In the Studio: Stan Douglas

Stan Douglas: Pembury Estate, 2017, C-print mounted on aluminum, 59 by 118 inches, from the series “London Riots.”

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Stan Douglas’s images are often works of historical fiction in the guise of documentary realism. Since the 1980s, when he was a key figure among a group of emerging photo-conceptualists in Vancouver, Douglas has depicted the social fissures of the postwar period. By re-creating in vivid detail scenes of urban unrest and anti-colonial struggle, he depicts people coming to terms with various wars that may never conclude. Key to the work is what anthropologists might call a thick description of different eras and places. Detailed observations of fashion, architecture, or urban space in his photographs can encapsulate moments in history. In installations that re-create historical jazz and funk performances, music carries tensions felt by entire generations. 

Douglas’s massively scaled, high-production-value images bear the weight that history paintings once did. The series “Disco Angola” (2012) pairs photographs of revelers at underground discos in New York in the late 1970s with scenes of ordinary people in post-independence Angola during that period. In other series, generic conventions, or what Douglas calls visual idioms, distill historical worldviews. The relatively small black-and-white images of “Midcentury Studio” (2011) were purportedly created by a North American photographer in the 1940s and early ’50s. Within this fictional narrative conceit, commissioned portraits, journalistic shots, and diverse studio-lighting experiments embody changing twentieth-century values. What might have been unremarkable individual photographs in their time speak volumes in the present.

In his recent works, Douglas has focused on moments when social structures break down. Two vast images show the London riots in 2011 from an aerial perspective, as police and demonstrators confront one another on windy Hackney streets. The pictures are what Vilém Flusser—a theorist whose writings have informed Douglas’s practice—would call “informative” images, which not only deliver information but also lay bare a visual regime linked to twenty-first century surveillance techniques.

Douglas’s video installations can be demanding. Most recently, he realized a six-screen film, The Secret Agent (2015), that transposes the anarchist violence of Joseph Conrad’s novel about nineteenth-century London to Lisbon in the 1970s, wracked by a wave of bombings that preceded Portugal’s Carnation Revolution.

Whether creating still or moving images, Douglas often works more like a feature filmmaker than a typical photographer. He employs a full crew, ranging from lighting technicians to set designers, and his post-production team takes full advantage of digital technology to construct tableaux. His current exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York features “Blackout,” a series of ten such compositions that show New York during an imagined power-loss crisis. A second series comprises abstract images that he compares to digital photograms. Uniting these works is a profound and career-long interest in what the artist calls the photographic apparatus.

I spoke several times with Douglas, who is based in Vancouver but constantly travels the world, both on the phone from Los Angeles and in person in New York as he was preparing the exhibition.

SMITH   What was the origin of “Scenes from the Blackout”? 

DOUGLAS  It begins, as all my work does, with an intuition that this is the right thing to do. I wanted to make a photograph of blackness, which is an impossible thing to do. What can I still see in the absence of light? The work is brand-new, and I won’t know if my intuition was right until I’ve had a chance to sit with the images and think about them.

This is supposed to be contemporary New York. In one image there’s even a cell phone displaying a date in August of last year. The premise is that if a blackout occurred these days, we would see a combination of what happened in 2003 and in 1977. The 2003 blackout, when the electrical grid for part of the United States and Canada went down, took place not long after 9/11, and people were motivated to help each other through the event. As normal social conventions fell away in the emergency, there were new opportunities for sociability. In one image I show a crowd outside the old post office across from Penn Station. Or there were moments of real resourcefulness: one photo depicts a woman stuck in an elevator who has MacGyvered a candle out of a can of Crisco using a shoelace as a wick. But in 1977 the situation was more desperate, with people taking the opportunity to loot. Now is not the best time to be poor in America, and so we’d certainly see people looting because they need stuff. So I have a shot of that happening. It was made in a store on 14th Street and it looks like it is illuminated by a flash, as if it were taken by a photojournalist.

SMITH  But of course your work isn’t a spontaneous image shot in the moment. Can you tell me about how you construct your photographs?

DOUGLAS  I worked with a crew of about thirty people for some of the shots, which can be quite layered. For example, one is an exterior of a building on Broome Street in SoHo. There was an exposure for the moonlight, a second exposure for the shadow, and then a series of exposures for the candlelight inside—all merged together. We shot another on 39th Street and Sixth Avenue. I had a platform on the street and did a day-for-night shot of the background. And then another exposure was made for the light on the street, and then I used flashes to illuminate performers in the foreground crossing the street.

SMITH  You don’t see many police officers or signs of control and authority.

DOUGLAS  Well, I was most interested in individual reactions. How would people behave in this breakdown of order? In the largest image there’s one police horse without a rider, which kind of captures that sense of breakdown.

SMITH  Your other new series is quite different. The images look like photographs taken through a microscope—the opposite of the socially oriented scenes in “Blackout.”

DOUGLAS  I call these DCTs, which stands for Discrete Cosine Transforms. It gets technical. I consider these to be like digital photograms. With a photogram you’re kind of taking away the exterior world of photography and just working with the photosensitive material and the light. With digital photography, your light goes into the camera and you turn the resulting image into code. So what I did was reverse engineer that: I made software and a bit of hardware so that I can produce a code that makes an image. My process is based on JPEG compression; I’m manipulating the kinds of harmonic interactions that essentially undergird all digital images.

At first, I was using this technique to make color field images, shading in one direction or another. But this was a kind of arbitrary aesthetic experimentation. Then I found out there was something that the images wanted to do themselves, they wanted to be more than one thing simultaneously. So you can see a primary image, like an “X” or overlapping boxes. But then many secondary images appear, including circular forms. These are images of nonidentity: one thing that is multiple things simultaneously. And when I realized I could find a visual form to present that idea, it became more satisfying.

SMITH  I imagine that if I took a picture of one of these on my phone it wouldn’t come out.

DOUGLAS  It would look terrible.

SMITH  Is that, then, an expression of resistance to a culture of endless digital image circulation?

DOUGLAS  These are the substrates of imaging. We’re seeing these forms all the time, but we can’t see them. This is something that’s presented to us with every digital image, but we’re never aware of it. Only when your Netflix stream breaks down can you see this happening—this static. But then when it speeds up again the forms disappear. My work is looking at where things break down, and in that moment of breakdown what choices we make.

SMITH  These share the same production values as your “Blackout” pictures. They may be about breakdown, but they can hardly be considered examples of what some theorists call the “poor images” characteristic of online visual culture.

DOUGLAS  I think it’s important to remember the experience of being in a room with an object. One of my early art thrills was being at an exhibition of Agnes Martin paintings at Yvon Lambert gallery in Paris. It was a big space with natural light coming in. I walked into the room, turned around, and at the same time a cloud went over the sun and the color temperature changed. These paintings were pale yellow, pink, and blue, so the whole room transformed. And this experience—of having a sense of myself in the room, in a body, with light—was something I’d never really had before with art. I’d always thought of paintings as being pictures, not as things in the room with me. In the end, these works are quite difficult to reproduce, just like the “Blackout” photographs or the photographs of the riots. You don’t have the same experience unless you’re there with them. Which is kind of an important thing. Otherwise, why make the art?

SMITH  The production value also ascribes importance to the image, asking for a certain kind of attention on the part of the viewer.

DOUGLAS  The pictures give more, the more time you spend with them. You kind of have to slow down and pay attention. And look at how you look.

SMITH  You’ve stayed very current with technology for the last thirty years. What are the interesting aspects of new image-making devices and techniques for you?

DOUGLAS  The main thing is that you’re taking responsibility for the image now. You can’t just say, oh, that’s how it was, so that’s why the photograph is that way. Now, a photograph is something you make and something you have responsibility for having made. Of course, photography has been that way from the very beginning. Some of the earliest photographs were composite images. Gustave Le Gray and Alphonse Giroux made elaborate constructions by doing montage after the fact to improve their images.

But there was a sense, briefly, about photography being somehow an authentic, indexical trace of reality. This is an alluring idea even though photography has always been inhuman. Photographs always transform what the world looks like; they do not resemble the way we humans actually see. We see in terms of meaning, not in terms of pure optics. Despite this, we have a weird tendency to identify with the machine. We think that we see like a camera or dream like a movie, even though we don’t really do those things.

Maybe by breaking the rules of realism in photography—the rules of this automatic, perspectival image—we can get back to a trace of the humanity of looking. So I want to get past this identification with the machine, and to encourage viewers to look at images as objects that are in front of them. The way you look at the DCTs, or the way you look at the riot photographs, is not by identifying with the camera’s perspective, but by actually choosing which details of the object you want to focus on.

SMITH  Is it important, then, for you to foreground your authorship, to identify as the one constructing these images?

DOUGLAS  Sometimes there’s a fictional character standing in as the photographer, as in “Midcentury Studio.” In that case I adopted a persona, a character who had made the photographs. Sometimes I adopt different gazes. In the riot images, we see helicopters in the image, but I’m also in a helicopter making the overall photograph. The gestalt is the point of view of surveillance, which I can then treat theatrically. I admit the fact that it isn’t an intimate image whatsoever. This is an image of administration and control.

SMITH  Do you approach contemporary events differently than you do historical periods?

DOUGLAS  I guess I feel less constrained by contemporary images. I’m in it, so I can depict scenes more freely. I don’t have to constantly imagine what’s right. With “Disco Angola,” I was interested in historical situations that happened simultaneously, and I was trying to show things in the most detailed fashion possible. You can either try to use the look of that moment or else use our technology to capture an image of the past. I didn’t want to mimic a grainy 35mm photo from the era. It was less about that kind of realism that was part of “Midcentury Studio” and more about clarity. I wanted to draw a parallel between two autonomous situations on the brink of collapse: the underground disco scene in New York just before being ruined by an exterior force coming in and Angola’s Independence Day being ruined by the country’s fall into a proxy Cold War conflict that lasted for the next eighteen years.

SMITH  You often cite Vilém Flusser’s theoretical writings as an inspiration. What does his theory of photography mean to you?

DOUGLAS  When I first read his work just before I made “Midcentury Studio,” it inspired me to look at photography not as discrete pictures but as part of an apparatus. We have to think about photography as being a métier, especially now, when everyone thinks they’re a photographer. But everyone who takes cell phone photographs for their Facebook page is basically taking the same photograph as everybody else. People will go to a place and do a selfie; in some sense they don’t think they’re at the place until they’re at the place in representation, which is a very weird sensation. Flusser warned against these kinds of redundant images. I’m interested in making something that is an atypical photographic image. Taking the “Blackout” series as an example, standard photographs can’t represent darkness the way these paintings do. Paintings! Slip of the tongue there.

SMITH  Well, the identification with painting suggests a longer history and tradition.

DOUGLAS  I always kind of resist art history, although we obviously have a lot to learn from the past. I’m very fond of pictorial techniques established in the past, as in those riot photographs with things happening simultaneously that otherwise might happen in sequence. Time unfolds in space. But you can’t lose sight of what’s new as well.

SMITH  Why is photography on this grand scale an effective way of addressing questions about race and class?

DOUGLAS  I guess it’s a situation on a grand scale, meant to be seen in person, often with some discourse around it, like a conversation, a press release, a catalogue. Those conversations are something valuable, as opposed to an indifferent image on your phone that you look at for half a second. This is something that requires a certain amount of depth, and that depth is something that this picture-making can afford.

SMITH  How do you reconcile the power that these pictures have to represent fissures in our society with the fact that the images require vast resources to be produced and circulate in an art market?

DOUGLAS  That is one of the contradictions. Either you make things that cost a few people a lot of money, or you make things that many people can engage for a little bit of money. A motion picture is a lot of things for a lot of people, each paying a little bit. But to make a feature film, you’ve got to be able to accept certain restrictions: genre restrictions, time restrictions, format restrictions.

Working in a gallery and museum context offers a sense of autonomy. True, you’re also tied to an economic model that might not be viable over a long period of time and is certainly not egalitarian. But it does allow moments of freedom that I wouldn’t be able to have any other way.

SMITH  Could you talk about the relationship between still and moving images in your practice, especially in regard to your 2015 film, The Secret Agent?

DOUGLAS  I had been interested in the Conrad novel for quite a while, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. I saw the meaning of the word “terrorism” morphing in the early 2000s. The word was being used in the War on Terror in a way that was quite different from how it was used in the ’70s. And it had a different meaning as well in nineteenth-century London, the setting for Conrad’s story.

I thought setting the film in the ’70s could provide some historical distance, but I didn’t want it to be in the UK, Italy, or Germany, because that would evoke the IRA, Red Brigades, or Baader-Meinhof. Those incidents had a lot of baggage, a lot of cultural associations already. When I heard about the bombings in Portugal during the 1974 Carnation Revolution, when they ousted their decades-old dictatorship, everything kind of clicked in a way. As I was working on funding for what I knew had to be a multi-screen installation, I researched Portuguese history extensively. With that knowledge, I made “Disco Angola”: Portugal’s colonial history in Africa is certainly in the background of both projects.

SMITH  Why was a multiscreen installation essential?

DOUGLAS  The installation is different from a standard motion picture, which depends on a certain kind of discipline. You’re sitting still in your seat, looking forward, and you identify with the perspective and vanishing point of the projector, which identifies with the camera. So you’re all in that apparatus. The camera sees a certain way, the projector shows in a certain way, and you’re made to view it in a certain way.

In a cinematic installation, like The Secret Agent, you’re using your body to break that up. You’re seeing it off angle. You’re looking at one thing and not another. Something happens behind you. When the characters start talking across the space to one another, which happens several times in The Secret Agent, you’ve got to decide which person to look at. You can’t see them simultaneously. In that way, your body and your attention produce the montage. The experience is more like theater because you’re not being directed as to what exactly to look at. You’ve got the freedom to make that choice.

But otherwise the core distinction between still and moving images for me is temporal. In a cinematic installation you’re being asked to look at a shot for a specific duration, whereas with a still photograph you’re able to spend as little or as much time as you want with it. So you have a more spatial relationship with it as opposed to a temporal one. With photographs I’m able to have something of a massive scope that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford to do cinematically. So the scope of “Disco Angola” is pretty gigantic; it takes place over a year, on two continents. I could show that story in fragments, but to show it cinematographically would be a different challenge altogether. In “Midcentury Studio” we see a society change and the photographer change over time, and in a way the gaps between the photographs where that change happens is as important as what you see.

SMITH  It seems you are consciously working within certain genres—for example, photojournalism—despite their restrictions.

DOUGLAS  I’ve always thought of what I’m doing as adopting different idioms. I’ve self-consciously used photographic styles from the eras I’ve depicted—assuming these visual styles are like languages. You can say a thing in one language that you couldn’t say in another. When a language dies, that way of thinking about the world disappears as well. It’s possible to think the world through photographic genres in a similar way. Historical genres or idioms make visible certain tensions, and maybe they can make visible absences as well.