The Natural Entropy of Things

An Interview with Stephen Waddell

Stephen Waddell’s book Hunt and Gather, published in 2011 by Steidl in Germany, is descriptive, by title, of his process and intention. It isn’t anthropological in referring to stages in the development of homo sapiens, making our way; it describes instead Waddell’s preference, pursuit and methodology. He wants an image, takes it from life—a form of street photography with fully applied impediments—seeks its source in a history of visualization, a tributary art historical bank of images, real or close to that, and waits and hunts and looks and finally seizes the image when it presents itself. He’d been luring and tracking it all along, the bait set somewhere in his own accretive art historical image bank. You see it in A Resting Worker, 2000, an archival inkjet print, its painterliness unmistakable. Its source is perhaps Manet’s The Dead Man (The Dead Toreador), 1864–65, but in Waddell’s photograph there is no sign of violence or death—just a figure taking some ease, or is its visual reference Waddell’s painting A Resting Worker ll, which preceded it by two years? Preceeded it in seeing, or making, opening up nicely the question of what are the sources of an image, anyway? From where does their materialization spring?

Installation process for “Stephen Waddell: Dark Matter Atlas,” Vancouver Art Gallery, 2016. Photo: Stephen Waddell Studio. All photos courtesy the artist.

You see it in the colour photograph, Asphalt Layer, 2001, which has a clear and direct and intentional antecedent in Gustave Caillebotte’s Les Raboteurs de Parquet, 1875, and here, looking at Waddell’s Asphalt Layer you don’t just have the niggle of familiarity and recognition. You’re right, you have indeed seen this before, almost exactly this; we’re not just fortunate, self-congratulatory viewers. This is what Waddell wants in his picture making. In the interview that follows, he tells us that every time he sees something he relates it back to something else he’s seen. Baudelaire comes up as a source and reference in this conversation and in the making of his work, and Waddell speaks of intrinsic beauty and says, “aesthetic thought starts with the visualization of what is in front of you and the pre-visualization of what you’ve already experienced in your life.” He identifies it as a “folding-over” which I like to think of as enfolding, of taking the visual experience into yourself, by way of elaboration. Contributing to this too would be his Vancouver roots and location with its pulling back from or re-presenting the tenets of conceptual art in its return to image making. I’m referring here to Dieter Roelstraete’s essay “Vision and Its Discontents” from the book Roy Arden: Against the Day, published by the Vancouver Art Gallery and Douglas & McIntyre in 2007. Roelstraete describes this new approach as one that “once again revolves around the event of vision,” an event in which Waddell is so thoroughly engaged.

Installation view, “Stephen Waddell: Dark Matter Atlas,” Vancouver Art Gallery, 2016. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery.

Waddell’s pursuit and capture of the perfectly composed and reference-rich image is also rich and rife with difficulty, a state Waddell finds, by his own admission, pleasurable. Michael Fried, who wrote the essay for Hunt and Gather, uses the nice phrase “the knot of obduracy” in describing Waddell’s process and finished work. In the interview to follow Waddell responds to our inquiring about his application of Fried’s phrase by agreeing that the knot is an issue and state that artists pursue— the how of discovering something that seems just right and then making it awkward. I would identify this as a means of amplification. Since the poetic is present in Waddell’s work, as I see it, it’s fitting to add here brief lines from one of Canada’s most significant poets. This is Robert Kroetsch in Seed Catalogue (Turnstone Press, 1977), reminding us that “Love is an amplification by doing / over and over.” The obdurate suggests that kind of persistence is essential.

Setting problems and seeking difficulty as a means of making something distinguishable as his own is an impetus for Waddell. It’s not the Modernist charge to make it new. It’s not innovation Waddell wants. What he’s after is “trying to know some part of my craft and personalize it.” This, he acknowledges, can also be difficult.

In his new body of work, recently exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery—large-scale silver-gelatin prints titled “Dark Matter Atlas,” he had set himself a task of some difficulty. Here are underground caves in Lebanon, Canada and the United States, spaces, he reminds us, which are not meant to be seen. These are underground volumes, entirely unavailable to sight—black, dangerous, enclosed. He has printed them at a scale commensurate with their own, tableau-size, creating the effect of a place which you could enter, visually. The technical limitations weren’t mitigated. Waddell told us he’d never made interiors; these caverns, so far below the earth’s surface, so far from natural light, are unquestionably interior. He said he’d never set up flash photos. Without light these spaces are blind to sight, blind to art making, and he also said he never works serially—a format he avoids since photography lends itself readily to the serial mode, and he moves away from that kind of ease. The work is black and white; colour is a language for him.

Stephen Waddell, Stain, 2012, silver gelatin, 60 x 49 inches, glazed, framed.

However, the intensity was also generative. Here was a metaphor for consciousness, a void to be filled. He observed these settings and the photographs he produced as an opportunity to “de-miniaturize Surrealist photography.” Looking at the photographs we can’t help but begin to apply narrative, or at the very least sensibility and sensation. We anthropomorphize, we anticipate how fearful the deep underground black space would be—an easy place for intense anxiety. None of this is Waddell’s intention, but he can’t claim accident in presenting them at a scale such that we could readily fall into the image mounted in front of us.

Although this body of work is black and white he spoke at length about the place and meaning colour holds for him. Roy Arden curated Waddell’s exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver in 2008. He concluded his essay in this way, and it’s a good summation. He wrote, “Much of Waddell’s enterprise has been involved with defining his desire to make pictures with a camera, rather than being a “photographer.” Now that photography is finally free of the index, free of its status as document, it will be easier to understand artists like Waddell—who choose not to make photographs, but pictures.”

This interview was conducted by phone with Stephen Waddell on September 22, 2016.

BORDER CROSSINGS: What made you work in the scale you used in the exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery? Had you done it before?

STEPHEN WADDELL: No, I hadn’t made anything that big. I’ve been shooting the cave pictures for a few years, which was an odd subject to begin with. Then part way through it occurred to me that the subject could engender quite a large picture, the scale of what you saw and maybe even bigger. Part of it was to de-miniaturize Surrealist photography, the idea that the experience of these forms and maybe even an unconscious thing could happen in a very large form. It didn’t have to be small; it could become like a room, a large chamber. Also, black and white photography interested me in that you can actually make a large analogue picture, more or less any size you want, if you put it together in pieces. Whereas digital pictures are limited in scale and you have to adhere to various printer widths and other things. There is something odd about using these old technologies that allow any scale you want. I was interested to see what size picture I could actually make and still have it be about that subject. I knew what they might look like, I just wasn’t sure I could do it. A month before I still wasn’t sure that everything was going to work. I guess it had something to do with the optical quality of those prints put together in pieces onto those substrates at that scale. I think there is a certain point where it all comes together and you don’t feel it’s an assembled thing; they come across as tableaux. The big pictures are meant to be seen as tableaux, the rest of the pictures as fragments or portraits. I wanted to make pictures for people who are interested in more complicated art historical subjects. They would have a feeling of an enclosed system or world; you could feel that what was in the picture was enough, which is really what tableau is. That was important and I felt scale could somehow play into that. I had never made pictures that big so it was an experiment. They are provisional in some sense.

Was Stain, taken in a parking garage in 2012, the first of the black and white work?

The very first. I thought I would never work in black and white. If you had told me in the beginning of 2012 that I was going to make a bunch of black and white pictures I would have disagreed, because colour was a language and a way to explore the world that seemed more appropriate to my person. It still is but once you find one subject in black and white, you start to find others.

In much smaller-scale work, say Walker Evans, there is a tradition for recognizing the beauty of the encountered stain or the found graffiti mark.

Yes, black and white photography is staining. When I saw the water pouring down that underground parking garage I thought of it as a kind of darkroom process. I was thinking about Polke’s Documenta 6 installation, where he basically exposed large sheets of black and white photo paper and then took a mop and developed and processed them on the floor. In the late ’60s and early ’70s Polke was moving into these large-scale stained pictures and chemical-reaction paintings. He was taking the chemistry out of photography and putting it in a hybrid place between the two. When he starts to make photographs and when he does black and white installations of them, he’s always dealing with staining. So it felt natural for me to start there because it was a precursor to my finding that parking garage.

Onlookers and Wet Stalagmite No. 2, 2016, silver gelatin, 34.5 x 27.375 inches, glazed, framed.

Scale was obviously something you already had on your mind, but to find a way back to photography through a painter makes a nice connection, especially in Germany, the home of Big Attack photography.

It does, because in Germany one experiences someone like Polke, who was unafraid of scale. And big photography is, as you say, characteristic of Germany. When you see the largest Gursky pictures, say the “Montparnasse Apartments,” you do start to wonder if there is something that is too big in photography. The zeitgeist today is not in any way, shape or form interested in questions about large pictures. We live in a slightly more gilded moment where decoration and, what shall we call it, object fascination and arrangement is the larger part of what we see in art.

What compelled you to go from Stain to caves and grottos as a subject?

I think Stain made me go back and look through the history of photography. I hadn’t really thought about the ontological and material qualities of black and white photography. One can literally go back and think about what are these papers and these chemistries and what happens when you marry the negatives with the paper. But the formal qualities of black and white photography hadn’t attracted me properly until I made one, and then once I’d done that I realized there are all these subject matters, these idioms of Modernism, that had been dealt with in the 1920s and 1930s. If one wanted, one could go back and tweak and re-present them because all those things remain unfinished. I think so much of the ’20s and ’30s in photography remained unfinished, mostly because of the Second World War, but also because of the shifting tide between painting and photography. Painting became quite dominant after the Second World War, especially through The New York School, so it was very hard for photography to compete. That said, when I made Stain I was interested in competing on a scale level in black and white photography.

…to continue reading the interview with Stephen Waddell, order a copy of Issue 140: Sound, Film, Photography here, or SUBSCRIBE and receive a limited edition Border Crossings tote, screen-printed late summer 2016 in Winnipeg, MB.

Arbutus Corridor, 2009, inkjet print, 119 x 147 cm, edition of 5.