We’re surrounded by potential pictures, but it can be hard to see them. I don’t refer to the torrent of images in our social-media feeds, but rather to the world itself, especially the urban world. It is full of scenes worth noticing, and people worth photographing, that we can’t or won’t take the time to appreciate. This is partly a matter of survival. Writing in Berlin more than one hundred years ago, sociologist George Simmel noted that “the metropolitan type of man … develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him.” Unlike rural communities, Simmel argued, where meaningful relationships develop slowly over time and are reinforced by repeated interactions, burgeoning cities required residents to develop defense mechanisms. Simmel’s Berlin was made up of small villages rapidly being drawn together, by transit and by industry, and by the time he wrote, in 1903, it seemed as if its citizens were thrown into new combinations every hour. These many chance meetings, he reported, created mental habits characterized by “reserve.” People doled out sympathies to each other in varying degrees, careful not to overextend their emotions as they adjusted to the accelerating pace of urban life. The city left its imprint on people’s behavior.
Simmel’s use of the term reserve comes to mind when Vancouver artist Stephen Waddell describes his own photographs, mostly made in urban public spaces, as austere. “The subjects I choose, how I shoot them, and how I scale the prints,” he suggests, all contribute to this effect. Most depict a single person or a small group of people. These subjects rarely acknowledge the camera and are often absorbed in the activity, whether labor or leisure, that has brought them before Waddell’s lens. Vanishingly few are granted names. They are identified instead as types: Wader (2006); Man Sketching (2004); The Collector (2016); Two Women (2014). The people in Waddell’s photographs therefore become allegorical figures that stand in for us and represent broader acts of human striving—the ways we stumble through, toil away, try to enjoy, and otherwise spend our time in everyday life. “Without the human struggle,” he says, “I don’t know if I would make photographs.”
There was a catch to Georg Simmel’s penetrating observations of mental frameworks in the swelling city: the “reserve” he identified only ran so deep. While urban communicative life “rests upon an extremely varied hierarchy of sympathies,” he writes, “the sphere of indifference in this hierarchy is not as large as might appear on the surface.” So, too, with Waddell’s photographs. The austerity is an outward appearance; beneath it flourishes a rich humanism. That attitude is exemplified not only by his commitment to patient observation, a form of empathy not shared by every street photographer. It comes, too, from his extensive knowledge of, and deft positioning within, the tradition of realist picture-making.