important to me. I am interested in a duality, a balanced tension, and a sense of absence in the work, characteristics I see in every city and the way we live.

I am interested in a duality, a balanced tension, and a sense of absence in the work, characteristics I see in every city and the way we live.

C4:     I’m very interested in the way you shoot the ground, and the images that come from this perspective.  I personally find that some of the most interesting things to photograph are often right below our feet.  Have you always been drawn to point your camera at the ground? 

CO:     I guess I do focus on the ground, the soil, the pavement, the terrains as one of my approaches. But I am also looking in every other direction and constantly scanning my surroundings. There is some kind of deeper connection to the ground, the earth, the terrain and the surfaces we walk on.  At the end of the day it is what holds and supports the walker, the photographer, but it also holds and supports the city, where we live, and dictates how we live by a systematic structure that indicates where we should walk, when we should stop, where we should cross, and so on. When any of these systematic paths fail, there is a patch applied to make the system continue to work and we adapt to it. When we escape to nature, we adapt to what nature holds for us. The ground and nature dictate how and where we walk, but also what, when and where things grow. Nature regenerates itself without patches, that change starts in the natural system under the ground that is invisible to our eyes. I am interested in those hidden forces but also the patches we impose to our systems to hide mistakes or failures we have created.

C4:     The photographs in Frequency strike a balance between the industrial, architectural, and natural. What are you trying to accomplish by juxtaposing similar formal qualities with different content for your subjects?

CO:     There is a relationship in my day to day to these three elements and they are the sceneries that construct most of the cities. The relationship, connection and integration of the three of them is very important and in reality, cities work better when there is a better balance of these (obviously depending on the scenario). 

The specific juxtaposition of them relates to that interconnection, but if we look at percentages of how I use them in my photographs and edit, they go by architecture first, then nature and lastly industrial – in this order. Architecture and the systematic environments that we have created for ourselves are all around us. The problem with these systems is that we get used to them and function for them, while we also build and build without much future consideration, except for economic considerations. These past years I have seen a lot of anxiety, depression and the desire of many to move out of the cities, in places with more nature and open space – to find a deeper connection to the land and live closer to and from it. At the same time, I know that there are many people who find a better balance and flow of life in cities. In a certain way, I try to make a photographic contemplation using these three aspects of our lives, with the reflections of the feelings and readings that I have been observing in society.

I try to make a photographic contemplation using these three aspects [industry, architecture, and nature] of our lives, with the reflections of the feelings and readings that I have been observing in society.

C4: In Displace, you opt for a more textural and linear approach to documenting a single building in Toronto that is soon to be demolished.  What led you to focus on this single structure as the source for all of your pictures?

CO: My close friend and collaborator Justin Pape has his studio in this building with his partner Nicole Charles (both artists). They rented a huge space for just a few months as the building was going to be demolished in mid-2020. Since then, the real estate company has been pushing the date back every six months. The amount of space they have for the price is unthinkable for what you can normally get in a city like Toronto, where prices in general are insane. This problem has pushed many outside of the city or literally left them without a place to work or live in the city. That was my first concern, one that I have been seeing for a few years. 

The second – the building itself was built almost 100 years ago, and today houses artists and small businesses. Soon a 38 story high-rise condominium complex will replace this place. According to the City of Toronto’s Planning department, “This site was not deemed to have any historical value.” 

The photographs of Displace are like a metaphor for this problem, directing my vision towards  the memories of the empty spaces I’ve had access to in this building.

As an extension to this place, Justin and Nicole created Project 107, a gallery embracing impermanence in the building waiting to be demolished, where Displace was recently exhibited. It was very interesting to show this body of work in the same building where it was created, as the walls and floor of the space still have signs from previous owners, so the gallery space complemented the photographs and installation. 

C4:     As a transplant in Canada, what influences, if any, have you picked up on to relate to your personal work? How does poutine fit into your daily workflow?

CO:     I’ll be honest with you that poutine is delicious but in 13 years I’ve probably eaten it no more than 3 or 4 times, so not much influence there. 

Canada definitely has a lot of influence in my work, mostly from its natural world, but of course the way things work and how people live here as well, which is reflected in Frequency and other works. In the last 14 years, I have developed here as a photographer, graphic designer and also as a teacher. I work a lot within the architecture world, so I guess I look at the city with certain eyes that might affect my photographic work. 

There are other interests from different places and cultures that have influenced and continue to influence me. From local cultures of the places that I have lived, and of course the visual art world, music, architecture, design and literature.

I am from Chile, grew up within the dictatorship era in our country which is an important factor in a variety of ways, and moved to Christchurch, New Zealand when I was 11, where I started to get involved with visual arts, punk rock and skateboarding. I had a very quick path through Miami and now I live in Canada. All very different places, yet with certain similarities and at various times in my life. Those life experiences and places have also informed my mix of influences and interests.

I’ll be honest with you that poutine is delicious but in 13 years I’ve probably eaten it no more than 3 or 4 times.

C4: I think of black and white imagery when I think of your work, but you chose to photograph in color for Displace.  What was it about that project, or perhaps the building itself, that lent itself to rendering better in color?  Or were there any other considerations that went into that decision?

CO: The reality is that black and white photography has grown on me in the last five to six years. Most of my work used to be in colour. I decided to use colour for Displace as I wanted to capture the different aspects of the building, for instance the different stains and traces left behind, as well as the various decorative details and materials used, but also I was interested in the bad lighting system in some areas and how these details are enhanced with longer exposures and colour. At the beginning I tested black and white and noticed they weren’t communicating the same feeling of the other photographs. In my mind I also wanted a clear departure from the process I was following with Frequency, so I started using some plates I had in my fridge that were to expire soon. When I received the first plates from the lab, I decided colour was the way to continue. The variety of tones and languages within the unified point of view speaks well to the different lives the spaces hosted.

C4: You mentioned sending out your project Frequency to publishers.  How has the response been so far?  What difficulties do you think exist for photographers who make work or publications on a more DIY basis like yourself versus those who have established name recognition, book deals, etc.?  Do you think this division is a major problem in the contemporary photo and art landscape?

CO: After winning the 2021 Burtynsky Grant with Frequency, I contacted publishers at the end of 2021. There have been some conversations, but nothing has evolved, so I’m still looking. I could continue with the self-publishing method I’ve been using. The difficulty that this brings is the work that it requires in terms of promotions and sales. Having a reputable publisher brings their expertise to the project, of course, but also their access to the press, publishers, book fairs and other related events where their work will be seen. This will show up in the final sales and price of the book, and that, of course, will determine the amount of financial investment you can put into the project. During and after the pandemic, paper and shipping costs increased, so adding all these details to the equation made it even more difficult to find a publisher or commit to publishing something.

Self-publishing and smaller publishers provide a sense of freedom within the process that is very interesting. It also provides a large amount of work that is mostly unpaid and where economic constraints on production become a barrier and constraint to be dealt with. It’s part of the game we need to play if we really want to do this. I am happy to be a part of this.

I think you have to work for yourself and work hard if you love and enjoy what you do. Some things may attract attention, others may not. But I try to enjoy the process and always try to learn along the way. In life, unfortunately things are not so easy for everyone. Some have the right contacts, through schools or specific jobs, while others don’t. I have always been inspired by punk, jazz, indie musicians and skateboarding. It is the true DIY process. Many collaborations, fuck ups, trial and error. You don’t have to wait for approval to do things, or for someone to provide a platform for your work.

I have always been inspired by punk, jazz, indie musicians and skateboarding. It is the true DIY process. Many collaborations, fuck ups, trial and error. You don’t have to wait for approval to do things, or for someone to provide a platform for your work.

C4: Regarding your Notes series, how have you found building these smaller publications from your work on an overarching project? Each of them have their own motifs and theme to them – are those aspects going to make their way into On Trial (acb-press, 2022), or are they a way for you to hash ideas out as you develop the project?

CO: The idea of the numbered Notes is to be a continuous series of raw publications where visual annotations of my process get published. All small runs, with the same size and style, although with different print techniques. I am not opposed to the idea that some Notes might be even one copy. They are a way to hash out ideas while I develop a bigger project but also a place to host smaller sets of photographs that might or not be part of a bigger body of work.

C4: Do you handle the design of your publications entirely, or do you also collaborate with others from time to time? In Other Voices and Notes both the presentation plays a big role. What does your process of putting pictures to paper look like?

CO: I work on my designs most of the time, but I also like to have collaborations with others on specific projects. I like these collaborations where others provide a new avenue and life for my work, where sometimes they even see connections that I don’t. This enriches me and my learning process.

For the publications I have designed for myself and other artists, I like to provide certain details to make them stand out, but not to over-design them. With a graphic design background, I try to be careful with those decisions. I don’t want the design to take over the photographic work. They are books about photography, not design books with photographs in it. 

From Other Voices (2019)

I don’t want the design to take over the photographic work. They are books about photography, not design books with photographs in it. 

C4: I also wanted to quickly ask about that picture in Notes 2. The one of the truck careening down the mountain. The moment I saw it, it was one of my favourites – could you tell us a little about the background to making that? It almost reminded me of the best old-world reportage shots – those kinds of grand, perfectly-composed scenes that almost feel like they could be paintings.

CO: Thank you!. That was pure luck to be honest, being in the right place at the right time. Driving along the Pacific Ocean in California, I was the first one on a big lineup of cars and had to stop for 10 minutes because of this temporary road closure. It felt like they were putting on a show for me. The photograph was taken while I was waiting for them to finish from inside my car. I rarely react to encounters like this. For the most part I am the one moving, walking to find the places and details I am interested in. This image was a nice and beautiful surprise. 

From Notes (2019-21)
Cristian Ordóñez

All Rights Reserved: Text © Andy Pham, Callum Beaney & Cristian Ordóñez

Images © Cristian Ordóñez

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