Film Stripped

Review by Nick Pannu

When people speak of Vancouver, usually it’s about the city’s surrounding landscape of mountains, coastline and beaches. Seldom does the conversation begin with our vibrant art scene. What’s often unrecognized is the high concentration of artists that live here. Some of the biggest names and innovators of art have come from our city. With that in mind, filmmakers Harry Killas and Ric Beairsto showcase the local scene in their documentary Picture Start. Director Killas and producer Beairsto intimately chronicle how three artists—Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Ian Wallace—began their artistic journey with a coy reluctance in the art world of the ‘60s, only to create their own counterculture via conceptualism. This genre inspired and challenged others artists, creating a ripple effect, first among local, and then other artists abroad. Conceptualist photography was used substantially as a counterculture to high art because so many unorthodox things could be done through this medium. Many see Wall’s existing work and early photography as the reason why this medium rose from obscurity to being displayed in major art exhibits around the world. Although Graham started his work in photography, his range has since become fairly broad, including paintings, sculpture and video. Wallace’s current work mainly focuses on documentary snapshots juxtaposed with monochrome painting embedded within elegant graphic design.

Shot in Vancouver, New York, Ontario, Paris, Barcelona and Dresden, the film provides aesthetically appealing cinematography as well music to captivate the viewer beyond the story itself.

Picture Start also takes a pleasant humanist approach as it shows how Wallace, Wall and Graham not only evolve professionally as artists, but also how they’ve managed to stay colleagues and friends. In the early to mid ‘70s, they often held jam sessions along with local artists Kitty Byrne, Colin Griffiths, Danice McLeod, Frank Ramirez and David Wisdom. It was a way for them to unwind, and was yet another medium for Wallace, Wall and Graham to apply conceptualism and counterculture ethos through music.

Eventually, Wallace, Wall and Graham formed the punk band UJ3RK5. The trio quickly gained a cult following and were even offered a contract by a major record label. Graham was willing to sign, but Wallace and Wall were not ready to quit their established day jobs and wanted to develop post-conceptual photography further.

Although Wallace, through his teachings in the late ‘60s, was a mentor to many in the Vancouver arts community, Wall and Graham were always his contemporaries. Wall was only three years younger than Wallace when he studied under him at UBC; Graham was only a few years younger as well. Regardless, they each shared an unparalleled devotion towards the arts, in particular with photography. Before the artists took their baby steps into the arts frontier, photography had a very minor and almost non-exist presence in art galleries. The trio’s various conceptualist experiments, such as framing unorthodox shots through windshields or a project of Wall’s that recreated a Russian ambush on Afghanistan, propelled the medium from an obscure genre to being presented at major exhibits abroad.

The trio’s devotion to create and evolve photoceptualism inspired other artists into a frenzy; artists like Christos Dikeakos would later apply conceptualist ideas by pouring buckets of glue down a hillside and then taking pictures of it.

Many argue strongly that conceptualism, and more specifically photoceptualism, was conceived by Wall, Graham and Wallace. Ultimately, the three Vancouver artists not only pioneered a new mindset and approach to art, but elevated the art of photography to unparallelled heights that allowed the medium to expand into galleries around the world.

Picture Start premieres at DOXA Documentary Film Festival on May 13 at 6:30pm and will be broadcast on Bravo! on May 16 at 5pm.