To make the images for Midcentury Studio, a selection of which are at The Power Plant in Toronto until 4 March, Stan Douglas not only constructed a working period studio stocked with authentic equipment from the post-war North America that these images ‘document’, he also invented an impressively resourceful fictional character, a working photojournalist of the time, to make them. Douglas cast himself in the role, and in an extended interview with David Balzer, he talks about the photographer of these pictures in the third person, discussing the work with a distance that is disorienting and fascinating.
With characteristically intensive research and attention to detail, Midcentury Studio looks at the years just after the war, 1945-51, a time still twinged with darkness and desperation, but one looking forward to the optimism of 1950s America, when a working hack with a camera might just as easily shoot a murder victim or a brawl to sell to the papers as he might a cricket match or a magician to run in a magazine feature or as a print advertisement. Vancouver stands in, as it does so well, as anytown, its Hollywood North reputation perfectly matched for this exercise in projection and role-play.
In the curated selection at The Power Plant, the emphasis is on entertainment, as depicted by pleasures and distractions like magic tricks, carnival acts, sporting events, dancers, and the staff of a nightclub – a striking wall installation of noir-ish types with uncomfortably steady gazes. The project was in part inspired by Douglas’s engagement with images from the Black Star Collection, now housed at Ryerson University, and some of them will also be on view when the much-anticipated new Ryerson Image Centre opens next fall.
While there’s often only a hazy sense of the narrative contexts in which these pictures would have come to be made and helped to illustrate, there is also an incisive relationship to a longer history of photography as document – not only to the press photography of Weegee, clearly an influence, but also subtler nods to the motion studies of Edweard Muybridge, the typologies of August Sander, and even a kind of retrospective foreshadowing of the kind of images of that could have inspired Diane Arbus.
The series seems, significantly, to be about this trajectory, suggesting the slow slide of the documentary picture. Douglas casts us back to this era of a nobler photojournalism, a stark contrast to the ubiquity and the quick and cheerful aesthetic of images on facebook and flickr. But many of the works here also suggest the duplicitous, or at least enterprising, nature of the documentary photographer, and the ease with which the captured subject can move toward the constructed object. Like a slight of hand, unbelievable and undeniable all at once.