In 2011, Canadian artist Stephen Waddell published “Hunt and Gather,” a collection of his observational photographs. The title was a reference to the idea of the wandering photographer, moving through the world speculatively, looking for opportunities to make pictures. Of course, no photographer is a blank page. The wandering is done with a mind full of experiences that shape and direct the looking, wishing for resonance, or affirmation, or surprise. This is the modus operandi of classic “street photography,” perhaps the only pictorial genre that photography could claim as its own. All the other genres—landscape, townscape, portrait, still life—are inherited from a much longer history of picturing. And yet, street photography is also a way of coming into a relation to those other genres. A street photographer can be specific to their medium while also participating in, and extending, the long history of picturing.
Waddell has made himself intimately familiar with the history of the depiction of everyday life. This includes the history of street photography itself, as well as 19th-century French painting (Manet, Degas, Caillebotte, Morisot, Vuillard) along with other historical moments when the intimate observation of anonymous urban life gave rise to exceptional images.
Living in Vancouver, Waddell developed his approach in an artistic climate informed by the work of Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Stan Douglas. But rather than making images through preparation and collaboration, Waddell remained light on his feet, trusting that the kinds of images he wanted to make could be chanced upon, noticed in their potential, and shaped into pictorial form. There is lightness in his observations, without overt reference to the history of art, and yet the strength of his pictures comes from an awareness of the artistic achievements of the past.
Very often Waddell is a lone observer photographing an isolated figure, involved in whatever they are doing. It could be work, or a moment of repose. Each figure is generally photographed from the side or back, at a distance that is intimate but unobtrusive. This means that the figure is not separated from their world, but is shown as a part of it, absorbed in it. The relation of figure to world might be pictorially and socially harmonious, or there might be signs of tension. But in the end, depiction is essentially an affectionate art. For all the gentle pictorial skill on display here, it is feelings of empathy, of joy taken in chance occurrence, and fascination with appearance as such that energize Waddell’s photographs.