Cartographics: Brian Howell

Vancouver photographer Brian Howell has always been interested in marginal cultures, from minor league extreme wrestling to celebrity look-alike impersonators. In his most recent project, he has focused his attention on the world of binners, individuals who push about collections of things in shopping carts. There is almost nothing that someone won’t wheel around in a cart, and Howell’s inquiry into what you find in them has produced a colourful and moveable feast. Although not specific to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, he found in a block long strip on Hastings Street a curious entrepreneurial spirit; he views the binners as small-scale, mobile magpies, gathering whatever they find free in the street–from cans to books, and from microwaves to satellite dishes–and then loading them into carts with the intention of unloading them for profit somewhere else.

Howell buys the carts and their contents outright (the going price is around $20) and takes them back to his studio where he photographs them against a neutral white background in a scale just under life-size. He has purchased 45 now, from which he selected 25 to make into photographs. Howell combined sociology and aesthetics in making his choices: there are certainly occasions when other artists come to mind. One cart, wrapped in plastic and bound with blue rope, looks like Christo and Jeanne-Claude could be the owners; another with two vacuum cleaners could be early Jeff Koons; while still another is a coagulation of coloured wire that makes you think of Jackson Pollock. “It does look like a Pollock, but I also know from working as a journalist that people strip the copper out of the casing for recycling. I think these photographs really come together when there is form and great content as well.”
Howell recognizes that he has moved towards a more formal kind of image in this body of work. He is making photographs in a city whose photo-based artists have an international reputation, which is why he decided not to change the carts once he got them into his studio. “Working here in the shadow of the Vancouver School of photographers, it was important for me to distinguish myself from their way of working. I wanted to make these pictures as authentic as possible.”

Howell says that the Shopping Cart Project has taught him “a lot about consumption, including my own,” and he now look at things quite differently now. He has become a close watcher of commodities and is aware that photographers like Ed Burtynsky and Andreas Gursky have been successful in looking at this consumption from a global perspective, but he has aimed his critical eye closer to home. “I think what’s interesting about the carts is that they make a similar kind of commentary but it’s happening locally. Through them, we can look at the phenomenon in our own context.”

Above images: (Left) Brian Howell, *107th Avenue and 135A Street, 2011, archival inkjet print, edition of 3, 48 x 74”. Courtesy Winsor Gallery, Vancouver.*
(Right) Brian Howell, *77 East Hastings Street, 2010, archival inkjet print, edition of 3, 59 x 70”.*

“Brian Howell: Shopping Carts” was on exhibition at Vancouver’s Winsor Gallery in April, 2011. There is an accompanying catalogue with an essay by Douglas Coupland.