To shoot “Picture Start”, documentary filmmaker Harry Killas had to travel halfway around the world to find the works of Vancouver’s photo-art stars hanging in galleries. His journeys took him from Paris to Barcelona to Dresden to see large-scale exhibitions by Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham, and Jeff Wall, and one of the director’s greatest pleasures was being able to see their art in person.
“A lot of Jeff Wall’s work, unless you travel to see it, you can’t see it as it’s meant to be shown. You can see it in reproductions online and in books, but to be actually confronted by work in the scale and size that it’s meant to be seen is a very different experience,” Killas tells the Straight from his Vancouver home. “That’s true of all these artists, of course”¦.And because so much work of these artists hasn’t been shown locally, unless you travel to New York or Chicago or Germany, you’re not going to see it!”
Therein lies the central paradox and motivation of the film, which sees its local premiere at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival (which runs from May 6 to 15) next Friday (May 13) as part of the fest’s Spotlight on Vancouver: Canadian Artists program. (It’s just one of several DOXA films about local art: “Picture Start” shares its double bill with the short feature “KOOP”, which follows Vancouver-born, Winnipeg-based painter Wanda Koop up the St. Lawrence River on a steamship, while Reed: The Life and Works of Roy Kiyooka traces the life of the local painter the night before, on May 12.) “Picture Start” debuts on Bravo! on May 16.
With apologies to the Group of Seven, the so-called Vancouver School of photography is arguably the biggest art story ever to come out of this country, yet few people in Canada really know about it—even though the artists are all still based here.
Killas cites multiple reasons for the lack of appreciation for the artists here when in, say, many parts of Germany Wall is a household name. “Jeff Wall had a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery a year or two ago, and that was his first since 1990, so it’s quite possible that a lot of their work is not shown here all the time,” suggests Killas, who has directed docs like Superkids and whose teaching gig at Emily Carr University of Art + Design got him interested in this project. “And a lot of their work is really big. It’s hard to mount a show here.”
“Picture Start” traces the trajectory of those three central artists from the halls of UBC’s art-history department in the ’60s to their art experimentation in the ’70s and their forming of the art-punk band UJ3RK5. It then follows the way they revolutionized photo art—a seminal piece is Wall’s stunning and disturbing 1978 image of a bedroom torn to shreds, The Destroyed Room—and their rise to international art stardom. Killas also peeks in on their process today, whether it’s Wall meticulously staging experiments for a photo of a boy falling from a tree or Wallace drawing colour boxes with pencil crayons while he looks out his Paris hotel window.
“For all these gentlemen in their 60s making art since the ’60s or ’70s, there’s a kind of comfort and mastery that underlies the process that you see,” Killas says. “It’s quite possible they’re all making their best work now.”
Asked how he secured such access, particularly to the somewhat elusive Wall, Killas in part credits artist Chris Dikeakos, a colleague of the trio at UBC and a major source in the film. But Killas also chalks it up to “what we call the three Ps: being polite, persistent, and professional,” he says.
Just why Vancouver, a place so far removed from art-world centres, was able to produce three such astounding talents—not to mention the myriad artists who follow in their footsteps, from Stan Douglas to Roy Arden—remains a more complicated question. In the film, Wall even calls it a lucky “accident”. But Killas has some other ideas.
“The trick is they managed to continue doing the work they wanted to do by not moving to the centre,” he says. “Some people have said that Vancouver is small enough that people could know each other”¦and I think the friendships and relationships between these four artists and then subsequent generations were important.”
Whatever the reason for this fascinating art story, it is clear that it’s continuing today and that it’s one the international scene has been following—even if Canadians, until “Picture Start”, anyway, largely have not.