“In Vancouver, there is no image of nature that is not at the same time an image of private property.”
Roy Arden, Tree Stump, Nanaimo B.C., (1991), Courtesy of the artist and Monte Clark Gallery.
In Vancouver, there is no image of nature that is not at the same time an image of private property. Possession structures the visual culture and economy of the image. Whether this image is a meticulously crafted photograph for a condo advertisement staged in False Creek, or a self-portrait at the top of Grouse Mountain, almost always the photograph is invested with an inflated sense of status, projection, and desire. And regardless of whether the image circulates on Instagram or Twitter, Grindr or the gallery system, the image is strictly that of appearance, never perceived as the product of labor or violence. Its value is measured by likes, dates,♡, second dates, re-posts, and most importantly, in the context of real estate, the inflation of the property’s price-tag. The possession of nature goes hand-in-hand with nature’s commodification.
Roy Arden, Monster House, Coquitlam (1996), Courtesy of the artist and Monte Clark Gallery.
The visual culture of Vancouver is wholly dominated by the view. Capital appears to accumulate to such a degree that nature transforms into image.[i] What is conventionally understood as ‘first nature’ (mountains, trees, sea and sky) is replaced by a type of supernatural ‘second nature’ (nature mediated but also mimicked by glass towers, ‘false creeks’ and man-made islands). In the conquest of nature by capital, this supernatural mode is reflected back to citizens, but inverted. Caught in the vicious circuits of exchange, the city is continually remade from the dream-work of the commodity — material abundance, natural beauty, unlimited growth and luxury. The phantasmagoria of the commodity conceals the forces of expropriation and dispossession tied to the possession of nature.
What image better describes this universal condition than the common Instagram trope that pictures a deadened piece of nature — flora, fern, or twig — grasped by a single hand? The subject, whose only relation to nature is a weekend stroll, desires to forge a temporary bond, photographically, with a severed and lifeless fragment.
The possession of nature does not ultimately belie the founding origins of the territory. The Latin phrase found on British Columbia’s coat of arms — “splendor sine occasu” — literally translates to “splendor without diminishment” (sometimes “magnificence without ruin”). From its very founding, Vancouver, the province’s most strategic colonial outpost, was envisioned as the perfection of luxury, as if endowed, miraculously, with glory and magnificence. In the specific case of colonial governance and occupation, this motto advanced the belief that the sun never set on the British Empire.
Aesthetic splendor, however, is not the same as the sublime, which, if following the writings of Edmund Burke, marshals feelings of pain, danger or terror. And yet, if there is a remnant of the sublime still present in the slogan splendor sine occasu, it is in the latter half of the phrase, sine occasu, “without diminishment.” For it is this part of the phrase that fastens aesthetic splendor to limitlessness. Unlike Burke, Immanuel Kant argued that the sublime was not experienced in nature but was encountered when the mind was free to contemplate itself, for itself, in the absence of limits. When the mind is released from the drudgery of instrumental reason, the subject is encouraged to explore its own limitlessness. Kant clarified his position in the Critique of Judgement (1790):
Sublimity is contained not in any thing in Nature, but only in our minds, insofar as we can become conscious of our superiority to Nature. When we speak of the Sublime in Nature we speak improperly: properly speaking, Sublimity can be attributed merely to our way of thinking.
The objects of nature that seem sublime — mountains, oceans, deserts — are nothing in the order of magnitude to that which the human mind represents in the order of the infinite. When the subject experiences something that is limitless on a psychic level, the subject in turn experiences itself as limitless.
“The Latin phrase found on British Columbia’s coat of arms — “splendor sine occasu” — literally translates to “splendor without diminishment” (sometimes “magnificence without ruin”). “
Vikky Alexander, Model Suites, Sliding Door, (2005), Courtesy of the artist.
Colloquially referred to as “The City of Glass,” Vancouver represents a unique aesthetic object that appears to shine and glitter in all directions. The sublime, in this particular local iteration, is not associated with the reinvention of the subject through the faculty of the mind per se, but is reimagined as if invested with an imaginary endlessness. Beauty without end, splendor without diminishment.
As a medium inextricably entwined with the promotional culture of the city’s real estate industry, photography has operated both to corroborate but also critique the visual culture of the city.[ii] Just as the city is situated at the edge of the continent — as the territory’s ‘Terminal City’ — photography also appears situated at the extremes of meaning. No two works are more aware of this condition than Roy Arden’s Condominium Advertisement (1992) and Terminal City (1999). In Condominium Advertisement a ‘beach’ is reimagined as a row of glass towers, what Lisa Robertson once called “a glittering ruin sucked upwards.” The city pictured in Arden’s Terminal City, by contrast, shows the inverse of ‘supernatural’ Vancouver — piles of waste accumulated on the side of the train tracks near the Port of Vancouver. As we might quickly notice in the first photograph that introduced this essay, Arden’s Monster House, Coquitlam BC (1996), the newly minted development possesses a unique capacity to mimic but also stand on equal footing to that of Mount Baker. Arden’s photo work from the 1990s, when viewed as a constellation, is best understood as a type of photography set against the grain of the city’s visual economy.[iii]
Roy Arden, Terminal City #10, (1999), Courtesy of the artist and Monte Clark Gallery.
It is for this reason that photographer Jeff Wall, in an early essay on Arden, recognized how the photographer’s archival projects in the 1980s were marked by catastrophe. “The emblematic event is dispossession,” Wall wrote, “and one could claim that all his archival pieces are allegories of dispossession, in which the conflicts and defeats of British Columbia’s past are depicted as splinters of the panorama of runaway modernity, which has become the radically serious image of history and historicity established by modernist art and discourse.”[iv] Catastrophe, understood as a single, homogenous disaster, became the byword for Vancouver historically, as a place marked by racial violence, economic inequality, environmental disaster, and inner-city rebellion. Although the subsumption of these phenomena under the single concept of catastrophe might fail to grasp the political or social differences between them, this is nevertheless how Vancouver came to understand itself.
“The objects of nature that seem sublime — mountains, oceans, deserts — are nothing in the order of magnitude to that which the human mind represents in the order of the infinite. When the subject experiences something that is limitless on a psychic level, the subject in turn experiences itself as limitless.”
Evan Lee, Forest Fires, (2009-10), Courtesy of the artist and Monte Clark Gallery.
In the regional context of Vancouver, these representations are condensed along two oscillating axes: splendor and misery. The image of splendor, advanced by the city’s boosters and marketers, envisions Vancouver as a city of sunshine, mountains, healthy bodies, glass towers, easy livin’, organic food and luxurious lifestyle. In contrast, the other pole — misery — pictures Vancouver as its inverse: a city of rain, alienation, seasonal depression, waste, corruption, racism, health crises, colonial violence, murder, evictions, and oil spills. The region represents no simple binary. Shuttling along these two axes like the movement of two separate but conjoined surfaces on a mobius strip, the region constitutes a knot, a symptomal plane on which these extremes meet in a tangled reality.[v]
This past month these debates have been renewed with added force for the fourth annual Capture Photography Festival (April 1 – 28, 2017) alongside the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition Pictures From Here (May 19 – September 14 2017). The Festival, organized as a series of exhibitions and events principally around the medium of photography, featured both the old guard of Vancouver photography — Fred Herzog, Marian Penner Bancroft, Greg Girard — but also a number of photographers who have rethought the contemporary conditions and contradictions of image making in the city — Jeff Downer, Evan Lee, and Emily Neufeld. Viewed at an angle, the Festival not only asked us to rethink the unresolved questions surrounding the economy of image, visual culture and private property in Vancouver, but also forced us to reconsider anew our local histories of photography.
Perhaps one way to approach these questions is indirectly, through the work of Lewis Baltz, a photographer whose work was recently featured in the exhibition Lewis Baltz Portfolios (March 4 – May 20) at the Griffin Art Projects in North Vancouver. Baltz is best known for his work in the 1975 exhibition New Topographics. Although the exhibition was not widely seen at the time, New Topographics has been retrospectively praised as a “turning point” in the history of photography as well as a touchstone in the neo-pictorialist turn in Vancouver photography in the 1990s.[vi] The original exhibition curated by William Jenkins at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York (October 14-1975 – February 2, 1976, restaged at the Los Angeles County Museum from October 25, 2009 – January 3, 2010), sought to undo the established conventions and traditions of landscape photography. The exhibition sought to reinvent the genre outside the example advanced by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Minor White. To make this move, photographers like Baltz and Robert Adams turned to the prefabricated, mass-produced, commercial landscapes of suburban America. This shift is most evident in Adams’ Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado (1973), where the photographer foregrounds the bland stationary homes of this new Colorado landscape in front of the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains.
Photographers and critics in America did not unanimously celebrate the exhibition or Baltz’s or Adams’s work. A contemporary of Baltz’s from Los Angeles, Allan Sekula, had by 1975 positioned his photographic practice, aesthetically and politically, against the work of Baltz and the New Topographics. He admired theory school of photography but also described it, half-jokingly, as the “neutron bomb school of photography,” a type of photography that, as he put it, “killed people but left real-estate standing.”[xiv] In Sekula’s eyes, the work associated with the New Topographics exhibition strategically expunged the subject from the photographic image, all the while keeping the social structures of the landscape intact, failing in the process to address how the landscape was mediated through these social and economic filters.
The social aspects of Sekula’s critical photographic work exemplifies the distinction made by film critic Manny Farber, who taught Sekula at UC-San Diego in the 1970s, between what he called ‘termite art’ vs. ‘white elephant art’ — a distinction between an art that pursues the condition of the masterpiece, and those works that are indifferent to that condition. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” Farber states in an essay from 1962, “is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”[xv] Farber characterizes ‘termite art’ as that art that possesses buglike immersion in its material, without any particular aim — a type of activity that actualizes any area of practice without celebrating it.
Farber’s theorization of ‘termite art’ was pivotal to Sekula’s own self-theorization in the 1970s. “What I was experimenting with as an alternative,” Sekula wrote (echoing Farber), “was a way of suggesting that social topography was inevitably the site of social strife, class war, land-grabs, ethnic-cleansing, race-war, repression and empire. This is especially true in California,” Sekula added, “where the bones of the first inhabitants crunch underfoot with every step.”[xvi]
Likewise, for Vancouver, the central myth of city is the belief that the landscape exists and appears ex nihilo, in the absence of history, labor, or violence. As the story goes: nature simply circulates in the empty space of mere appearance. Arguably, the glass tower acts as the central architectural form to perpetuate this myth, operating as a means to collapse the difference between interior (condo) and exterior (nature), naturalizing the relations of commodity.
Vikky Alexander’s Model Suites, Dining Room (2005) – previously on display at the Contemporary Art Gallery’s exhibition On the Open Road – configures this relationship with precision, picturing the delirious confusion between nature and culture. Alexander’s photograph of a model display suite, situated atop the shimmering landscape of Downtown Vancouver, reflects the exterior surface of the condo’s view back onto the interior scene. From our view within the dining room, placed amid two reflected surfaces (table and wall), the subject finds it increasingly difficult to situate herself within the interior scene.
Alexander is not alone in picturing this delirious state. Two months ago, SFU Galleries exhibited Amie Siegel’s single-channel film, Quarry (2015), a work that charts the movements of expensive marble mined in an underground quarry in Vermont to the exclusive condos of Donald Trump’s mid-Manhattan, New York. Siegel’s work can be read as Alexander’s filmic equivalent. The primary visual device of Siegel’s film is the tracking-shot panorama. Set primarily within the interior spaces of high-end condominiums, Siegel edits together promotional footage, promotional photographs, and images of showrooms the artist shot herself, to reconfigure the unreal collapse of nature and culture. Like most interiors of the super rich, the effect is nauseating. Siegel’s mobilization of the panorama at once projects a sense of spatial totality, and yet, in the same breath, also suggests a greater expansion beyond the frame.[xvii] Repeatedly throughout the film, the artist often knits together photographs of interiors that do not exist in reality, but are woven together to suggest an unlimited panorama. At times the ground from which the image is based drops out from underneath it. The distinction between a photograph and reality, to which few give any serious consideration any more, is troubled throughout the film: the interior, rendered in such a way to seem real, is actually a model, and the room, realistically rendered, feels like a product of the imagination. Here, the slogan of the territory — splendor without diminishment — finds its visual equivalent in Siegel’s panorama. Coincidentally, Siegel’s contemporary iteration of luxury and splendor perfects the hallucinatory disorientation of the subject that was first encountered in Alexander’s Model Suite a decade previously.
Siegel’s vision of the city is so unsettling because it is a vision that excludes other images of the city not dictated by the tyranny of private property. If exceptions exist to the logic of possession and private property in Vancouver, they do so marginally and cryptically. Ensnared within the intricate circuits of the city’s image economy, these visions are often erased from the civic imaginary. In a notable riposte the collective Urban Subjects (Sabine Bitter, Jeff Derksen and Helmut Weber) have turned to these exceptional moments of public housing to think through Vancouver’s present urban crisis.
Their recent intervention, The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st Century (May 17 – July 16, 2017), held at the Vancouver Museum, seeks to address the actually existing aesthetic and communal counter-models to Vancouver’s housing crisis. Previously, in 2015, the collective plastered a series of posters around Vancouver drawing attention to the aesthetic and political examples of public housing in order to address Vancouver’s current housing crisis. Their vision of luxury (if it could even be called that) was a vision of a communal, public luxury discovered in public housing.
With the acceleration and intensification of condominium development in Vancouver in the past couple of years, museums and galleries have increasingly turned to the city’s photographic past to reflect on the rapid transformations of Vancouver’s social and economic fabric. Two recent exhibitions from the Capture Photography Festival in particular, Fred Herzog’s Modern Colour and Greg Girard’s Under Vancouver 1972 – 1982, serve as two examples of this recent trend.
“The region represents no simple binary. Shuttling along these two axes like the movement of two separate but conjoined surfaces on a mobius strip, the region constitutes a knot, a symptomal plane on which these extremes meet in a tangled reality.”
Greg Girard, Super Valu, (1976), Courtesy of the artist and Monte Clark Gallery.
Locally and internationally, Herzog’s photographs of Vancouver have been cemented in the photographic discourse as not only a unique body of work on Vancouver in the later half of the twentieth century, but also a landmark work in colour photography in the history of the medium. A number of recent publications and exhibitions on Herzog’s work have circulated in the past decade or so, including Grant Arnold and Michael Turner’s Fred Herzog Vancouver Photographs (2007), Vancouver Art Gallery’s Fred Herzog’s Photographs (2011), and the most recent publication, Fred Herzog Modern Colour (2017). On the other hand, Greg Girard’s body of work on Vancouver is less known locally but more well-known internationally for his photographs of the Asia Pacific (publications include City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon City (1999), Phantom Shanghai (2007), Hanoi Calling: One Thousand Years Now (2010)). Girard’s first photographs of Vancouver were shot when the photographer was 18 and continued up until his mid-20s. Although Herzog had emigrated to Canada in 1952 from Stuttgart Germany (arriving in Vancouver in 1953), Girard was also an outsider to the city — albeit of a different sort, having grown up in the suburb of Burnaby — a fact that certainly contributes to the alienated tenor to both of their projects.
The Vancouver pictured in these two bodies of work seems so appealing because it captures a Vancouver unlike our own — a Vancouver that is only recognizable in memory, or a nearly familiar street corner — a picture of the city that offers a temporary respite from the bland and exclusionary Vancouver of the present. On a technical level, Herzog’s use of Kodachrome slide film is both a higher resolution and more color saturated than digital iPhone photography, figuring a past as literally more composed, clearer, and brighter than the blurry and amnesiac present.
The problem encountered when viewing these two projects, however, is not what the photograph represents (or does not represent) but the type of viewer the body of work elicits. The common refrain heard over and over again when looking at Herzog’s photographs is often the following: “I remember that building…” or “That’s the back of my house!” (nothing more nothing less) — a position that sounds something like “Once upon a time ….” Regretfully, the photograph is approached not formally or socially, but is read through the hazy filters of personal (not collective) memory. Encouraged by this tendency, the spectator is emboldened to feel wistfully nostalgic towards the city and its past, rather than advancing an interpretive or critical position towards the image and its complicated history.
The strongest example of this trend is found in the art writings of Douglas Coupland. For the publication, Vancouver in the Seventies: Photos from a Decade that Changed the City (2016), Coupland’s short epilogue recalls only quirky personal histories from the decade (for instance, a short paragraph about a young Coupland selling souvenirs at the Whitecaps Games at Empire Stadium), whereas the central social, political and economic antagonisms of the decade are reduced to an idiosyncratic list: “[…] The Ambleside oil spill / Night skiing on Grouse / Margaret Trudeau / Andrés wines / Bill Bennett / More protesting […] / Construction cranes / Gene Kiniski / Urban cowboy / Robsonstrasse / Greenpeace.”[xviii] With this free-floating accumulation of names and places, Douglas seems simply charmed by a book of photographs and offers no attempt at historical interpretation.
Counter-intuitively, the memory industry that thrives on reproducing the overlooked projects of photographic history seems to amplify, if not revel in the production of historical forgetting. This amnesiac position is closely aligned to Siegfried Kracauer’s early theory of photography (1927) which claimed that the photographic image functioned as a means to block mnemonic experience rather than aid its active production:
Never before has an age been so informed about itself, if being informed means having an image of objects that resembles them in a photographic sense…. In reality, however, the weekly photographic ration does not at all mean to refer to these objects or ur-images. If it were offering itself as an aid to memory, then memory would have to make the selection. But the flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory. The assault of this mass of images is so powerful, that it threatens to destroy the potentially existing awareness of crucial traits. Artworks suffer this fate through their reproductions. … In the illustrated magazines people see the very world that the illustrated magazines prevent them from perceiving. … Never before has a period known so little about itself.[xix]
When it comes to Herzog’s project the problem does not seem to exist in some inherent characteristic of the photograph itself, but in the ways through which his photographs are read, consumed and interpreted by his picture-buying public. A slight shift in perspective, however, may help to counter this historical trend and tendency.
Herzog had a long professional life working with photography. From 1961 to 1990, the same period he had made his most iconic photographs of Vancouver, Herzog worked as a medical photographer for St. Paul’s Hospital. This detail should not be passed off as a simple biographical fact. The medical photographer is a technical worker, photographing symptoms and anomalies for medical analysis. The unofficial bible of the genre, Kodak’s Manual for Clinical Photography (1972), detailed a language that is highly technical, exacting and based on a precise and proficient photographic vocabulary (lighting, framing, printing). In a certain sense, the work of the medical photographer is very much like the police photographer, another technical worker who provides ‘evidence’ for the detective (or, in the case for medical photographer, the doctor). What the detective and doctor both share is that their interpretation, whether of a crime scene or a medical symptom, is conjectural, which is to say a type of knowledge based on scraps of evidence (fingerprints, bullet holes, bodily ailments etc.). The technical photographer toils in the medical studio and darkroom in order to render the symptom into a clear and discernible image. Girard’s and Herzog’s projects could be read as a unique placement of the spectator’s gaze onto a trivial space of Vancouver — interior, street, or window display — so as to render this everyday scene strange and peculiar. The scenes of Herzog and Girard, like the interior geographies of detective fiction, cannot be faced head-on (like the symptom) but only at an angle, indirectly.
“Regretfully, the photograph is approached not formally or socially, but is read through the hazy filters of personal (not collective) memory. Encouraged by this tendency, the spectator is emboldened to feel wistfully nostalgic towards the city and its past, rather than advancing an interpretive or critical position towards the image and its complicated history.”
Greg Girard, Buildings on Railway Ave., (1975), Courtesy of the artist and Monte Clark Gallery.
For Greg Girard’s Under Vancouver, for instance, one way to approach his project is through the stylistic tones of film noir. If there is a consistent stylistic device Girard has returned to throughout his photographic career it is singular emphasis to the crepuscular street scenes and landscapes of the city. The closest visual equivalent to this mode is the paintings of Edward Hopper, and more expansively, the genre of noir. For Girard, the genre of noir acts as a stylistic filter to picture the city not only as dark and rainy (sometimes snowy), but also as a scene of anomie and danger. Girard’s world appears to his audience as a fallen one — a world illuminated not by daylight, but rather by the artificial tinge of neon signs and streetlamps. For it is the street at night which condenses a litany of symptoms — a site imagined as a source of alienation and paranoia, suspicion and misery. This is not an elevated image of the city as splendor, but a vision of the city as dead end.
Similar to any background description in the work of Raymond Chandler, both Herzog and Girard focus those scenes of modern life that appear as dingy and anonymous as a late night diner. These photographs are characterized by the prevalence of shuttered windows, vacant hotel lobbies and desolate back alleys — all scenes that crystalize the anomie and increasing autonomization of modern life. Whenever a car is pictured in Girard’s series it almost always looks as if abandoned, usually due to a flat or some other mechanical problem. If these street scenes and interiors seem disjointed and uneven it is because the world in which the photographer moves is also fragmentary. “This is not the city of busy marketplace or park,” Roy Arden once remarked about Vancouver, ”but the forgotten or undervalued corners that seem to reflect the pedestrian’s solitude.”[xx] We should add, however, that this solitude is now injected with a foreboding unease.
If Girard’s street scenes resemble the stylistic maneuvers of film noir, a question should be posed here: What role does crime and criminality play in Girard’s photographs? One way to approach this question, perhaps, is through a photograph Roy Arden took of Girard in 1985 for his early series, Fragments – Photographs 1981 – 1985. Arden’s photograph pictures Girard with his back turned to the camera, shirt and jacket stripped off his body, posed as if to suggest his body was readied for a police strip-search. This “as if” quality unites Girard’s noirish tones with Arden’s haunting and unnerving portraits and street scenes. Crime and criminality do not appear here as material facts, but rather as a general atmosphere or suggestion. It is with this idea in mind that Peter Culley called the play of light in Arden’s portraiture as a type of “illuminated dread.”
Roy Arden, Greg Girard with Coat, from Fragments, (1981-85), Courtesy of the artist and Monte Clark Gallery.
On Arden’s series as whole, Culley was drawn to the dialectical affects the work put in play. “The oscillations between desire, repulsion, boredom, and avidity that suffuse Fragments’ portraits,” Culley writes, “reach in this image a point of claustrophobic saturation.” This pointed emphasis on illumination is brought to bare, photographically, in Arden’s focus on Girard’s sunburnt hands and arms, a detail that works suggestively to allude to how the body of the photographer was like its own light-sensitive plate.
As discussed above in Wall’s reading of Arden, the photographer’s archival projects were thought of through the model of catastrophe. For his Fragments series, however, the catastrophe is of a different order. This model of history does not focus on the spectacular and cataclysmic events of history, but rather the intolerable and pernicious aspects of everyday existence. “That things are status quo,” to quote Walter Benjamin, “is the catastrophe.” This model of catastrophe does more than merely reflect the political and social discontent of the period, it also elucidates the very language and syntax in which these historical forces are rendered concrete.
Viewed through this lens, Girard’s studies take on an added weight and pathos. The social bond between people who appear as strangers in Girard’s series conveys a feeling that creeps towards aversion. His subjects, like in Herzog’s images from the same time, appear disconnected from one another, producing a general sense of suspicion characteristic of the entire body of work. In these images, the social mass appears alien, if not hostile. The feeling of alienation becomes most acute whenever we see individuals pictured at night, isolated and loitering at the threshold of buildings. More often than not, the figure posed at the threshold appears threatening, menacing. As Fredric Jameson has recognized in the genre of noir, this figure tends to personify Suspicion: “Suspicion is everywhere in this world,” Jameson writes, “peering from behind a curtain, barring entry, refusing to answer, preserving the privacy of the monad against snoopers and trespassers.”[xxi]
For scenes shot in interiors — diners, hotel lobbies, rooming houses — the photographer is able to mould the figure to the environments in which they are pictured, as if to suggest a relation (or symbiosis) between character and place. These figures, to quote the words of Jameson again, have “the lack of money stamped on them as catastrophe.”[xxii] Visually on par with the earlier practitioners of colour photography, Girard’s use of colour is a central formal device, capable of heightening the collapse of the subject into the scene in which they are pictured.
It is here that Girard shares a close affinity to the photographic portraits of William Eggleston in their mimetic capacity to blend, sometimes camouflage, the subject into the environment in which they are pictured. This formal device is quite similar to Herzog’s proclivity to place a fire engine red-like object in the center of the frame in the middle distance, often framed by cyans and primary blues and yellows. What matters, here, is not the red object per se, but everything that revolves around it.
Girard is not alone in his work’s attraction to noir. Recently, Stan Douglas has revisited the crisp, black-and-white tones of film noir for a recent series of prints exhibited at Victoria Miro gallery in London. These works are read not as a deviation from his oeuvre more generally, but as a part of a persistent current throughout his career, a tendency that the photographer shares with other lens-based artists in the region (Penner Bancroft, Arden, Wall).
Marian Penner Bancroft, Spiritland/Octopus Books, Fourth Avenue, (1987), Courtesy of the artist and Republic Gallery.
For instance, this stylistic emphasis is clearly at work throughout Wall’s own body of work, evidenced in the artist’s coupling of modernist autonomization with a criminal element in the following nocturnal works, No (1983), Passerby (1996) and Night (2001). In a sense, Wall’s first light-box cibachrome transparency, The Destroyed Room (1978), set the tone and tenor of his practice to date and should be included in this discussion. As mentioned earlier in Girard’s nocturnal scenes, the photographer’s emphasis on modernist autonomization — pictured as a discrete and fragmentary glimpse of modern life — is not presented to the spectator as empty or insignificant, but through the lens of suspicion, often violence.
Douglas’s recent prints could be read as a continuation of the sequence he produced for Midcentury Studio (2012), a work where the artist adopted the fictional persona of an anonymous mid-century Vancouver studio photographer working between 1945 to 1951. What makes Midcentury Studio so appealing, if not challenging, is the work’s capacity to switch between photographic codes — ‘art photography’ to ‘portrait photography,’ ‘sports photography’ to ‘forensic photography’ — all the while remaining dedicated to the stylistic maneuvers of noir. Douglas’s tendency to switch between photographic codes complicates the discussion around conceptual photography as anti-aesthetic or deskilled. To label studio photography or forensic photography as deskilled and anti-aesthetic reads as an impoverished categorization. In the case of Midcentury Studio, the discussion around deskilling fails to address the interpretive problem encountered when the work switches from one micro-genre to another (or when one genre is contaminated by another genre).
“Counter-intuitively, the memory industry that thrives on reproducing the overlooked projects of photographic history seems to amplify, if not revel in the production of historical forgetting.”
Stan Douglas, Gulity, 1950, (2010), Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery.
During an artist talk in London last year, Douglas was asked why he turned to noir as an aesthetic model. His answer was rather pithy: “Because Vancouver is noir.” Reading this response and looking again at Herzog’s and Girard’s projects, we should pose the following questions again: Why noir? Why now?
In his 2012 publication Midcentury Studio, Douglas provides a short two page account defending the turn to the 1940s as an aesthetic period to mimic. Stylistically, his project took its cue from the photographic automatism of Arthur Fellig (Weegee). The draw of Weegee’s photographs, Douglas claims, is encountered in a twofold manner: Weegee’s capacity to arrive at the scene of the crime almost immediately after its occurrence, and secondly, the camera’s ability to capture the “uncanny events” located at the margins of the image, outside of the photographer’s control.
On a social and political level, Midcentury Studio represented a fragmentary portrait of the city at the juncture of the mid-1940s, a period much like our own, situated between economic recession and political uncertainty. According to Douglas, the faces featured in Midcentury Studio (in particular the group pictured in the series Malabar People) read as a social palimpsest of the time: “[T]heir faces,” Douglas writes, “showed evidence of an unhealthy diet and the stress and anxiety brought on by spurious rumors of internal sedition and external threat of weapons of mass destruction.” Douglas’s line follows closely to Raymond Chandler’s own description of the importance of the hard-boiled genre for its capacity to picture a world characterized by fear and violence. The genre’s power came from its “smell of fear.” “Their characters lived in a world gone wrong,” Chandler wrote, “a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night.”
Douglas’s iteration borrows from this negative vision of the city but reworks it ever so slightly, rendering Vancouver into an image of freedom, but also lawlessness. This image of freedom is most notable in the itinerant communities depicted in Bumtown (2015), Lazy Bay (2015), and Hogan’s Alley (2014), but also in Douglas’s The Second Hotel Vancouver (2014) — a building that was briefly squatted by ex-servicemen and others uprooted after WWII — four images which show an image of housing (and the city) based on the principles of autonomy and community rather than profit and individualism.
For some critics, however, the genre of noir has its own regressive elements. Historian Norman M. Klein, has argued that the noir genre emerged in part as a type of mythos about white panic during the Depression: “The white knight in a cesspool of urban decay,” Klein writes, “about desire turned into a slot machine.”[xxii] Although the genre described the underside of American life, noir also conveyed an “ideologically false” vision of the city’s poor, and in particular, the non-white of Los Angeles. All too often, Klein claimed, the genre stands in for fears about foreigners, women, jobs, speculation and cheap hype. By extension, the photographer’s movements through the city, similar to the detective figure more generally, could be read as a type of slum-tourism.
And yet, we should not forget either, how the genre was also mobilized as one of the many anti-myths of the modern city, marshaled in the context of North America specifically as a means to convey the nightmarish collapse of the American dream. For historian Mike Davis, the genre acted as a type of “transformative grammar,” a means to undermine the image of the city sold by urban boosters and property developers.
For the passing commentator and local alike, Vancouver emerges in popular consciousness as a city without depth, a topographical terrain without unconscious. The attentive turn towards the city’s underground, however, operates as means to picture the city as if animated by a violent, subterranean force. In the context of contemporary Vancouver, noir holds the capacity to figure a series of interconnected registers of depth — registers that range from the criminal to the sexual, the geographical to the political, the racial to the social. Each of these addresses the unique encounter between a precarious physical topography and an equally unstable human topography. Whether this vision is figured in Douglas’s Midcentuy Studio, Girard’s Under Vancouver, or countless other local examples, noir reminds us that beneath the city’s veneer of luxury and splendor, there is also a dark and persistent undercurrent.
This essay was corrected to include Michael Turner as a co-author for the publication Fred Herzog Vancouver Photographs (2007).
[i] This sentence takes its cue from Guy Debord’s famous thesis from The Society of the Spectacle (1967). “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.”
[ii] Here, I want to remember Lisa Robertson’s epilogue to Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), where she writes: “The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in the fluid called money. Buildings disappeared into newness. I tried to recall spaces, and what I remembered was surfaces. Here and there money had tarried. The result seemed emotional. I wanted to document this process. I began to research the history of surfaces. I included my own desires in the research. In this way, I became multiple. I became money.” See: Lisa Robertson, Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, 2.
[iii] Peter Culley, “A Poem Containing History,” in Fragments: photographs, 1981-1985, (North Vancouver: Presentation House Gallery, 2002), 33.
[iv] Jeff Wall, “Roy Arden: An Artist and His Models,” in Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 111.
[v] The symptomatic, in the words of Fredric Jameson, represents “an imaginary solution to an internal contradiction,” where myth and anti-myth critically entwine. See: Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1981).
[vi] Britt Slavesen, “New Topographics,” in New Topographics, (Gottingen: Steidl, 2009).
[vii] See: William Jenkins, The Extended Document: An Investigation of Information and Evidence in Photographs, (Rochester, N.Y.: George Eastman House, 1975), 2.
[viii] Jenkins, “Introduction,” 6.
[ix] “The stylistic context within which all of the work in the exhibition has been made,” Jenkins wrote, “is so coherent and so apparent that it appears to be the most significant aspect of the photographs.” See: Jenkins, “Introduction,” 7.
[x] Slavesen, “New Topographics,” 42.
[xi] David Campany, Anonymes: Unnamed America in Photography and Film, (Paris: Le Bal, 2010), 87.
[xii] Ibid., 87.
[xiii] Baltz stated further in the interview: “I was born in one of the most rapidly urbanizing areas in the world: Southern California in the postwar period. You could watch the changes take place; it was astonishing. A new world was being born there, perhaps not a very pleasant world. This homogenized American environment was marching across the land and being exported. And it seemed nobody wanted to confront this. I was looking for the things that were the most typical, the most quotidian, everyday and unremarkable. And I was trying to represent them in a way that was the most quotidian, everyday and unremarkable. I certainly wanted to make my work look like anyone could do it. I didn’t want to have a style; I wanted it to look as mute and as distant as to appear to be as objective as possible […]. I tried very hard in this work not to show a point of view. I tried to think of myself as an anthropologist from a different solar system.” Lewis Baltz quoted in Campany, Anonymes, 87. This perspective is not new to Southern California, but follows earlier critiques of the region. “Towns do not develop here,” local writer Sarah Comstock observed in the 1920s, “ they are instantly created, synthetic communities of a strangely artificial world.” See: Sarah Comstock quoted in Carey McWilliams, Southern California County, 233.
[xiv] Allan Sekula, “Allan Sekula California Stories” Christopher Grimes Gallery, Exhibition press release (November 5, 2011 – January 7, 2012).
[xv] Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” (Winter 1962), Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, (New York: Library of America, 2009), 535.
[xvi] Sekula remarked on the performance in the following manner: “So early on I was trying to provoke a clash with large technical and economic systems. But action art seemed to devolve into artistic self-aggrandizement. I became less interested in the petty criminal and transient as romantic disguises, and more interested in documentation, especially the ambiguity of the documentary function and the esthetic modesty and worldliness of the photograph. I was drawn to a very mundane idea of documentary: something very indirect, uninfected by obvious esthetic treatment. And I began to think that it must be possible to photograph everyday life — leaving a factory, or housework — as if it were performance.”4 See: Debra Rising, “Imaginary Economies: An Interview with Allan Sekula,” in Dismal Science: Photo Works 1972-1996 (Normal: University Galleries, Illinois State University, 1999), 240.
[xvii] On the visual vocabulary of the panorama, see: Allan Sekula, Fish Story, 43-44.
[xviii] Douglas Coupland, “Vancouver in the Seventies” Pivotal Decade, in Vancouver in the Seventies: Photos from the Decade that Changed the City, ed. Kate Bird and Shelley Fralic,
[xix] Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography,” in Mass Ornament, ed. and trans. Thomas Levin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 58.
[xx] Roy Arden, “Notes on Fragments,” in Fragments: photographs, 1981-1985, (North Vancouver: Presentation House Gallery, 2002), 11.
[xxi] Fredric Jameson, “On Raymond Chandler,” The Southern Review, (Jul 1, 1970), 634.
[xxii] Fredric Jameson, The Detections of Totality, 41, 64.
[xxiii] Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso, 1998), 79.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Andrew Witt.)