Stan Douglas on Why Still Photography Still Matters

Canadian Art
Apr 30, 2014 8:49PM

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.”

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Canadian Art