An Interview with David Wisdom

March 6th, 2012

David Wisdom began taking photographs in the late 1960s and has amassed more than 9000 images since that time. Known for his Slide Festivals in which he presented his own slide shows alongside those of his friends including art luminaries Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace, Wisdom has expanded the possibilities of the still image. By turns thematic, narrative and impressionistic, his slide shows have experimented with the performative possibilities of pictures and the way combining several still photographs and adding a layer of music creates a different experience of the image altogether from the static one most often quietly experienced on the gallery walls. David very generously agreed to share with us his work Vancouver, Vancouver which is a slide show within a slide show, shot on a summer’s day in Stanley Park at a festival celebrating the city’s 125th birthday. He also kindly answered some questions on his practice and how his famed Slide Festivals came about:

David Wisdom, Vancouver, Vancouver, 2011, digital images and music

Here and Elsewhere: When did you first start your slide show nights – can you tell us a bit about their history?

David Wisdom: I bought my first SLR camera in 1969 and started taking pictures then. I had two friends at the time who were taking a lot of slides: James O’Mara, a professional photographer, and a high school chum named Doug Lander. We used to get together and show each other our work. At the time I was living in a house on Point Grey Road in Vancouver, with, among others, my friends Jeff and Jeannette Wall. We just had a slide show evening one night there and facetiously gave it the title “The Point Grey Slide Festival”. Somehow it continued, in various locations, until 1981. It got bigger and bigger as the years went by, and involved many artists such as Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham, as well as many other non-artists, including children; a very varied affair which always ended in a party. The deal was to set the slides to music, and the music was an inherent part of each presentation. The last one was held in Jeff’s studio, and I think there were about 200 people there.

David Wisdom, Cache Creek Sandbags, 1971

David Wisdom, Jesus People Army Trailer, Vancouver 1972

H&E: How did you decide to combine your images in this sequential way? Do your slide shows have a loose narrative structure – or a thematic one?

DW: I have done all sorts of slide shows over the years. Some have been narrative, others have been abstract, impressionistic. The last really extended piece I did, which I showed at the Vancouver Art Gallery last year, was called “100 Slide Shows In Alphabetical Order”. Each show was 3 slides long and lasted around 12 seconds. Each show was set to its own music, which was also in alphabetical order. Some of these mini shows were narrative, others were dialectical propositions, others were just visual jokes. I used the alphabet and the decimal system to impose a structure or I’d still be working on that show. My real interest is in performance rather than in photography, so that also leads me a certain kind of order and sequencing; that is, with an audience and the element of entertainment in mind.

David Wisdom, PNE Gorilla Girl, 1971

David Wisdom, White Spot Carhop, Vancouver 1970

H&E: We like the idea that you’re interested in performance as much as photography. Do you think it was the addition of the music (as well and the audience, of course) that translated the individual photographs into a performance of sorts?

DW: The music and the dark room and the bright light can make things quite theatrical, so I can’t help myself. My parents were both stage actors. Put a group of people in front of me and I think they deserve to be entertained.

H&E: You’ve continued your “Slide Festivals” with some recent events at the Vancouver Art Gallery and possibly more nights coming up. How do you curate these events and select artists to participate? What about an artist’s work do you think translates successfully into this slide show format?

DW: Most of the shows have been dominated by friends I’ve known for quite a long time because I wanted to maintain the informal family living room slide show atmosphere: quirky, varied, friendly. An atmosphere in which technical screw ups don’t matter that much. For the shows later this summer I’m going to include some people who are much younger and whose work I may only know from the internet. A good slide show is more than one good picture after another. It’s about the movement from image to image, the timing, the music or audio component.

H&E: Do you think your work as a radio host on the CBC influenced your slide show works? The ideas you mention around ordering, sequencing, imposing a structure, as well as the performative aspect seem to be principles that translate well between both formats?

DW: Only in that both radio and slide shows both give me ample opportunity to exercise my need to put things in proper order. I’ve always had that compulsion, and I’m glad I have it. On radio I had a regular feature called “10 Singles In Alphabetical Order (By Artist) From My Personal Collection”. I played my 45s in alphabetical order from coast to coast and it took 10 years to get through them all. I have similar big plans for my slides.

David Wisdom, Mudflats House 2, Dollarton 1971

David Wisdom, Pictorial London, 1971

H&E: You have amassed more than 9,000 colour slides from the 1960s to present and much of your photographs date from the 1960s and 70s. You talk about capturing Vancouver ‘in transition’ – what interested you about the city at that particular time?

DW: As I was born in Britain I would often go back to London for extended periods, and the contrast between there and Vancouver was so startling to me that I tried to capture that. There was a frontier feel to much of the city and a ramshackle, natural quality to the way neighbourhoods were evolving that I tried to photograph at the time. But I think the real reason was that I was young and I lived here and I had a camera. I would have taken pictures wherever I happened to be living. Everywhere is interesting.

David Wisdom, Back Alley Musician, Vancouver 2011

David Wisdom, Three Specials, Vancouver 2009

H&E: Are you continuing to take photographs? And now that Vancouver is less of a ‘frontier feel’, what subjects are interesting to you now?

DW: Yes, I’ll always take photographs, and always of Vancouver. But I’m also working on shows about chairs, the end of the world and sexy moments in motels.

H&E: Thanks very much David for discussing your work with us!

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