Stephen Waddell and Visualizing the World

Stephen Waddell, Lakeside, 2011. Inkjet print, 116.1 x 137.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Stephen Waddell Photo: NGC

At first glance, Stephen Waddell’s photographs are documents of quotidian moments. A girl in a pink bathing suit appears to make her way to the beach; a man pauses before getting out of a car. This depiction of subjects in mid-narrative emphasizes a broader context from which the images have been distilled. It imparts a tension that pivots around viewers, either suspending or upholding disbelief in an ongoing, but unknown, narrative. Waddell presents his figures as replete with a purposeful purposelessness. Moreover, for the artist, and for the knowledgeable viewer, these images are saturated with references to art history and photography. By capturing the essence of Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte in subject matter discovered through his rambles, Waddell melds and mutually enriches the histories of painting and photography.

Stephen Waddell, Man with Red Sash, 2007. Inkjet print, 184 x 106 cm framed. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Stephen Waddell Photo: NGC

Given these aspects of his work, it is not surprising to discover that Waddell began his artistic career as a painter. In 1990, however, a shift occurred to other media, when he began to explore the urban environment with a Polaroid camera in order to learn more about composition for his painting studies. He also used a Super-8 camera, to film people, seeking to understand the human figure in the modern environment, a preoccupation of many artists since the mid-19th century. Photographs such as Man With a Red Sash recall the paintings of 19th-century Realist artists who favoured street types, labourers and the picturesque proletariat.

To find perfectly composed scenes en pleine air entails a great deal of looking, and Waddell considers this physical labour of exhaustive searching to be a major component of his photographic practice. For Man with a Red Sash, one imagines that, after long days of wandering, the artist turned a corner and saw, not a down-and-out individual faltering against a tree and holding a crack pipe, but rather a clochard whose dress, worn features and stance make it seem as if he had just stumbled out of an Honoré Daumier painting.

Stephen Waddell, Man in Car, Powell Street, 2012. Inkjet print, 106 x 131.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Stephen Waddell Photo: NGC

Another preoccupation in Waddell’s work is his exploration of different experiences of time, and their relation to photographic processes, art history, urban life and the natural world. Man in Car, Powell Street, just as Man with Red Sash, conveys a sense of mortality. In the latter image, it is in its focus on a marginalized street person. In the former, it is expressed in its portrayal of an older man whose actions, although not extraordinary, appear in need of direction – as if being told to hold a pose, he awaits further instruction to enact the next scene. In other images, Waddell adeptly captures a fleeting moment – that millisecond when, having caught the photographer’s attention, an individual slips back into the morass of urban life. Many images depict moments of pensiveness, the instances when individuals pause and enter an interior state of thought, or daydream.

Other temporal subjects include those referencing natural processes such as glaciers and underground caves, their constitutions a result of accretions taking place over millennia. A major body of work is his Dark Matter Atlas series, dedicated to natural phenomena and underground caves. Caves are a potent canvas for art, dating back to Palaeolithic times, when creative hominids filled the dark hollows of their walls with simple but sophisticated lines expressive of nature’s bounty.

Stephen Waddell, Big Room at Dusk, 2016. Gelatin silver print, mounted 259.1 x 331.2 cm. © Stephen Waddell Photo: Courtesy of the artist

For Waddell, the impetus to explore these primal sites began in the less-than-inspiring environment of an underground parking lot, where the shadowy remains of a stain on a wall fascinated him. From this experience, he journeyed to the caves and grottoes of the American Southwest and Sicily. He set up his camera equipment in the venerable tradition of documentary photographers before him, who lit up the interiors of these mammoth cavities with the pyrotechnics of magnesium flashes, flushing startled bats out into chill desert nights. The caves Waddell visited, however, were now well-travelled tourist sites, pedagogically supported by guides with flashlights. His large-scale photographs offer the viewer an opportunity to imaginatively engage with the overbearing presence of the shapes created not by skilled human craft but by the impersonal artifice of dogged natural forces: stalagmites assume the constitution of sculptures by Alberto Giacometti; phallic shapes appear as roughened forms by Constantin Brancusi.

In more recent work, the artist uses direct staging of subject matter to depict moments missed with his camera. The images continue his inquiries into the relationship of painting and photography and percolate with critical themes in art history. Expulsion takes the biblical event of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden as its subject.

Stephen Waddell, Expulsion, 2018. Inkjet print, 152.2 x 198 cm approx. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Stephen Waddell Photo: NGC

For Waddell, the structure depicted in the photograph, the remains of a beehive burner, recalls the celebrated hortus conclusus (“enclosed garden”), and references historical works of art depicting the biblical garden – in particular, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Golden Age (c.1530). Beehive burners were commonplace in British Columbia as a way to dispose of by-products from lumber mills. Waddell became fascinated with the way people interacted with these enclosures, and how such industrial objects have now become integrated into leisure activities, including lounging and conversing. Their current use accords with the scene depicted in Cranach’s painting – the experience of peace, harmony, community and accord with nature.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Golden Age, c.1530. 75 x 103.5 cm. National Gallery of Norway. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Jarre, Anne Hansteen; Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, c.1425–27. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. Photo: Yair Haklai / CC BY-SA (

Expulsion also portrays a pre-Fall condition of being, the moment of crisis, which Waddell interprets as stemming from an unknown event. The couple’s gestures echo Masaccio’s 1427 painting of the expulsion, with Adam and Eve covering their face and genitals as they leave the Garden – “to avoid,” as Waddell states, “appearing as they are.” The work also looks to a history of photojournalism that depicts its subject dealing with a state of social transgression or, as Waddell puts it, “where the ‘accursed’ try to avoid the stain of representation, avoid being detected or recorded,” as seen in works such as Weegee’s photograph of Charles Sodokoff and Arthur Webber.

In 2014, Waddell curated an exhibition called Dream Location for Presentation House, now The Polygon Gallery. The idea was to bring together a number of works by different photographers and artists who have used photography as a critical component of their image making. The show revealed how art making is a process based not so much on reiterating previous works into one’s practice as it is about appreciating and enfolding their means of visualizing the world into contemporary contexts.

Waddell’s imagery pays homage to the many histories of art whose visual vocabularies inform how we look out to, constitute and ultimately communicate our understanding of the world. They provide an opportunity to reflect upon the profound shifts occurring currently in culture with respect to imagery, and appreciate the interrelation rather than opposition of dichotomies that currently characterize the medium, such as analog versus digital, painting versus photography, and contemporary versus historical.


For a listing of the works by Stephen Waddell in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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