Images of Vancouver's mean streets

April 05, 2006, volume 35, no. 7
By Michael Boxall

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While most street photography focuses on people and their activities, Unfinished Business: Photographing Vancouver Streets 1955 to 1985 takes a different tack.

There are no decisive moments in these images, no glimpses of public or private drama. It's the streets themselves, rather than what is happening in them, that attracts the 21 photographers.

The book is the latest issue of West Coast Line, a journal of art, writing and cultural critique housed at SFU since the late 1980s. While not published by the university, it is, in the words of emeritus English and humanities professor Jerry Zaslove, “an affiliated organ.” Zaslove, English instructor Glen Lowry and Bill Jeffries, director of the SFU gallery, edited Unfinished Business. Jeffries was director of North Vancouver's Presentation House gallery and curated an exhibition of the pictures there in 2003. Both Zaslove and Lowry have a particular interest in the relationship between photography and memory.

The book is the antithesis of all those coffee-table depictions of glitzy urban bustle set against forested mountains.
This is more the Vancouver of Malcolm Lowry in his darker moments than of Tourism B.C. - a tough, uncomfortable city of clapboard storefronts and rain swept streets, of dereliction and desolation and broken dreams.

The pictures are interspersed with 26 pieces of text, often by or about the photographers. These include meditations, memoirs, and an extensive conversation between Lowry, Zaslove, the artist Jeff Wall and the late photographer and University of Victoria teacher Fred Douglas. But why call the project Unfinished Business? And why chose that particular time?

“Instead of drawing on the images made of Vancouver during the period that some might argue was its heyday as a boomtown, open city, 1955 to 1985, the exhibition suggested that there was something demonstrably different going on here - either with the city itself or with those who photographed it,” the editors write in their introduction.

“This book should raise more questions than it answers, starting with, ‘How do cities define and identify themselves?”

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