Jonathan Castellino

Posted: July 7, 2010 in Dark Art Cafe

Jonathan Castellino is a photographer with a unique and powerful vision.

He runs the website where the viewer is encouraged to see that “everything is holy, wholly.” Intrigued by Castellino’s artistic vision and blown away by his urban photography, that employs a wide range of lenses and filters to create dizzying, dreamlike, and meditative images, I emailed him and asked if he’d be interested in a brief interview and he graciously agreed. So pull up a chair and sit in on my conversation with Jonathan and then check out a video montage of his work set to Rich Mullins’ acoustic recording “Hard to Get.”


SM: Your website,, has the provocative tag-line: “Everything is holy, wholly.” As a lens through which to view your work, can you tell me where this idea comes from and also how it is realized in your photography?

JC: The notion that every created or built item is Holy and worthy of attention comes to my work through the words of the late Pope John Paul II in his “Letter to Artists”, in which he makes the claim that firstly, an artist is called to make their entire life their masterpiece, and secondly, that all creation – artistic or not – has mimetic desire (Rene Gerard’s idea) for the original Creation.

Sacramental Perception itself has its roots in Christian mysticism, and (in my view) is most tangibly realized in one of its major practitioners, the contemporary American author Annie Dillard (a la Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).

The majority of my photographic work focuses on the idea of urban and industrial entropy, found in the decay of modern North America’s unseen spaces. Just as it is the duty and calling of an archaeologist to bring to light what is, at least on the surface, fundamentally unseen, it is likewise the job of the “urban archeologist / urban explorer” to reveal, through stories and photographs, a world that a common sense of history tends to overlook. A world in which the forgotten becomes the centre of attention – in which the background becomes the foreground.

In this manner, I hope to reveal a world, both imperceptibly small, and immeasurably large (again, what Annie Dillard tends to do in her written work), to an artistic community who too often defines art and beauty against itself (subcultural theory of counter-culture creating pop-culture in cycles), or in terms too strictly defined.

SM: You have said elsewhere that “the photo is an oxymoron, telling a lie and the truth in the same instant.” Can you elaborate on this idea and its relation to “sacramental perception”?

JC: In making the claim that a photo has the self-same ability to lie and tell the truth, I am attempting to summate the inherent objective, and subjective nature of the image. On the one level, it merely captures “what is” (ie. the “truth”). On the other, it is shot from a particular point of view: angle, composition, setting, and in increasing modern popularity, post-processing.

Sacramental perception entails a lensing that takes any object and sees inherent value and worth in it. The choice of subject matter, then, has a great deal to do with the artist – in this case, the photographer. The images created may at first seem akin to heritage-type documentation photography, and yet the stories that go into them (possible grey-zone regarding authorized entry – of course, always done in a respectful manner; personal attachment to a building/space/object, et cetera) tend to fill in the necessary subjective element, transforming a mere image into a piece of art.

SM: They say poets re-invigorate language by showing the everyday in a new light; do you see your photography as doing a similar thing: re-orienting people’s perceptions of the things around them?

JC: Many critics of my photography (and photography like it) relegate it to the realm of “guerrilla photography” – a kind of photographic art-for-art’s-sake. I take slight offense to this, yet at the same time understand that in the modern art-sphere (especially contemporary Canadian urban art), the first impression may rest at “shock value” – a grave misconception that only looks at one level of the image, rather than peeling back the veil to the true meaning of any piece.

In this case, the familiar and stereotypically “ugly” item (whether it be an abandoned factory, church, school, or indeed any item found in these places) is “made beautiful” by being provocative. I truly believe that it is questions, and not answers that we seek, and each one of these places or things has asked me a question in a very particular way, hence my photographing it. By challenging a form of art that for so long tended to focus on the inherently beautiful (think floral photography, nature photography, active architecture, human portraiture), I am forcing the viewer to wrestle with the same question that struck me as I encountered the particular phenomena.

In this way, I hope to challenge the onlooker with an idea, or set of ideas that will make their own lensing in life more focused, or at least differently so. When it comes to forgotten places, my hope is inspiration by revelation – uncovering a truth (or at least a scene) that seems so bizarre, and is yet so common in our modern cities. One might say, then, that to the onlooker I attempt to create an apophatic scene. I tell them about the environment they are familiar with, by showing them what they are not.

SM: In a recent feature in the on-line journal Comment, you mentioned the musician Arvo Part and the poet T.S. Eliot; in what ways do other art forms feed your work? Who are some other artists who have influenced the way you view the world through your camera lens?

JC: Art is necessarily inter-disciplinary, and of course I am influenced by many other of its forms. Some of the major influences in my photography are music, mathematics, and architecture. I believe that these are all forms of a singular Truth, realized by (and through) different individual talents.

Minimalism in music – for example, the work of contemporary composer Philip Glass – plays a major role in giving my photography structure. I will always have Philip’s music playing when I am editing photographs of modern city-scapes, or urban scenes in which precision is necessary. When the photograph is more subjective, as in my interpretation of an abandonment, I will move to the less rigorous and more subjective music of the modern Estonian minimalists. Formality and the “rules” of photography are not (and never have been) the guiding forces in my work, and yet the natural rules realized in other art forms tend to have their influence on my photography.

I would say that in the last two or so years, the particular artists who have affected the evolution of my work to the greatest extent have been the photographer/artist Joel-Peter Witkin, with his grotesque displays of physical human flaws, as well as the writer W. G. Sebald. In the latter, I found such sensitive attention to the details surrounding human consciousness as it relates to the built environment and the recent past, that I still find myself in an almost trance-like state when reading his words. He truly had (suffered from?) Sacramental Perception.

Literary critics often say that in writing we read, and in reading we write, and never have I found more truth in this claim than in Sebald’s body of work. Sebald challenges me, just as Dillard did when I was younger, to take the present more seriously; the remarkable characters he describes (whether real or fictional) have such a close kinship with the physical world that surrounds them, that I cannot help but write into this my own personal story. Anyone familiar with his work is aware that this close relationship often leads to a nameless desperation, and perhaps that is why I am drawn to forgotten places. I can only attempt to describe the feeling these places evoke in me through my photographs.

If I were to try to explain it in language, it would come out as an oxymoron. I would call it a nostalgia for a place I never knew, in a time I never was.

A close friend in anger once called the places I explore the “cathedrals of atheists”. I still cannot fully comprehend what he meant, except that it had something to do with holiness.

A Video Montage of Photographs by Jonathan Castellino, set to one of the last rough acoustic recordings by Rich Mullins before his death in 1997.

  1. chadpelley says:

    What a great song in that video. I used to be big into photography … before this writign thing turned me into a hermit.

  2. I love that song. The rough recording was done in an abandoned church a few weeks before his death in a car accident. They cleaned it up in another version for the album release but this version is way more powerful for its rawness.

  3. […] the song, a prayer for God to be with us, to come to us anew, and I’ve layered in images by Jonathan Castellino and photography by my wife Samantha, taken in our new home of Newfoundland. As Deeble takes an […]

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