#137 Upbeat about Under Vancouver
June 10th, 2017
Greg Girard, with interviews by William Gibson and David Campany
Under Vancouver 1972-1982
Toronto: The Magenta Foundation, 2017.
$50.00 / 978-1-926856-10-0
Reviewed by Bill Jeffries
Born in 1955, Greg Girard grew up in Burnaby and started photographing Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1972, when he was still in high school.
Girard moved to Hong Kong in 1982 and spent much of his distinguished photographic career there and in Kowloon, Shanghai, Hanoi, and Tokyo, before returning to Vancouver in 2011.
On his return, Girard dusted off the negatives from his youthful apprenticeship in this selection of photos of pre-Expo Vancouver, a city that reviewer Bill Jeffries calls “the land that time forgot.” — Ed.
Vancouver Confidential, a selection of stories exploring Vancouver’s seedier side, edited by John Belshaw (Anvil Press, 2014) was a bit of a bestseller in these parts. Anyone with an interest in what the underbelly explored by Belshaw’s team actually looked like should turn to Greg Girard’s intriguing photographic record of the gentle, seedy downtown east side and surroundings in the years 1972 to 1982.
Girard doesn’t exactly pick up where Belshaw’s authors left off because he was there at the Noir-ish pre-1980 period recording what few others thought to document — Girard’s Vancouver was not Fred Herzog’s Vancouver, but in common with Herzog, the images in Under Vancouver are the tip of Girard’s photographic iceberg. Girard got to the sites in the book in ways that no one else did, especially in his brilliant use of nighttime colour.
Girard was eighteen years old in 1972, just learning photography, and by 1982 he had moved to Asia where he became one of the most sought-after photojournalists on a continent that was only then learning that it needed photojournalists.
After more than thirty years living in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Girard is now back in Vancouver, picking up where he left off in 1982. His earlier books City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon City (Watermark, 1993) and Phantom Shanghai (Magenta, 2010) are extraordinary photographic chronicles of older architectural forms in urban China that no longer exist. Girard’s archive of Asia photographs runs to well over 100,000 images.
Under Vancouver is a beautiful book, published by the Magenta Foundation out of Toronto, who specialize in photo publications. Its two interviews, David Campany interviewing Girard and Girard interviewing William Gibson, both shed significant light on Vancouver as a place, the role of street photography in defining cities, and the strangeness of simply capturing what exists, both indoors and out.
Girard’s Downtown Eastside indoor images overlap with photographs made by others, photographers such as Lincoln Clarkes and more recently Gabor Gasztonyi. Girard’s outdoor images are unique to him.
Vancouver’s historical streetscapes exist in many places, mostly unpublished – the millions of images in the archives at Pacific Press, the downtown eastside architecture shot by Arni Haraldsson, and many others, call out for locally published, finely printed books. Vancouver needs a Gerhard Steidl, as do all cities. A local version of the Magenta Foundation wouldn’t hurt either.
The inverted miracle of photography is that no one really cares much about city photographs at the time they are shot. The cliché about documentary material growing in value over time is true and real, but all of that valuable material was once young, and it is at that moment that serious thought must be given to preserving it. That Girard’s Vancouver film survived during all his years in Asia is one of those minor miracles of preservation.
Humans are accumulators; if a city needed X number of archivists thirty years ago we can now multiply that by ten to even begin to preserve what has been created since. The job should not fall on the families of photographers, but it often does — if you have not seen the book The Lost Tommies (Harper Collins, 2016), it is a brilliant compilation of First World War portraits that came very close to being chucked out, only to be saved by diligent researchers from several countries who had seen hints that the hoard of glass plate negatives existed. In B.C. the number of archivists has not grown at all in the past thirty years.
The texts in Under Vancouver discuss the possibility that photographers, like writers, more or less invent the places they depict, in part because unknown aspects of a place are recorded or because we collectively forget “what was there.” Girard says that when he was shooting in the mid-1970s it “felt like I was photographing a world no one knew anything about… I was something of an interloper, but my youth protected me.”
The need for protection refers to the fact that much of Girard’s work was done at night – his Vancouver looks like the land that time forgot, as if nothing could ever change, but change it did, as we know now all too well.
Greg Girard’s interview with William Gibson is a must-read for anyone who cares about local history. As astounding as Girard’s images are, it is even more surprising to me that someone can discuss Vancouver history in words that seem as simple, as imagistic, and as brainy as Gibson’s disarmingly honest account of what this Left Coast place might actually be.
Making street photographs is a contingent process and Gibson has introduced, perhaps for the first time in photographic criticism, the importance of the role of parallax in making photographs — if parallax could supplant “point of view,” we might be getting somewhere in our collective thinking about photography’s magic.
Bill Jeffries is a writer and curator who opened the Coburg Gallery in 1983; it was then the only commercial (i.e. privately owned) photo gallery in Vancouver. From 1988 to 1991, he was Director and Curator of the Contemporary Art Gallery. After a three-year stint at the Vancouver Art Gallery, he was Director and Curator at Presentation House Gallery (2001-2005). He then ran the Galleries at Simon Fraser University until late in 2012. In the mid-1990s he worked at a range of environmental organizations, focusing mainly on wetlands preservation in British Columbia.
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