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Stan Douglas: Revealing Narratives

The two bodies of work that make up Stan Douglas’s exhibition Revealing Narratives reveal a complicated understanding of what a narrative, or an image for that matter, can be. Narratives, after all, are stories, and we tend to think of stories as being revealed through their telling. Douglas, though, follows the advice fiction editors— in Penn Station’s Half Century and Disco Angola Douglas shows us stories, he doesn’t tell us.

Here, the appearance of fact is created through the masterful use of fiction, a familiar approach in arts such as literature and painting and brought to perhaps its highest technical heights in filmmaking. But over most of the modern period it hasn’t been the chosen approach of photography. That each of the bodies of work represent purported documents just highlights this apparent disconnect.

Staged documents such as Checkpoint, 1975 (2020) and Two Friends, 1975 (2020), presented as the work of Douglas’s invented (and nameless) 1970s photojournalist, seem real despite our knowledge that they surely are not. We have been trained to view such images as objective truths. Of course, as we have since learned, not least from Matthew Brady’s iconic battlefield images of the American Civil War, not all documentary photographers were above staging images in order to achieve the effect they were after. Composing (and its more aggressive cousin, staging) has always been a factor in photography. The photographer chooses what to photograph, and there is always an editorial function at play. No truth is unvarnished.

No one needs to tell Stan Douglas that, of course. In works such as 1 March 1914 (2020) and 20 June 1957 (2020) he starts with facts, such as a snowstorm stranded a vaudeville troupe in Penn Station and some form of show was staged there, or that parts of Penn Station were recreated on a Hollywood sound stage for a Vincente Minelli movie. From these, he creates rich, layered, narratives as he imagines what these former facts may have looked like. How do you make an image of an idea about an event? You certainly don’t ‘point and click.’

Photography, long considered a ‘direct’ medium, a trace of light on a photosensitive surface, has never been as truthful as its most ardent practitioners would have it. Within years, if not months, of its various inventions (photography’s history being a string of the development of processes) photographers were producing purported images of ghosts and spirits, of images from ‘the past,’ and of impossible feats, such as unassisted human flight. Then, as now, there were always the credulous for whom ‘seeing is believing.’

But there were also photographers who considered themselves artists, (photographs not achieving widespread recognition as fine art until well into the 20th century) and who used staging, costumes, painted backdrops, actors and other tools of the theatrical trade to create pictures that aspired to the status of history painting. Oscar Rejlander, in Victorian England, took this practice to great heights, using elaborate staging to photograph individuals and groups, stitching together multiple negatives into complex compositions. His The Two Ways of Life (1857), was, for the times, monumental, and used thirty negatives, pieced together “like a jigsaw puzzle,” as one historian put it. Rejlander hired a troupe of actors to be the models for his allegorical fantasy and photographed each individual or small group at different distances so that the relative scale of each would fit the perspective of the larger scene in the final image. Lighting, costumes, sets, staging— all the trappings of a theatrical production— were brought into play to create one image. While popular with the public, this self-styled ‘art photography’ was not universally acclaimed, and its evident (and unapologetic) fakery fell out of fashion with the rise of Modernism.

But fast forward over a century and a half, and such techniques are common. Photography, now, is mostly a creature of pixels, not plates, and the computer has replaced the darkroom for most of us. Everything about a photograph is manipulatable, so manipulation has become acceptable. These days its common for photographers to spend more time in postproduction than they ever do in capturing an image. Where we once talked about ‘taking’ a photograph, ‘making’ one has become as accurate.

To make a photograph such as 7 August 1934 (2020) Douglas employed similar techniques as did Oscar Rejlander all those decades ago: actors, costumes, props, sets, lighting, and staging. But where Rejlander relied on the modest resources of a travelling theatre company, Douglas called on the huge resources of Vancouver’s film industry. Hundreds of extras, banks of lights, boom cranes, period costumes, specialized crew, and a set large enough to accommodate it all, were available to Douglas (or to anyone, with the financial resources). The details of the station itself were added digitally, but the figures were all meticulously documented in a rented hockey arena, with ranks of figures photographed in succession to achieve the proper lighting, shading, and scale between figures in the finished image.

Despite their fabrication (or, rather, because of it), these pictures look real and feel true. But because these images are photographs, they also make us uneasy. We have a hard time seeing them as we would a painting, say, or a drawing. We don’t flinch as Alex Colville’s train hurtles down its track in Ocean Limited (1962), nor do we expect to be able to put Mary Pratt’s roast from Sunday Dinner (1996) in the oven. We don’t expect paintings to be anything other than themselves, but a lingering feeling that photographs are somehow tied to the real world remains. Stan Douglas knows that, of course, and he exploits that to great advantage in his work.

A pioneer in using the resources of the commercial film industry was Canadian artist Jack Goldstein, who used stock footage or hired resources in his film loop pieces, such as the roaring MGM Lion in Metro Goldwyn Mayer (1975) or the German Shepard in Shane (1975), a hired ‘extra,’ barking on command. Goldstein made films and paintings by hiring camera operators and painters, he pushed the boundaries of what was then considered “visual art,” making vinyl records for instance, using stock recordings available from sound effects labs. Douglas, who calls Goldstein a “big influence,” met the artist while still a student at ECAD and was struck by how he would just hire out any expertise he needed, by how he wasn’t tied down to traditional ideas about how an artist worked.

The images in Disco Angola, claiming to be images from mid-1970s New York and Angola, were all created in Los Angeles in 2012, using similar resources as the works for the Penn Station series. But where the Penn Station photographs depict narratives from the history of the station and have all the grandeur of 18th and 19th century history painting, the images in Disco Angola, for all their similar scale, feel more like traditional photographs. That is, they don’t feel staged, but rather feel like they are depicting actual events. At first, nothing in their composition betrays the fact that they couldn’t be real (as the Penn Station images do, once one starts looking at them closely). Two Friends, for instance, looks like the kind of quick snapshot that Douglas’s teacher at ECAD, Iain Baxter, was making into lightboxes in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Vancouver as part of his N.E. Thing Co., another model of an untraditional approach to art making.

However, these images are staged, and their paired themes— the rise of disco, the tail end of a civil war— reflects an awareness of how, as Daniel Fiset from the PHI Foundation puts it, “the past is always in the process of being framed by the present.” The present, of course, can’t help but frame the past, in both meanings of the word. We compose the past, as history and memory, and we apply our ideas and understanding to it, inevitably ‘framing’ it for something that it most likely never did.

So is Douglas revealing narratives, or revealing our urge to create them? Perhaps they’re the same thing.

Stan Douglas: Revealing Narratives continues at AGNS until Nov. 6, 2022.

Ray Cronin is a Nova Scotia-based writer, curator, and editor. He is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award, and former Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The author of eleven books on Canadian art, he regularly contributes to Canadian and American magazines, and frequently writes for gallery exhibition catalogues.

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