On his 56th birthday, last Tuesday, Stan Douglas was calmly preparing to fly to Toronto and then on to Sweden, to be fêted and awarded the prestigious and lucrative Hasselblad Award. Resting against a wall in his large, purpose-built studio in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside was the only photograph he has ever bought from a dealer. It is a work by Lee Friedlander, from the U.S. artist's Factory Valleys series – a photo that in one seemingly simple scene includes the complex components of life in the industrial heartland of the United States: A factory, a highway, a house and, in the foreground, trees rising from the snowy ground – a thin, bare, natural barrier to the smokestacks and vehicle engines churning behind.
A very different artist, Friedlander is Douglas's favourite photographer. He is also a Hasselblad recipient – one of a long list of accomplished photographers to win the prize, worth one million Swedish kronor (roughly $150,000). Other recipients include Ansel Adams, Cindy Sherman and another internationally respected Vancouverite, Jeff Wall.
The prize also brings an exhibition at the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg – marking the first solo show in Sweden for Douglas – "an artist of outstanding significance," the citation reads. An accompanying symposium has prompted some big-time career reflection as Douglas prepared his remarks for his speech.
"I kind of realized I only had one idea," he said during an interview at his studio. "Basically when I made this piece called Overture in 1986, kind of everything I've done since then was somehow embodied in that work."
Overture combined found footage shot by the Edison Film Company in 1899 and narration – an edit of the Overture from Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. A train travelling through the Rocky Mountains emerges from a tunnel, travels along a section of track and goes back into the dark tunnel. (I have not seen the work; Douglas described it to me, though the Art Gallery of Ontario does hold a copy)
Those ideas explored in Overture that Douglas refers to include the oscillation between suspicion (you're plunged into darkness and assume you're in the tunnel) and conviction (you see the tunnel walls); our understanding of the world being mediated by technology – the machine's-eye-view; and the uncertainty that comes with a slight change in the voiceover in the second part – an idea inspired by Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a play that was instrumental in Douglas's path to visual art.
Douglas was born in Vancouver and grew up near the University of British Columbia, going to school, he says, with the children of professors and bike-gang members. At Lord Byng Secondary, what he saw in art class – portraits and the like – didn't interest him. His main focus was theatre. He had a job as a theatre usher and was hoping to go to the National Theatre School of Canada.
But a high-school production of Waiting for Godot proved a turnoff. It was a mess – none of his fellow students had bothered to learn their lines. The production – a segment of the play – fell apart before it came even close to being mounted – a disappointment for Douglas, the would-be director.
Meanwhile, a teacher suggested Douglas visit the Vancouver Art Gallery – a place Douglas had never been. The VAG opened his eyes to an expanded definition of visual art and a more self-sufficient pursuit.
"I discovered art and realized I could make art by myself without all these collaborators," Douglas says.
He didn't completely give up on theatre – for graduation he performed a monologue from Beckett's Endgame – and the theatrical influence is apparent in much of his work.
At what is now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, he studied printmaking and sculpture. Something clicked when he realized he enjoyed photographing his sculptures more than making them.
During and after art school, he worked in the audio-visual department at the Vancouver Art Gallery and later the photo department. He lied to get the job, saying he knew how to use a large-format camera. When it quickly became obvious that he couldn't, he was allowed to learn on the job. He became skilled at reproduction photography and bought himself a used Linhof camera, and was eyeing a career as a commercial artist.
"I never thought I'd have a career as a visual artist. I always thought I'd have to have another job," he says.
Early on, he worked with slide projections. Then came Overture. It was shown at a self-produced midnight screening at Vancouver's Ridge Theatre to a handful of people. There was an even more dismal turnout for his first show in Toronto, he recalls, at the Funnel Experimental Film Theatre. But what the audience lacked in numbers it made up for in art-world heft: Artist Liz Magor and art curator and patron Ydessa Hendeles made up two-thirds of the audience. The other person was a guy Douglas knew from Vancouver – the bartender at a spot where the artist used to drink.
The CV on Douglas's New York dealer's website is long – 36 pages – and packed with exhibitions, prizes, publications and teaching positions. He is prolific and widely curious. He is voraciously interested in technology and history (especially forgotten history) – and tends to view things as an outsider.
Douglas is black in a city where one sees surprisingly few black people (an absence which was even more stark when he was growing up). And that feeling of being different has influenced his work. "There's often, in every work I do, there's some kind of outsider character who is the one I typically identify with," he says.
This may be most blatant in his 1991 30-second "monodrama" I'm Not Gary – where a white man crosses paths with a black man walking in the opposite direction at a strip mall and offers a friendly "Hi Gary. How you doin'?" The black man looks at the white guy. "I'm not Gary," he says.
"It happened to me," Douglas says, recounting the real-life event on Vancouver's Commercial Drive. "Somebody thought I was someone named Tyrone. And he says, 'Hey Tyrone, how you doin'?' And I said 'I'm not Tyrone.' But for a second I thought, 'Am I Tyrone?'" he says with a laugh. That involuntary response, the result of a routine being broken up (the routine being his actual name), is another theme which is repeated in his work.
Douglas's technological curiosity combined with his deep intelligence has allowed him to push technology's boundaries in the creation of new works. Consider Helen Lawrence, the 2014 play he co-created with TV screenwriter Chris Haddock, where live actors were immersed into 3-D digital environments; or the subsequent interactive installation and app Circa 1948, which inserts the viewer into two historical Vancouver environments.
Douglas's first dive into computer-assisted work was Every Building on 100 West Hastings (2001), a large-scale panorama, blended together digitally from individual photographs, of that block in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.
Across the street, on the north side of that block, rose the Woodward's Building – a development at the heart of Vancouver's gentrification debate. This is where Douglas's monumental mural Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008) presides over the entrance to the atrium. The work, commissioned by the developer, is a staged, cinematic scene from the Gastown Riot – an actual event where police clashed with pro-pot-smoking youth. Douglas's work, made with extras ("actors look like actors"), depicts young protesters, police loading people into a van, an officer on a horse. It's chaotic at the edges, empty in the centre of the intersection.
Douglas had never mde a work like this and figured he needed some practice so he could work on his technical chops. "I hadn't really photographed crowds before. I never photographed horses before. And this was going to cost half a million dollars to shoot so I figured I've got to figure this out," he says, seated at a table underneath a version of the work hanging in his office. That became his Crowds and Riots series.
He enjoyed photography so much that he spent the next five years doing only that. "Just to sort of let people know I was serious," he jokes.
While Douglas is often lumped in with the so-called Vancouver School of photoconceptualists, he rejects that categorization. But Vancouver has remained home for Douglas, even as his international stature has grown.
"I like the environment – the setting, the air, the moisture, all those things. The quality of life you can have here is quite extraordinary. I also like the fact that there's not the same kind of things at stake in terms of an artistic career that you have elsewhere. If I were in some place like New York, I would be paranoid all the time about 'How am I doing?' And there are some morbid symptoms in places like Toronto and Montreal where it's just big enough that people can be satisfied with the local acclaim as opposed to sort of looking elsewhere."
The exhibition opening at the Hasselblad Center this week will include Every Building on 100 West Hastings as well as other photographic works. It will also include a new series, DCTs – digital images which are beautiful to look at but are very much about technology, specifically the mathematics of JPEG compression.
"I figured if you can turn an image into code – into writing – you can write an image," he explains. "So I got my programmer to reverse-engineer the way this technology works so I can actually write basis functions and coefficients to produce images."
Looking ahead to future work, Douglas is thinking about riots again – in particular, the 2011 riots that began with the protest in the London suburb of Tottenham. He is also considering a project in New York set in the future and a project in Vancouver set in the past – 1976. After dreaming up and realizing elaborate, meticulous projects over the past few years, it feels good to be in an R&D phase.
"I'm really happy to be looking at reading material, musing about material kind of aimlessly – until I find out how it's going to click."
Stan Douglas is at the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg, Sweden, Oct. 18-Jan. 29 (hasselbladfoundation.org). A new book will be published by MACK in conjunction with the award and exhibition.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Stan Douglas's film work Overture no longer exists. In fact, the Art Gallery of Ontario has a copy.