Atlantic Cities
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The Man Who Turns Toronto's Sewers Into Art

Many city residents prefer not to think about the underground network of dark and dirty pipes that carry their water and waste somewhere … else. Michael Cook isn't one of them. On the contrary, Cook goes out of his way to explore and illuminate all types of drain systems winding below his native metropolitan Toronto, as a means of raising awareness about city sewage problems.

"One of the reasons that it's been so difficult to get traction around the issues of water in the city is that the infrastructure is completely invisible," he says.

The 30-year-old Cook has been documenting Toronto tunnels for about a decade, often posting images at his blog, The Vanishing Point. At first he'd check where certain creeks disappeared from street maps to find outfalls or other points of entry. ("My back hurts thinking about some of the places I stumbled through back then," he says.) He's since expanded his operation to the complete network of sewers — combined, storm, overflow, and relief pipes, among them — that stretch across the city.

Throughout May, Cook's work will be showcased as part of the "Under this Ground" exhibition on display in the city's transit system, as part of Toronto's annual CONTACT photography festival. Cook has given Atlantic Cities readers an advance look at several of the 33 photographs will appear on the platform of St. Patrick Station. The more that people get to know what's really going on below their city, the more they'll care, he believes.

"In the city, people are very interested in getting involved in things like this," Cook says. "But they need to be able to understand and see those systems to make substantive change on this issue."


North York Storm Trunk Sewer (2013)

I always thought of sewers as narrow little pipes. These are enormous.

Wherever you live in a city like Toronto, within a few blocks or a kilometer at the most, your waste water is entering into a that's this big, or some conduit that's really the scale of a person or larger. Even out in Toronto's northwest or eastern or western suburbs — the inner suburbs is what we call them — there are 6- or 7-foot trunk sewers that are carrying sanitary waste only. They have separated sewers out there, but they still eventually lead to a trunk sewer that's large.

How do you pick a particular spot to photograph?

I'm frequently photographing access chambers or junctions. These are the spots that feel the most habitable. Part of my work is really about revealing these spaces as being human-scale spaces. They aren't just really abstract infrastructural networks but they actually have a space to them and a place to them. That's really what I'm looking for when I'm taking these photographs.


Spadina Storm Trunk Sewer (2013)

What's so striking about your shots is that they're so bright.

Almost all the shots are lit with my equipment. There's some sewers that are very dark and very hard to photo because of what's in the concrete. There are other sewers that reflect everything and just kind of shine once you get some light into them. But there's no light down there apart from a few places where there's an access shaft, or at the inlets or outfalls.

Have you had any unsettling encounters down there so far — any tunnel creatures?

There's a few rats. Not as many as I think people imagine there being. There isn't that much to eat for them. Their lives are pretty hard. In the suburbs you sometimes see raccoons using storm sewers.


Parkside Relief Sewer (2013)

What do you hope to express through your photos?

There were massive tradeoffs and damages in the way we chose to service our cities. Particularly in the case of sewers they are very place specific. They are at the center of a lot of neighborhood issues that we don't deal with well — local flooding, structural problems, and things like access to open space.

So my position on all that is to be able to have an honest and public conversation about all those issues, we really need to be able to see sewers and know them as real places. Residents need to be able to think of them as components in the places that they live. And for that they need to be able to know them visually and spatially. So putting these photographs out there has always been an important part of my practice.


East Toronto Combined Sewer (2013)

What are some of the major water infrastructure problems in Toronto that aren't getting much attention?

Every time it rains a lot we get overflows into the lake and into our rivers — and one way to reduce strain on that system is to convince people to disconnect the downspouts from their houses. So those downspouts aren't feeding water into the combined system when it rains.

Toronto Water says we've tried to convince people to do this, they're not really that interested. My response is that one of the problems is that people don't see what happens to the water after it comes off their roof. You can tell them really abstractly that it causes an overflow somewhere. But they don't see all the spaces that connect between their house and the lake the way they see the streets that connect them from their house to the lake.


Lavender Creek Sewer (2013)

All images courtesy of Michael Cook.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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