Stan Douglas is well known for his installations, films, and photographs that evoke historical events and outdated technologies. His latest exhibition, “Midcentury Studio,” examines the rise of press photography in North America. The show is on view at David Zwirner Gallery until April 23.
THIS PROJECT BEGAN when I was doing research about the corruption of the police force in Vancouver in the 1950s, and about a photojournalist named Raymond Munro who broke a story about a dishonest police chief. Munro was an aviator during World War II; he came back from the war and heard of a job as an aerial photographer in Vancouver. He knew he couldn’t take photographs, but he could fly an airplane with one hand, and so he applied for the job and got it. Looking at his archival work, I noticed that there is a funny way in which he is not aware of visual tropes found in modernist pictorial depiction. Then I began doing research and saw a pattern in this postwar period––there are a lot of similarly incompetent photographs but nevertheless interesting images. Everything was kind of normalized by 1951, when the Magnum paradigm became dominant, so this in-between moment fascinated me.
I shot the works with a high-resolution camera but tried to simulate the look of these press photos with a powerful handheld flash, because those old flashbulbs were quite intense. I didn’t have a certain picture to create in mind but basically improvised with what was there. For some of the bigger photographs, like Hockey Fight, I used a fixed frame and within that frame improvised action took place. With the other ones it was quite loose—for example, I’d just ask the magicians what kind of tricks they could do and went from there. I approached each work as if it were a documentary site.
Demobilization Suit is another case of a journalistic photograph that has lost its context. Back before Photoshop, journalists would do things like painting around edges to isolate a figure or piece of clothing. In this case, the photographer would have cut around the image with paint that could be reproduced and separated in the magazine. But here we see the artifact––we see him in his kitchen. This person has been sort of disembodied by the act of painting.
In many ways, the apparatus determined the kind of photographs one could make back then. Now, with cell phone cameras, the possibilities of these images have been reduced. Shifts in exposure or placement of focus or contrast––all of these things that are slightly beyond the control of the midcentury operator are completely unavailable to the people who are taking videos and photographs with their cell phones. It seems we have sacrificed the possibilities of what we can do with the medium for the convenience of getting this picture that I guess is acceptable to people as a proper image. For twenty years or longer we have looked at artists using photography as a document instead of the medium itself, as in performance documentation or Conceptual photography. In this work I am looking for photography as photography.