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Sewage pipes – the engineers’ art

Commuters in downtown Toronto are being exposed to the sights only engineers and public works people usually appreciate — the beauty and grandeur of underground sewage structures.


Spadina Storm Trunk Sewer, Toronto. Photograph by Michael Cook, exhibited at St. Patrick's Subway Station as part of Contact during May.
Spadina Storm Trunk Sewer, Toronto. Photograph by Michael Cook, exhibited at St. Patrick's Subway Station as part of Contact during May.

Commuters in downtown Toronto are being exposed to the sights only engineers and public works people usually appreciate — the beauty and grandeur of underground sewage structures.

Photographer Michael Cook’s work is on display for a month at the St. Patrick subway station, located at University Avenue and Dundas Street West. The display is part of Contact, a festival of photography taking place city wide during May.

Cook’s haunting images include brick Victorian-era tunnels and arches, as well as pre-war structures, and contemporary concrete and steel pipes and storage tanks.

Asked what draws him to want to photograph this underworld, Cook explains:

“This is a chance to see infrastructure and water/wastewater that as a public we never have the chance to see and become familiar with. Underground infrastructure has become a black box that we assume will be ubiquitous, functional and not our responsibility. Photographing sewers and storm sewers, and making people aware of the presence of these physical spaces in their neighbourhoods, allows the public to join the conversation and become involved in actions to make it safer and more sustainable.”

A landscape architect, Cook has been venturing into sewer tunnels for 10 years to take his photographs. “These are generally very dark spaces, and the vast majority of the images required hand-held artificial lighting and long exposure times,” he explains.

And O.K., what about the smell? “It can sometimes be unpleasant,” Cook admits, but he adds: “The views that I am able to create of this infrastructure for the public make the challenge worthwhile.”

Cook has taken photos of underground works and excavations across the country. In 2009 the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology commissioned his work for an exhibition on the history and present of water and wastewater service in that city.

The Toronto exhibit was produced by Pattison and Art for Commuters.


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