‘Have I seen these images before?’ one might wonder while looking at Stan Douglas’ new series of photographs currently on display at the Victoria Miro gallery. Presented under the title ‘Midcentury Studio’, the meticulously constructed black and white photographs appear to be taken in the 1940s and 50s by using old-fashioned photographic equipment and techniques. Despite being photographed in the last couple of years, the luscious digital fibre prints presented in this exhibition effectively allude to a bygone era.
In carefully constructed mise-en-scène, Douglas assumes the role of an anonymous (and obviously very gifted) press photographer covering subjects as diverse as film stars, the underworld, sports, fashion and other newsworthy items. Rather than being linked by their diverse subjects, the photographs in this series are linked, firstly, in the way that they are constructed and produced, and secondly, in the way the photographs appear to tap into the viewer’s collective memory. Although Douglas presents entirely manufactured scenes from his imagination, one cannot help but connect many of the photographs with real life events, and, by extension, with photographs of such events. In this psychological trickery, Douglas apparently borrows from well-known American ‘masters’ of photography such as Irving Penn or the illustrious Weegee.
In these imagined scenes, Douglas’ attention to detail is staggering. This becomes most apparent in the photograph ‘Hockey Fight, 1951’ which depicts two men brawling as they are surrounded by various onlookers in a hockey stadium. The photograph was taken from a high vantage point alluding to the privileged viewpoint of a sports photographer witnessing the incident from the press box. This quasi-voyeuristic viewpoint into the audience reveals a surprising number of narratives within the image: a little boy, undeterred from the fight, attempts to pick up a bag of popcorn lying on the floor, a young woman’s calm facial expression stands in contrast to the violence she is witnessing, the presence of another woman, though absent in the image, is signified by an unfinished knitting project resting on a bench. From the convincingly old-fashioned clothing of the various people in the photograph to the design of the popcorn bag, Douglas appears to indulge in details that could easily be taken for granted.
In many ways, ‘Hockey Fight’ stands out from the ‘Midcentury Studio’ series as a metaphor for Douglas’ body of work as a whole. Here, the hockey fight refers to Douglas’ cultural background as a Canadian, though more specifically, his cultural background as a Black-Canadian and the potential tension of growing up in a largely white middle-class environment. Apart from such a literal interpretation, ‘Hockey Fight’ also alludes to a slippage between the observer and the observed. Importantly, in the photograph it is two members of the audience who become the spectacle on the sidelines of the hockey game. In addition to that, by incorporating the onlookers’ gaze in the image, Douglas turns the observer of the fight into the observed in the photograph. The image functions as a powerful allegory for the exchange of gazes a spectacle (or a spectacle within a spectacle) entails.
Many of the photographs on display in this multi-facetted exhibition incorporate notions of play, game, trickery, even magic. In the first instance, the games in Douglas’ work relate to the ability to ‘fool’ the viewer in believing that the images on display are historically, politically and culturally accurate representations of the past. Yet the game also refers to a broader agenda as many of Douglas’ photographs appear to represent social microcosms governed by specific conventions, which can easily be disrupted and subverted.
Stan Douglas: Midcentury Studio is available as book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.