Scotiabank Photography Award: Stephen Waddell

This survey exhibition celebrates the career of 2019 Scotiabank Photography Award winner Stephen Waddell, renowned for his urban scenes made in Canada and Europe. It highlights the Vancouver-based artist’s experiments with various photographic techniques and processes, and brings into focus his careful attention to scale and light. Waddell’s elegiac images—colour street compositions of workers and pedestrians, along with more recent black-and-white photographs of caves and grottos—reveal the artist’s painterly sensibility, as well as a found and uncanny theatricality. In a newly-created video for the Ryerson Image Centre’s Salah J. Bachir New Media Wall, Waddell revisits his earliest experiments with film from the early 1990s. This silent, non-narrative arrangement of Super-8 films focuses on one of his central photographic motifs: anonymous figures on the street seen walking from behind, followed stealthily as they circulate in various urban environments. Along with this exhibition, a publication presents a coherent overview of Waddell’s work; both serve as prestigious acknowledgements of his outstanding contributions to the field. The following text is excerpted from Brian Sholis’ essay, “A Walker in the City,” in Scotiabank Photography Award: Stephen Waddell (Göttingen: Steidl, 2020).

We’re surrounded by potential pictures, but it can be hard to see them. I don’t refer to the torrent of images in our social-media feeds, but rather to the world itself, especially the urban world. It is full of scenes worth noticing, and people worth photographing, that we can’t or won’t take the time to appreciate. This is partly a matter of survival. Writing in Berlin more than one hundred years ago, sociologist Georg Simmel noted that “the metropolitan type of man … develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him.” […] These many chance meetings in urban environments, he reported, created mental habits characterized by “reserve.” People doled out sympathies to each other in varying degrees, careful not to overextend their emotions as they adjusted to the accelerating pace of urban life. The city left its imprint on people’s behaviour.

Simmel’s use of the term “reserve” comes to mind when Vancouver artist Stephen Waddell describes his own photographs, mostly made in urban public spaces, as austere. “The subjects I choose, how I shoot them, and how I scale the prints,” he suggests, all contribute to this effect. Most depict a single person or a small group of people. These subjects rarely acknowledge the camera and are often absorbed in the activity, whether labour or leisure, that has brought them before Waddell’s lens. Vanishingly few are granted names. They are identified instead as types: Wader (2006); Man Sketching (2004); The Collector (2016); Two Women (2014). The people in Waddell’s photographs therefore become allegorical figures that stand in for us and represent broader acts of human striving—the ways we stumble through, toil away, try to enjoy and otherwise spend our time in everyday life. “Without the human struggle,” he says, “I don’t know if I would make photographs.” […]

Waddell’s photographs, nearly always presented singly rather than in series, reinvigorate the tradition of figurative realism with uncommon frequency. “Almost every picture I make has some enigma or redirection in it,” he states, “whether people can articulate it or just feel it.” The initial impression of his pictures’ austerity belies a more intricate and paradoxical reality—his art models an unsentimental compassion for others.

Organized by the Ryerson Image Centre, presented by Scotiabank, in partnership with CONTACT

Curated by Gaëlle Morel