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Features / April 30, 2014

Stan Douglas on Why Still Photography Still Matters

One might be forgiven for thinking that, in the past few years, Vancouver artist Stan Douglas has set out to become a master of all media.

Douglas’s first-ever interactive app Circa 1948, co-produced with the NFB, launched last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. His multi-media stage production Helen Lawrence—which merges theatre, visual art, live-action filming, and computer-generated imagery—had its world premiere in March at Vancouver’s Artsclub, and is on its way to Munich, Edinburgh and Toronto. And his six-hour film Luanda-Kinshasa, which debuted to acclaim at New York’s David Zwirner in January, represented an unprecedented level of engagement with the world of music and musicians.

Yet at the press preview for his solo show at Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre this week, Douglas said he was chagrined by the fact that his photographs are sometimes regarded as less exciting than his film and multi-media projects.

“In a photograph, everything is there in a [kind of] gestalt,” Douglas told Canadian Art. “You are comparing spatially how things related”—a different exercise than making the temporally unfolding connections of film, which is by nature “always moving forward.”

Photography, Douglas said, offers “a different way of looking at an image”—a way that’s “more reflective and more generous, in a sense.”

Also, just having spent three years building an entire Vancouver neighbourhood—“the dirt, the garbage, every detail”—from scratch for the Circa 1948 app, Douglas very much enjoys the opportunity photography offers to “collaborate with the real.”

“Photography is still pretty amazing,” Douglas stated. “You can’t get the same kind of buzz off of a constructed mobile application.”

Looking at Douglas’s Ryerson Image Centre exhibition, one might be inclined to agree with him.

In its concise selection of just 19 photographs from various eras of Douglas’s career, the exhibition sets up rich tensions and overlaps between past and present, fact and fiction, leisure and resistance.

Many of these themes come to the fore in curator Robert Bean’s decision to give half of the show over to Douglas’s earlier documentary photographs from Germany, Detroit, Cuba and Vancouver—some of which, in the past, were shown alongside better-known film installations.

Shown together with Douglas’s recent, and more widely known, staged series like Midcentury Studio (set in the 1940s) and Disco Angola (set in the 1970s), these documentary works underline how much the actual can be theatrical, and vice versa.

For instance, one of Douglas’ Detroit photos shows cars parked in the former Michigan Theatre, its original Italian Renaissance–style décor meeting the drab angles of 1990s sedans and minivans. The scene looks like something out of a speculative fiction tale, but it is real. Same goes for the decayed panopticon Douglas found in Cuba—a Piranesi-etching-like ruin of a prison that might also be at home in an alternate version of Game of Thrones.

Indeed, Douglas is himself a fan of works that blend fact and fiction; he said that the 2000 Portuguese “docufiction” film In Vanda’s Room is one of his favourites.

Yet Douglas’s pictures, whether drawn from life or not, don’t just mess with our sense of reality—also point to critical social issues of our time.

“Typically historical fiction, just like science fiction, is usually an allegory of the present,” Douglas says. “So often in works I’m thinking about the present through the past.”

For example, he says, the late 1940s moment represented in Midcentury Studio—and in the Circa 1948 app—was not unlike our own.

“There was a global recession, the banking industry was in a shambles, there was a housing crisis, and a sort of shadowy threat—the Cold War in that [earlier] case and terrorism in our case,” Douglas notes.

Looking at Douglas’s black and white Midcentury Studio images of post-millennial women sheathed in the satin dresses, sculptural high heels and ornate hairstyles of 70 years prior, for instance, prompts reconsideration of how we determine what looks natural or normal in different eras—and the political implications thereof. It also provokes questions about much more difficult socially absorbed norms are to spot when not manifested in external visual codes such as clothing.

Another staged image focusing on a clash between police and protesters during a 1935 Vancouver dockworkers’ strike features an official in the middle of the picture on a white horse—an amalgam not so different, really, from some of the photos that came out of the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto.

A different kind of reflection on social norms—as well as the sublimation of politics into pop culture—takes place when considering two photographs from Douglas’s Disco Angola series that face each other at the entrance of the exhibition.

One of these 1970s-set photographs shows men of colour in military garb practicing Capoeira, a form of dance that can also be used as a self-defense training technique. The other photograph shows a man of colour striking a kung fu pose on an otherwise empty dancefloor—a gesture that references Carl Douglas’s 1974 disco hit Kung Fu Fighting.

Taken together, these photographs offer a double-edged reading: On the one hand, perhaps, political resistance can fly under the radar as leisure—perhaps even (if we’re lucky) supposed leisure forms such as gallery going and artmaking. On the other hand, it’s possible that culture simply sublimates desires for political and social change into visible, but ultimately ineffectual, forms—a category into which much quote-unquote political art often falls.

In this duality, there is little clear answer at hand—and even if we there was, Douglas’s Corrupt Files prints, also hung in the entrance space, quite bluntly suggest the instability of images and readings, even at a technical level.

And so, as with so many other internationally successful contemporary artists, it is likely Douglas’s ability to encompass many truths at once that keep so many people returning to his oeuvre.

“I just admire his work so much,” curator and NSCAD professor Robert Bean—a photographer in his own right—told Canadian Art at the preview. It’s why Bean nominated Douglas for last year’s Scotiabank Photography Award, whose win led to this exhibition.

At the time Bean nominated Douglas, he had already won the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award in New York—but Bean wanted to make sure he was recognized at home, too.

“This one of Canada’s greatest artists, and sometimes we don’t celebrate our best the way we should,” Bean observed.

While Bean hopes to bring Douglas’s work to an even wider audience this year by touring the show, or part of it, to Halifax—“because it’s never been shown [in Canada] east of Montreal”—Douglas has his own plans.

“I’m going to take a break,” he says. “I’ve been going flat out since June last year, so it’s time.”

No doubt he may find some inspiration in the diversions and digressions of extended downtime, however.

“There’s like one-liners and shaggy dog stories,” Douglas says. “I like shaggy dog stories.”

A public preview for Stan Douglas’s exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre takes place today (April 30) from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. It is followed by a free lecture by Douglas at 7:30 p.m. at 350 Victoria Street.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via