Courtesy of Galerie Tanit, Munich/Beyrouth and Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver
Stephen Waddell, "Jelta Grotto," 2015
Stephen Waddell, "Jelta Grotto," 2015, silver gelatin print
For Vancouver-based photographer Stephen Waddell, the line between fiction and reality in art can be a blurry one. In a 2008 interview with Canadian Art magazine, Waddell stated that even in a documentary photograph, “everyday things can be more theatrical or exaggerated.” But the artist’s job, he added, is to find “those marginal exaggerations, (and) to make it difficult to discern how constructed it is.”
Waddell has worked mainly in urban or street photography, yet borrows as much from Impressionist painting as from photojournalism. And while he cites American photographer Robert Frank as a major influence, he has pointed out that even Frank’s work is highly constructed, both through the lens and in the studio.
Stephen Waddell, "Buddha Horne Lake," 2016
Stephen Waddell, "Grotto del Lamponi, After Henry Darger," 2016
In the 25 giant black-and-white photographs of caves that make up Dark Matter Atlas, we see Waddell’s idea of the blurred line between documentary and fiction. Both in subject matter and style, as well as the show’s introductory text, we’re reminded of the allegory of Plato’s cave – the idea that our perception of reality is like the reflection of fire seen on the wall of a cave. If we’ve only ever known the reflection, our knowledge of the real thing is forever limited.
Waddell’s intent here is not only theoretical, though, but aesthetic as well. There are a variety of scenes, from vast caverns to narrow, claustrophobic tunnels that disappear into endless darkness beyond the camera’s flash. Without indicators of scale we’re usually guessing whether the features are human-sized or massive, and the lighting often flattens or washes out certain parts of the underground landscape while exaggerating others. It’s a theatrical style, full of light and deep shadows, that gives the works the feel of early silent film.
Stephen Waddell, "Mouth," 2015
Stephen Waddell, "Saturn," 2015
So in the same way that Hollywood movies or Jeff Wall’s highly staged images are accepted as fictional, can photographs of caves be partly fictional? And if they can’t, then why not? In one image, for example, we see Waddell and an assistant silhouetted against a rock, holding their equipment. It’s a subtle reminder that, just as in a movie, there’s a “director” and a technical crew behind what you’re seeing. At every turn, then, Waddell’s exhibition reminds the viewer of those “marginal exaggerations” he talked about.
Courtesy of the Artist and Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver
Stephen Waddell, "Stain," 2012
Stephen Waddell, "Stain," 2012, silver gelatin print
Ceci n’est pas une caverne, he could have titled the exhibition – this is not a cave – a reminder of the treachery of images, that, like Magritte’s pipe-that-isn’t-a-pipe or Plato’s allegory, what we are seeing isn’t the real thing, but a reflection of it. That the images are so visually compelling strengthens the theoretical base, so rather than being an intellectual exercise, the work stands on its own.