Conversations in Vancouver

Toys in Window, Robson Street
Vancouver is a strangish place to photograph. Having grown up there, the layout of the city seems to be imprinted on my DNA, yet what is now there only partially resonates with what was imprinted all those years ago.

I love the light however. On the west coast the light is gentle and on a misty day with the sun peeking through it has a special luminosity, specialness that I’ve never found anywhere else.

The street can be challenging as, like New York, there is always the risk of descending into cliché; especially when you wander towards the east side of downtown YVR. The cadence however is different from NYC. New York never really sleeps. Even early in the morning there is a vibrancy and a pulse that Vancouver doesn’t seem to have; well it does have: around 1100 in the morning everyone pushes back from their desks, toddles off for and elevenses of a venti Americano decaf low foam no sugar extra shot and then off to a resto with a one word moniker like “Bleen”, “Food” or some such for a lengthy lunch. Later at night, until the clubs close, there is a sort of pulse, but you are dodging binge drinkers, the “lads”, and the ubiquitous rough sleepers.

Like many cities, the west end of Vancouver is posher than the east end. Denman Street acts a demarcation between the posh condo’s bordering Stanley Park and the newer condos and street scene of Robson and Davey Streets. A collection of low buildings that has the feel of the Vancouver I knew. A well-heeled crowd, by and large, and relatively free from the tourists that now prowl Robson make up Denman’s street scene.

I was standing on a corner watching the flow and saw two gentlemen walking down the street deep in conversation. I was lucky that they had to wait for the light to change.

Passing Knowledge

After a foray to the other (east) end of town I commented in my notebook:
“When confronted with the filth and squalor of the DTE in YVR it’s very easy to revert to the cheap shot rather than try and find the basic humanity of the people on the streets.
-Not sure how to approach (coward?) so I avoided it”
I did make on image though that, I think, does capture the dignity of the people there. On Carrall Street, just off Hastings is Wings Café; it’s been there in one form or another as long as I can remember. I walked back and forth along this block and just out of the corner of my eye on one pass I saw the door open and these gentlemen step out to continue their conversation over a fresh cup of joe and a smoke:
Wings Cafe
I gave this one a Kodachrome look, because by now I was starting to flash on Fred Herzog. The light matched, my mood matched, all was good.

Herzog holds a special place for me. His images capture the Vancouver I grew up in and I have a hard time separating his images as an artist from the images in my memory. In some I can still smell the fug of the inside of a BC Hydro trolley bus on a rainy day.

His images of what is now the Downtown East Side are especially poignant for me. I remember walking these streets, from the Army and Navy, on to Woodwards, Eatons and then The Bay. Of course you never went down to Gastown (we called it Skid Row then) but Hastings (although in decline) was still busy street. I’m not going to get into what happened or why; I don’t have all the information and enough has been written by urban planners, sociologists and everybody else and their dog.

I’d like to contrast Herzog’s Hastings with how I found Hastings this past February. This is a picture made by Herzog around when I was about 4 or 5, looking east along Hasting at Columbia.
E. Hastings and Columbia (c) Fred Herzog
I had no idea that I was treading familiar ground when I lined up and made the following image. It was only afterwards that something twigged when I was looking at the images in the hotel room.

Hotel Balmoral - East Hastings

This is confirmation, I suppose, of Geoff Dyer’s thesis of the “ongoing moment”: all of us are treading the same paths and, unknowingly influenced by what went before, we make our own interpretations of similar subjects at particular place and time.

Gotta Learn Something (or I’m wasting my time)

I think the hardest thing for a documentary/urban photographer to learn is concentrating on treating your subjects with respect. I really dislike 90% of the images presented as street photography. Some of them are just sloppily composed, exposed and/or processed. Some don’t say anything or don’t even try. Others cheapen the subject, cheapen the genre and are trite and clichéd in the end cheapening the photographer. Photographing a homeless man passed out in a doorway says what? It says nothing, it asks nothing and it does nothing to advance the human condition.

I’m not trying to change the world, just ask questions and tell a story about life and I guess I expect other photographers to do the same.

I’m not one for the “in your face” style of work that seems to be all the rage. A bit of refined distance is, I think, permitted. It requires patience and the ability to fade into the walls until the right moment but I’m OK with that.

I find that my favourite images of a period of making images are those made when I’m in the zone: that wonderful feeling of nothingness and everythingness, of a complete connection with your environment where every pattern of light and dark and colour set up a vibration so deep that you can’t but help to trip the shutter. B.A. Baracus would say: “Damn fool on the Jazz, again.”

Technical Stuff

I really try to downplay the technical aspects of my images as it really doesn’t matter; it’s the story what counts. In this case however, I’d like to share a very useful set of tools. I decided to process the colour images using a wonderful set of Lightroom plugins that mimic the Kodachrome films of old. You can find them here:


These are the best that I’ve found so far and for the price (free) highly recommended.