With ‘Disco Angola,’ photographer Stan Douglas pushes the limits of ‘documentary’ images
Do photographs tell the truth? Is their truth objective or subjective? Whose truth is it? Why do we believe in their veracity, or why do we not? Such questions have dogged photography since its inception, and for some, like Canadian photographer and filmmaker Stan Douglas, whose latest show, Disco Angola is on view at David Zwirner, they are still the most compelling questions.
In the nineteenth century, a photograph was categorized as evidence, because its maker was thought to be light—the light that burned the image onto the emulsified plate—rather than the photographer, who was merely a technician helping the process along. This categorization endured into the twentieth century and delayed the medium’s acceptance as a legitimate art form; photographers, it was thought, lacked the artistic agency of painters and sculptures; their images were really only the product of the automatism of equipment.
Of course, all that swiftly changed in the course of the first few decades of the last century. And in the postmodern moment such issues became conceptual fodder for a wide range of artists and photographers (and everyone in between). Photographers like Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jeff Wall, and Gregory Crewdson all interrogate the extent to which viewers believe the reality of photographs. Their work is often staged, but the extent to which that is obvious fluctuates depending on their particular conceptual interests (the cinematic qualities of lived experience; the hidden constructedness of documentary photos). Such artists play with the visual tropes that push viewers to believe, as well as with the cultural conditions that enable—and prohibit—it.
Stan Douglas (who will receive the ICP Infinity Award this May) works in a similar vein, but his methods and final products are vastly different. Like Crewdson or Wall or diCorcia, Douglas plays with the veracity of the medium. But while most other photo-conceptualists stop with the surface of the image, with what it tells you (about suburban ennui, or the horrors of the battlefield, or la dolce vita of Italy, and about how we preconceive those things), Douglas questions the truth offered by a photograph on a much deeper level.
In Midcentury Studio, a 2011 project, Douglas adopted the persona of a struggling photographer in the years immediately following World War II. His interest began while looking at the images of photographers like Arthur Fellig, Weegee, and Ray Munro—documentarians and journalists who worked outside the modernist traditions established by the Pictorialists in America and Henri Cartier-Bresson in France, and he decided to make a project about them. What decisions would a struggling New York photographer after the war have made? What would their photos look like? What happy accidents would the era's heavy, sluggish, unwieldy cameras produce? The crucial move in Midcentury Studio is not so much the look and feel of Gordon's resulting photographs, which, upon inspection, are clearly contemporary (they are too shiny and crisp, to be anything but), but the persona he adopted as reflected through them. The project’s images are genuine fake documents that telegraph a bygone age, one of America in flux, sure of itself but unsure how to assert itself.
In Disco Angola, once again, Douglas inhabits a new identity—this time, that of a '70s-era war photographer—to excavate the particular social, political, and cultural ramifications of … well, disco music and the Angolan civil war. The show is not about disco in Angola, but about each as distinct products of that particularly fraught historical moment. If Douglas’ larger point isn’t quite obvious here, that is because his work is always about the spectacle of conceptual research. This show deeply rewards deep looking.
And deep reading. Douglas’s persona is not obvious from the images in either Midcentury Studio or Disco Angola; walking in blind, the viewer would only know that the images are not quite what they seem. His images are uncanny at the very first glance, each detail too correct, each composition too precise, and they beg you to dig deeper, into the accompanying texts (whether that means the long press releases or the detailed and well-made exhibition catalogues). Doing so, you discover they are products of an intensive production, with sets, costumes, production designers, and an artist/director playing at being a photographer who is trying to find his way in a world in flux. By requiring the viewer to research his research, Douglas further foregrounds the construction of the images, and, by extension, the slipperiness of photography in general.
This point is especially salient when thinking about the contested nature of the current show’s subjects. The Angola of Douglas’s ersatz documentary project is at its post-colonial, revolutionary moment when the volatile conditions of new independence led to civil war. To hear Douglas speak of it (as I did at a walk-through he led before the show opened), liberation in Angola meant simply that neighboring countries (and looming world powers) fought for influence and covert political control. As a sense of euphoria came up against increasingly violent assaults, it gave way to anxiety, and fear, and terror. Douglas’s war photographer ends up in Angola at that liminal moment, capturing the violence, and elation, of a country at the crest of a wave.
Douglas sees New York in the 1970s as an analogous location, and uses his persona to investigate the similarities. Like Angola, the city was undergoing tremendous social, economic, and political upheaval; it was broke and crime-ridden, city services weren’t working, and the upper middle class was fleeing to the suburbs. But, as is often the case in such situations, these conditions engendered a vibrant, lively, and tremendously influential underground (musical, sexual, and artistic). Though most now associate disco with the height of high-society clubbing, its origins were the gay subculture that sprang up in lofts, abandoned hotels, and the other non-places of urban blight. It was a secret, and perhaps utopian, time for certain groups in the city, the crest of a wave.
But do the images show this? Not precisely. They suggest conflict. They are imbued with an atmosphere of strife. But no single image tells you that what it depicts is the Angolan civil war of the 1970s or disco at its height; the New York scenes aren’t some re-creation of Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage. Here, as in Midcentury Studio, the constellation of components that make up the project—the images themselves, but also the intensive research and production that went into creating them, Douglas’s own essays and talks on his work, and finally the persona that Douglas adopts that gives them their overarching narrative—turns the photographic process inside out.
Which, in turn, frees Douglas to examine more fully the moments of flux that are his primary subject—upheaval leading to corruption, creation to co-opting. To illuminate this cycle, Douglas pairs images—in the gallery, they are hung facing each other. Capoeria, 1974, showing Angolan soldiers engaging in the Brazilian dance/martial arts (pictured, above left), faces Kung-Fu Fighting, 1975, (pictured, above, right) of a black man in marital arts pose (presumably dancing to the hit Carl Douglas tune of the same name). The crux of both these images is how they depict the spectacle of watching. In Capoeria, 1974, the two fighters are watched, and cheered on, by a semi-circle of similarly dressed soldiers; in Kung-Fu Fighting, a white clubber watches, skeptically enraptured by the dancer’s movement. In both images, Douglas plays out the politics of appropriation that afflicted disco and Angola in that time, a politics that mixed race and class with power and money. Looking at both together shows the watching soldiers to be not just compatriots of the fighters, but also neighbor powers sitting on the sidelines, watching the Angolan civil war play itself. Is the watcher in Kung-Fu Fighting the early adopter who makes the disco safe for nearby image Two Friends’s square couple (pictured at left), and to the hordes that overtook, and collapsed, the disco scene soon after?
Most importantly, these are impossible images that approximate what might have happened. Disco Angola is a small show, with just eight works, but David Zwirner’s open, breathable space allows for serious looking, which confirms that the images are undeniably contemporary. They are obviously shot with a digital camera and perfected in post-production. They are too smooth, too crisp, and, more importantly, they contain none of the imperfections that would have characterized the work of a photojournalist returning from a war-torn country to photograph New York's nightlife scene. Does this mean Douglas’s project ultimately fails? Should he have used film? Should he have inhabited this adopted persona to the hilt?
No. The success of this show, and of Douglas’s practice more generally, rests on allowing the viewer the chance to explore each image as an exercise in re-creation, on imagining how each the production process behind his image, while simultaneously looking at its content. Using his war photographer persona, Douglas spotlights the small details of each photograph, the modes of dress (exemplified most obviously by A Luta Continua, pictured at right), the gestures (Kung-Fu Fighting), the furniture (Coat Check), which signify time and place, details that might have gone unnoticed in a perfect facsimile. He stages the photos so that these details are magnified, and then pairs images together to establish the equivalence of his two subjects. To examine the hows and whys of conflict in Angola and disco in New York, Douglas needed to excavate and illuminate these details. They anchor the pictures, physically, and conceptually.
But, like Midcentury Studio, Disco Angola does more. His images examine the sociopolitical conditions that produced rapid change in very different places, but they also examine the conditions that determine photographic practice in general. Hence, his choice of personas: documentary photographers and war photographers are the very people who insist on the veracity of the photographic image, on its ability to tell the truth of any moment. Indeed, they stake their reputation on the ability of their images to say what happened in a particular moment in time, in a particular place. By adopting those identities, Douglas accomplishes both his goals—he can document his chosen subjects, but he can also question the capacity of a photograph to ever truly document a subject. If his images examine how photography was practiced 40 years ago, and how sociopolitical conditions determined that practice, they also question what it means to finally divest the practice of that foundational myth that the photo equalled truth.