The Scotiabank Photography Award has drastically expanded its range with its latest winner, naming an artist who has always worked with cameras but whose engagement with still photography is a sometime thing that appears for the moment to be over. Stan Douglas took the third annual $50,000 award, beating out short-list contenders Angela Grauerholz and Robert Walker.
Douglas, who was born in Vancouver in 1960, is an art world star whose work intersects with large shifts in the way we perceive media and historical events, and with seismic changes in global culture. He began with film, video and mixed-media installations in the 1980s, moved later into still photography, and indicated recently that he has returned to the moving image and is writing a play.
He's well known for his exacting creative control of every detail, yet his visually powerful works are essentially open, leaving the viewer to trace conceptual links latent in the images. His projects push their way into the fissures between memory, popular mythology and codes of mass media visual representation. His wide frame of reference, and his interest in "failed utopias," set him apart from other Vancouver conceptual photographers, including Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham.
"He's looking at visual culture in its widest sense," said juror William Ewing, the celebrated Canadian-born curator who, with National Gallery of Canada curator Ann Thomas and Vancouver Art Gallery administrator Karen Love, chose Douglas over a long list of 12 nominees. "Sometimes he's highly theatrical, literally and figuratively, staging very complex operations," Ewing said. "But he can also be very simple and straightforward, as in the urban views he took in Detroit, which he shot in a neutral, very classical way."
Douglas has often used the trappings of cinema in his still photography, building sets and casting performers. His elaborately-staged images of scenes from Vancouver's history include the 2008 public art commission, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, a recreation of the Gastown Riots that was shot on a constructed set with 80 actors, and used multiple exposures shot by a single camera from one location. His Midcentury Studio series (2010 – 2011) plays on the conventions of postwar press photography and film noir cinematography.
In a talk at the Vancouver Art Gallery in March, however, Douglas rejected the notion of "cinematic photography," and said that although he is an artist who "uses cameras primarily," he is finished with still photography for now.
"He has pushed the limits of contemporary photography," said jury chair Ed Burtynsky, skirting somewhat the issue of whether Canada's leading prize for photography should go to someone for whom the still image seems to be a transitive fixation that may be over. But Ewing said Douglas's win only emphasizes the SPA's far-reaching view of the art, after wins last year by Arnaud Maggs and in the inaugural year by Lynne Cohen, both "idiosyncratic but classical" photographers.
"Stan Douglas is a terrific choice, and is already well in line for major recognition," Ewing said. "It's not as if we're going to catapult him anywhere."
Douglas's works have been seen in several major solo exhibitions in Canada, as well as at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Stuttgart's Wurttembergischer Kunstverein. He has also exhibited numerous times at major art fairs, including the Venice Biennale, Documenta and the Whitney Biennial.
In addition to the cash prize, Douglas will receive a feature exhibition at the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in 2014, and a book published and distributed globally by the German art photography publisher Steidl. As runners-up, Grauerholz and Walker will each receive $5,000.