Wheels of fortune

Photographer Brian Howell turns shopping carts of cast-offs into arresting art

Wheels of fortune
Courtesy of Winsor Gallery

Brian Howell’s mind was wandering. It was February 2010, and the freelance photographer was snapping pictures of the world’s best hockey players at the Vancouver Olympics. Despite the patriotic fervour at Canada Hockey Place, Howell’s thoughts drifted past the capacity crowd of $1,000-ticket holders to the streets of his native city, where scores of brawny men push shopping carts filled with bits of society’s refuse—anything from entire fridges and satellite dishes to Ethernet cables and yellowed books. These carts, vessels for things discarded by those privileged enough to throw them away, were the subjects he really wanted to photograph.

“It’s somewhat unique to Vancouver,” says Howell of the “binners” that parade through the city, gathering castaway goods to sell from their carts. “I look at these things as mini garage sales on wheels . . . Each one tells a story.”

More than two years later, the 45-year-old is riding the success of his photographic series, Shopping Carts, which debuted at Vancouver’s Winsor Gallery a year ago. It featured large, high-resolution photographs of shopping carts that Howell bought from people on the street for whatever price they named, usually $20. To transport the carts, Howell bought an $800 GMC Safari van. Using a wooden ramp, he rolled them into the van and drove them to his garage. Leaving the carts as he bought them, Howell took them to a rented studio to photograph, each one facing the same direction in front of a bright white background so it “would come forward and you could sort of study it in an almost scientific way.”

Priced between $6,000 and $14,000 each, the first edition of photographs—the smallest measuring 40 by 60 inches—sold out in a month. Prints from the second and third editions continue to sell and, in October, Howell plans to bring the exhibit to the Toronto International Art Fair. There’s also talk of shows in Europe and across North America. “I’m a massive fan,” says Jennifer Winsor, director of the Granville Street gallery that hosted his exhibit in April 2011. “It gets huge reactions.”

The first picture wasn’t taken until months after the Olympics when the photographer spotted a man pushing a cart along Marine Drive. He told his wife to pull over, and jumped out to talk to him. He asked the man how he could photograph the cart, and learned he was selling its contents—a large picture of a woman’s face, empty plastic bottles and a gas mask slung over the side. “He said, ‘Twenty dollars would be great right about now,’ ” recalls Howell, who bought the whole thing.

Over the next few months, he scoured Vancouver’s streets, from the Downtown Eastside to the monied vistas of West Vancouver. He immersed himself in a subculture that subsists by selling the constant supply of waste found in dumpsters and back alleys, detritus from our consumer culture. In Surrey, three “meth heads” introduced him to a man named Leonard, who sold him a cart covered with blue cardboard boxes for $60. On East Hastings, a wild character called Horndog—who had “a body like Bruce Lee”—kissed Howell on the lips when he bought his cart for $30. “There’s humanity embedded in his work, even though humans aren’t directly shown,” says Vancouver artist Douglas Coupland, who wrote an essay for Howell’s exhibit catalogue. “People look at these carts and find themselves engaged in a world that was alien and frightening three minutes before.”

The project’s resonance also comes from how the shopping carts—society’s carriages of consumerism—contain a message about overconsumption. “The same vessel the goods were put in when they were originally purchased is now out there picking them up as they’re being discarded,” Howell says. “The irony is incredible.”

After Howell finished taking his pictures, he recycled the bottles and plastics and took the rest of the contents to the dump. Late at night, with the city’s shoppers asleep in their beds, Howell quietly returned the shopping carts to their respective stores, so the whole process could begin anew.