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Monday, March 28, 2011

Michael Harris for Vancouver Magazine: It began on Father's Day last year, in the unlikely territory of West Vancouver. The photographer Brian Howell and his wife had just left her parents' place when he saw a man pushing a cart toward the on-ramp of the Lions' Gate Bridge. Howell saw something—not the obvious struggle of a scavenger, but the beauty and resonance of the cart's contents. He pulled over and asked the man, "How would I go about photographing that?" The man, Daniel, had a long trek ahead of him, and said, "Well, you can have the whole thing for twenty bucks." Over the next year, Howell spent between $20 and $80 apiece on dozens more carts, each time allowing the owner to determine the price. He photographed 45 in all, two dozen of which make up his new show at the Winsor Gallery (running April 7 to 30).

Artists have been finding beauty (or value, at least) in ready-made objects since Marcel Duchamp stuck a urinal on a gallery wall and called it sculpture. Once, at an air show, Duchamp asked the renowned sculptor Constantin Brâncusi, "Who can do anything better than this propeller? Can you?"

Howell's background is in photojournalism (he's done many portraits for this magazine); when he's forayed into the art world, his work has had a quality of reportage. (One series chronicled the lives of minor-league wrestlers; another tracked down celebrity impersonators.) This new show has a higher level of conceptualization and a more rigorous aesthetic. The carts have specific narratives tied to them-stories of geography, commercialism, and style. Yet there's something timeless and entrancing about them, something deeply enjoyable, even voyeuristic, about looking at the large-scale photos. (They're five feet by four feet at the gallery.) Certainly the collector who pre-bought the entire first edition thought so.

Photographers can spend a lifetime aiming for what Howell has achieved with this most unlikely of urban subjects: he takes something you thought you'd already seen, and makes you see it for the first time.