Prize-winning Photographer Explores the Singularity of the Medium

In the age of the mobile phone camera, this award emphasizes photography as a separate category of image creation, says this year’s Hasselblad Award winner, Stan Douglas.

Stan Douglas, Club Versailles, 1974, 2012.
Stan Douglas, Club Versailles, 1974, 2012.

The Canadian artist Stan Douglas has been awarded the Hasselblad Foundation’s International Award in Photography in 2016. The recipient receives one million Swedish Crowns. Stan Douglas was born in Vancouver in 1960, where he lives and works. Since the early 1980s, he has excelled with camera-based work in different forms, from installations to films and large-scale staged photographs. One of his most famous works is the film installation Der Sandmann, which showed at Documenta X in 1997. 

The international jury was led by Roxana Marcoci, senior curator for photography at MoMA. Other members included: Elvira Dyangani Ose, curator for the Gothenburg Biennial in 2015 and lecturer at Goldsmiths College in London; Florian Ebner, head of the photographic collection at Museum Folkwang, Essen; Duncan Forbes, director of Fotomuseum Winterthur; and Clare Grafik, curator at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. 

Besides Douglas’s innovative approach to photography and film’s different formats, and his careful reflection on these mediums’ histories, the jury emphasizes that “at the heart of his work lies a strong interest and commitment to social issues of race, gender, identity and post-colonial politics, whilst maintaining a valuable self-critical perspective on the role of the artist in contemporary culture.”

Stan Douglas.
Stan Douglas.

On the telephone from Vancouver, Stan Douglas told Kunstkritikk that the Hasselblad Award is important because it emphasizes photography as a distinct category of image creation:

“It is especially important today when everyone makes photographs with their cell phones. Someone told me that more photographs were taken last year than in the entire previous history of photography. People are always making the same images, as opposed to understanding the possibilities of the medium, and trying to exceed the limits and not only try to obey somebody’s expectations of what a good photograph is.

“To a certain degree somebody has decided what a photograph should look like and they’ve programmed that look into the cell phone camera, as opposed to taking the bare apparatus and trying to figure out what they can do that has not been done with the apparatus – that is what photographers can do.”

Douglas is considered part of the Vancouver School, but differs from photographers like Jeff Wall (who received the Hasselblad Award in 2002) and Rodney Graham in that he has a clear interest in place and history, and a deeper engagement with film history and narrative structures.

“Film and photography are very different experiences, even though they have a similar technological source. The core distinction is the sense of duration in the cinematic images – and they are considered retrospectively – relative to the images we’ve just seen. In a photograph it is all there simultaneously. In 2008, for the photo series Crowds and Riots, I started using the kinds of techniques and crews I use on film projects to make photographs. It’s just an efficient way of getting things done. But in the end it’s less a matter of how you make the thing, than what the things is, and the final experience.”

Stan Douglas, Hair, 1948, 2010.
Stan Douglas, Hair, 1948, 2010.

Stan Douglas is currently exhibiting at Victoria Miro in London, where his film installation The Secret Agent, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, is being shown on six large screens that surround the visitor. The gallery is also showing a series of large photographs where historical photos of Vancouver are processed with 3D-technology to achieve extreme detail and hyper-realistic representation, while simultaneously being assembled constructions. 

“I still call those photographs even though it’s using software called Maya, which is used for special effects in movies. It stills tries to mimic the optical effects that we know from traditional photography, so it is working with that same visual vocabulary. They are extending the photographic medium. There’s all kinds of potential in the technology, but it’s still the same family.”

The award ceremony will take place in Gothenburg on October 17, 2016, with the exhibition opening at the Hasselblad Center on the following day. 

“It will probably be a survey of works from the last nine years or so, with a broad range of approaches to making photography. The works on view in London now will be included and I will also be premiering some new works.”

The Hasselblad Award has been given out since 1980 by the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation. The list of winners reflects the development of the photographic medium from the classic documentary style of early award recipients like Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson, to more conceptual photo-based practitioners like Cindy Sherman.  In recent years the prize has been awarded to artists like Sophie Calle and Walid Raad, who make use of a variety of mediums, including photography, when examining questions around identity and the documentary.

Michigan Theatre, 1999.
Stan Douglas, Michigan Theatre, 1999.