Few developers would plaster a monumental image of a riot on new construction meant to revitalize the neighborhood. But that’s exactly what one did in Vancouver, hiring Stan Douglas, one of Canada’s leading artists, to recreate and photograph a 1971 confrontation between police and pro-marijuana demonstrators. The so-called “smoke-in,” at the building’s location of Abbott and Cordova streets, revealed a clash of social values as the historically poor neighborhood began to gentrify with a middle-class influx, represented by the well-dressed onlookers in the photo’s margins.
Not many photographs are as large as this one, the size of a 19th-century history painting. But history paintings tended to celebrate mythological heroes or royalty or military victories, while Douglas captures a more local and complicated moment: a clash between marijuana backers, overbearing police, and a privileged middle class.
Several fairly isolated social groups come together in this tense scene: a well-heeled middle class, the police, and marijuana-supporting hippies, not to mention the folks just passing through. The staged image brings them altogether in a single, compressed moment so we can closely examine the forces at play.
The phrase “pics or it didn’t happen” could be the caption for this photo, which celebrates a forgotten moment in local Vancouver history. Its grand size proclaims, “Look at what’s happening. Remember it. It is important.” Focusing on lost histories is a common subject in contemporary art, as artists reveal how our usual ways of processing events can overlook important moments of history.
Look at where you are looking from: high above the scene. Douglas took the picture from a crane—a powerful viewpoint—as if endowing the viewer with a special ability to look back in time.