Thursday, May 26, 2011


First things first. The beer in Vancouver wasn't half bad. Most pubs had a few local brews on draft along with the usual industrial swill. The micros were generally strong, but without much bite. They lacked the hard hoppiness associated with Oregon, which I suppose is a regional preference. But all in all it was drinkable enough.

The most noticeable thing about Vancouver beer wasn't the beer at all. It was the price. The normal cost of a pint (Canadian dollar roughly equal to an American dollar) ranged from $5 at the low end on up to $7 or $8 in the nicer bars. Yikes! In Oregon the range is $3-$5. I think the disparity is due to Canada's relatively high alcohol taxes, although I never pinned down the exact dynamics.

Whatever the reason, with prices like that George and I were discouraged from overindulging. And maybe that was part of the social calculus. They don't want people running around drunk with cameras.

Roughly $25 of locally brewed Vancouver beer

Of course we weren't in Vancouver just to drink beer. We were there for the photos. Why Vancouver? To put it bluntly, because it was the nearest major metropolis we hadn't yet explored.

I live in a smallish city, population roughly 150,000. Although I enjoy taking photos in Eugene, it lacks the dense pedestrian anonymity required for a certain type of street photography. So once in a while I like to take a photo venture (I'd call it a working holiday if someone actually hired me to do it) to an urban setting, just to fill up on images for a while. In 2007 I did Washington, DC. In 2008 it was San Francisco. On recent trips I've been going with George Kelly. In 2009 we hit Seattle. Last year it was London and Paris. Next year we're looking at Cleveland and/or Pittsburg. This year was Vancouver.

Typically on these trips we spend all daylight hours on foot taking photographs. Sometimes we do this together. More often we split up, then meet at various points throughout the day for meals and to touch base. In Vancouver we fell into pattern. We were there two solid days (plus part of one morning and one evening). I'm guessing I walked 18 miles the first day, then maybe 12 the second before it began raining and we were forced to shoot from the car.

My feet were cushioned in new leather Merrells and came through blister free. If comfy shoes are a photographer's best friend, maybe someone should invent photographer's pants. Mine sagged, and I did so much walking that my upper thighs started to rub and made an uncomfortable rash which sleep only partially cured. Can I call it street photographer's itch? But enough about my thighs.

Photographic Footwear? Yes

Photographic Footwear? No

Before leaving I'd printed out 12 Fred Herzog photos with downtown addresses. I kept this in my pack and when I recognized a street address I'd stop and photograph it from the perspective of Herzog's photo. I'm not sure what I was trying for. To step into his comfy shoes for a moment? A rephotographic project? Mostly it was just a fun game, to compare past and future and see how closely they resembled each other.

After looking for Herzog shots, my general sense of Vancouver is that it's lost many older buildings to redevelopment. Same story as in most North American cities, although in Vancouver the pace of construction seems accelerated. Another thing I noticed is that Herzog shot most of his photos with nice level horizon lines. If my own experience is any guide, the high price of beer was probably a preventative aid.

As for Herzog himself, someone had given me his old phone number but I never called him, and when I went looking for his gallery I couldn't find it. We never met Herzog, nor did I connect with any other Vancouverites.

Nevertheless we made ourselves at home. We stayed at the Patricia Hotel, which I'd found online having no idea of its location. I just knew it was downtown and half the price of other hotels, so I booked it. I learned later that the Patricia has sort of infamous history as a backpacker/budget outpost. Rumor is that Jelly Roll Morton stayed there long ago. It turned out to be a nice clean place on the edge of Chinatown at the corner of Hastings and Dunlevy. For the Herzog fans, that's two blocks due south of this photo.

New World Confectionery, 1965, Fred Herzog

Although that storefont looks roughly similar today, the neighborhood has changed quite a bit since Herzog's heyday, as we found out our first evening in town. After unpacking and setting out at dusk to see what was around, our first encounter was the Hastings Street skid row. Although some version of this exists in most large cities, I'd never encountered a strip as isolated, concentrated, and generally depressing as Hastings. For about three full city blocks the sidewalks were full of people laying around in various states of disrepair. Drugs, injuries, vice, bad luck, traveling, broke, who knows.

E Hastings near Columbia, shot from a car by James Danderfer

E Hastings at Columbia, 1958, Fred Herzog

The sidewalks were an open air bazaar with people selling anything of conceivable, and often inconceivable, value. The chief monetary unit seemed to be cigarettes, but cig butts would do too, as well as old magazines, pot, socks, dolls, crack, broken furniture, pocket lint, bodily services, anything else to bring in a little cash. I was propositioned a few times, I think for prostitution although it may have for a billy or a tooney or looney or some other request in mumbled Canadian slang which was hard to decipher. But the essence of the scene was pretty plain. It was a true carnival of broken dreams.

The Patricia was perched right on the edge of this scene and we had many lively walks to and from the hotel over the course of our stay. In some ways it was the perfect photo-op but I never took photos on Hastings. To take photos there seemed too much of a power trip, like kicking someone when they're down. I know it's a myth but I really believe taking a photo of someone is stealing their soul, at least part of it. I don't mind stealing the souls of rich assholes carrying fancy briefcases. After all, they barter souls every day and they'd hardly notice if a soul or two went missing. But these folks were at the other end of fortune's spectrum. To pass through out of nowhere and take —yes, take— photographs just didn't seem right. Can a street photographer have a conscience? He can if he wants to miss a lot of great photos. Which I did, but so be it. Hastings got to me. I just couldn't shoot there.

As for the rest of the city, it was open season. The first day I made a circle through downtown, Granville St., Yaletown, Davie, Stanley Park, back to the Patricia for a nap, then back out to do the most of the loop again. The second day it was out Main through Chinatown to Mt. Pleasant, City Hall, BC Place, back downtown, the port, Gastown, by two antiquarian bookstores which had no good photo books, Chinatown again, back to Granville, and so on.

White Lunch, Granville, 1959, Fred Herzog

Granville Street became sort of a magnet for me on the trip. Whenever I'd complete a new round of the city I'd find myself gravitating back to it. It's the traditional main drag in town but it wasn't a busy thoroughfare. Instead, it felt intimate and hemmed in and alive, like the main street of a small city before the mall boom. The sidewalks were wide, with a certain level of unpolished seediness and old neon. It reminded me a bit of Portland's Hawthorne which I've always found inviting. I shot a lot around Granville.

Cellphone series, 2011, George Kelly

George's latest project is shooting small screens at night, so we spent our evenings in bars where he scouted out cellphones and laptops while I put my camera away. The second evening we hung in at Pat's pub below the Patricia and watched a series of local bands. The first group was great. They had just a guitar and drummer but they put out as much sound as four people. The second group was either very intriguing or the worst band in the world, depending on which of us you asked. They followed the model of The Shaggs or Beefheart, or maybe there was no model. The vocals were mumbled Canadian slang which was hard to decipher, and the guitars were decidedly off-key. They made George groan. Not half bad, I thought.

I think this difference in musical tastes says something about our photographic methods. George is a quiet assassin with a camera. When he catches scent of a photo he goes into stalking mode and his blinders go up. If you're nearby it can border on being uncomfortable but it usually passes quickly. He zeroes in and 9 out of 10 times he nails the photo. Which is how he listens to music. He isolates the key component in the song and feeds on it, and if a song wanders or doesn't have that, it doesn't work for him. He can't listen to Deerhoof, for instance, or a long Jerry solo.

Cellphone series, 2011, George Kelly

I'm no good at stalking. It feels too voyeuristic. Instead, I sort of mumble with the camera. I wear it on my neck and wander and wait for the right feeling to come, which is often during fleeting scenes. Any person running past or pigeon lifting off I shoot automatically. Or a weird shaft of light near someone's plaid dress, or sometimes just because I haven't taken a photo in five minutes. Crap like that.

On my contacts my gem-to-junk ratio is a lot lower than George's. Whereas he might hit the mark on a quarter of his frames I can shoot a whole roll of nothing. But I can also pull a lot of good shots out of my ass where no one else would ever find them. I guess I work more like Godzilla than a quiet assassin, and that's how I listen to music too, not really zeroed on any key component but the feeling and the fire-breathing and the fleeting moments. I can't listen to The Animals or Cold Play or anything done too earnestly. Godzilla loves chaos.

We left during the third band. Every round was big bucks in beer, plus we had to get up early to shoot.

We walked around most of Saturday, then in the late afternoon it began raining and so we drove around and shot from the car. We made a long circle around Stanley Park, which is a large slice of coastal rainforest placed right on the edge of Vancouver.

Lion's Gate Bridge from Stanley Park, Murray Douglas Photography

At the far bend of the circle we pulled out at and walked to a lookout above a high bluff. We could see the Lions Gate Bridge to our right, with freight ships below it heading to and from Asia, and beyond that the high-rises of north Vancouver. Hemming in the whole scene were fabulous snow-capped peaks in the distance, hard to see in the light rain but vaguely discernible. It was quite a breathtaking vantage point, and I almost lost myself in a moment of quiet reverie before snapping out of it, whipping my camera to my face and shooting the nearest person moving by me. I wasn't sure but it felt like it had been more than five minutes.


Anonymous said...

Blake as a Vancouverite I think your take is spot on. The beer price is very high because of a ‘sin’ tax and Hastings is a world unto its own. If you only knew how much money has been poured in to that area you’d know that there are always going to be people in that shape no matter what you do. They all have a pretty bad story and prefer to be anaesthetized, and I can’t blame them for that. With Vancouver being the main entrance for Asian drugs, plenty of government money and the fact that you aren’t going to freeze to death on the street in the winter (as you would in the rest of the country) Vancouver has become a magnet for drug addicts and the homeless.

I was very surprised that you feel that people who make above a certain level of money have no rights and therefore should not be afforded basic human dignity – such as not being photographed. It seems like double standards to me. I wonder how many of the people on Hastings St could afford a Mac and a Leica?

It’s unfortunate that I didn’t think of mentioning Mcleods bookstore on Pender and Richards because it has a good used photo section. Not as good as the one in Oregon (Powells?) but is considered one of the best used bookstore in Canada and something to be experienced in person.

I’m glad the trip was interesting for you, even if you didn’t make it to Fred’s gallery.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if the pants thing was a joke, or half a joke, but try some hiking pants. I have a pair of Mountain Hardwear Mesas, and they are great whether I'm carrying a camera or not (I usually am). REI has loads of different types, as long as you like either khaki or gray.

Blake Andrews said...

Thanks for the pants tip.

I agree in principle that everyone regardless of income level should be afforded basic human dignity. The "fancy briefcase" comment was aimed more at ostentatious displays of wealth. In my mind people carrying LV purses or Rolexes or driving luxury sports cars or otherwise making a conscious public effort to present themselves as somehow living above the rabble have sacrificed any claim to dignity. And I often treat them accordingly with my camera.

John Pitsakis said...

Nice post for an interesting shooting trip, Blake. Thanks for sharing it.

Just a quick question if you don't mind. Your friend George's project "Cellphone series, 2011" sounds interesting and the two shots shown here are super cool. How come we don't get any samples of your work in Vancouver though? It's just that the way you shoot as you describe it is the way it usually works for me too, hence the question.
(Hope it came out in a nice way.)


Blake Andrews said...

John, I can't post any photos because I haven't processed all the film yet. I will develop it gradually but even after that it will be several months before I make work prints since I'm about 4 months backlogged. Hopefully by the time I make prints I will have forgotten the trip entirely.

George shoots film too and hasn't yet made prints from the trip. The photos shown here are ones he shot earlier this year in Portland.

John Pitsakis said...

Fair enough.
I like the way you talk about "printing and having forgotten about the trip". It puts a distance between the memories and the actual photos I guess and it apparently makes the editing easier and more sober. Shame it's tricky to do this in digital, sigh. It would only take loads more of self restraint and patience I guess.
Btw, where could a have a peek at previous work of yours? If that's legit that is.

Anonymous said...

"....have sacrificed any claim to dignity. And I often treat them accordingly with my camera."

Another self-righteous asshole with a camera.

Andrea said...

I too take issue with the whole idea that people with obvious wealth are somehow less than human and have less dignity than a poor homeless bum. I mean, how do you know from just looking at them what they did to get that fancy car? Maybe they worked extra hours for it. Maybe they won it. Maybe it was a gift.

I don't know, maybe it's just me. I grew up in one of the most ostentatious, in-your-face-with-my-new-money cities in the US, Miami, Florida -- and I've seen plenty of obnoxious behavior by the richie rich crowd. But I've also known people who literally floated on the sea on rubber tires with nothing but their clothes after having everything stolen from them by people who were envious of their money, and worked multiple jobs to buy that big house and fancy car. If you ask me they earned the right to celebrate a little.

On the other hand, not all of those sad folk selling used gum wrappers and blow jobs for crack money are there because of no fault of their own. No one made them take that first drink or smoke that first rock. Sometimes photographs don't tell the truth any more than any other superficial first glance.

John Goldsmith said...

Thanks for sharing, Blake. What you say is pretty spot on and I also never, or at least very rarely, shoot along Hastings St. For what it's worth, it is often regarded as the poorest community in all of Canada and anyone with a conscience will understand that using a camera in this area is like walking into someone else's living room without asking permission.

As far as beer/wine/liquor -- yeah, too expensive. And on Sunday the government stores are closed so, if you return, don't forget to buy your goods BEFORE the Canucks win their games in the Stanley Cup.

One other thing to note: goods are more expensive in Canada, and it's not just beer but cameras and film, plane tickets and everything. That is partly because the minimum wage in BC is almost $9/hour -- the lowest in Canada. When I tell Australians this, they are shocked at how low it is. Here, they don't even have a minimum wage. They call it a livable wage and it's about $15/hour. Additionally, everyone has healthcare in Canada and Australia. Someone has got to pay for that stuff. Nevertheless, thank you for subsidizing my next visit to the doctor with your beer purchases. I won't forget it.

The odd thing is that even when the Canadian dollar (the loonie) is very high relative to the greenback, as it was during your trip, prices do not recede. Ever. It's quite awful actually. There is no doubt that we are gouged but, then, that helps the US economy when we drive across the border to buy cheap goods in Blaine and elsewhere. Still, when something like 90% of all Canadians live within 100 miles of the US border, I have a hard time understanding how prices can be so different between the two countries. Our fuel, too, is a lot more expensive even though Canada is the biggest exporter of crude to the US. More than Saudi Arabia even. Go figure. It's the taxes, I guess. But for those who are more fortunate, high prices are worth it, though we do reserve the right to complain.

Anyway.. I greatly enjoy your Vancouver posts and I'm looking forward to seeing your pics. If you make that trip again it would be great to meet. I'll show you where the gallery is. It's right near my house. :)

Blake Andrews said...

Hmm, I didn't really intend this as a rant about wealth and classism, but since the comments are leading in that direction…

I don't have any inherent problem with wealth. People are free to build empires or inherit them or whatever, and it's really none of my business. As I clearly stated in my first comment "everyone regardless of income level should be afforded basic human dignity".

But the deliberate flaunting of such wealth is a conscious decision motivated by either ignorance or, worse, hubris. In a global economy built upon crushing levels of inequality, and which depends for its very existence on that divide, such a display is dumbfounding and, yes, undignified.

But beyond that there's wealth's desire to be objectified. Although I have very little understanding or empathy for overt showings of luxury, I think one driving motivation must be the desire to be observed by others, so to photograph such people seems only natural. If that makes me just "another self righteous asshole with a camera" so be it.

Andrea, you're right that don't know the backgrounds of the folks on Hastings, just as I don't know the backgrounds of wealthy people. But wealthy people generally have some level of control over their appearance. Skid row doesn't. It's that lack of control that I'm hesitant to leverage for my own gain, whereas with wealthy people I feel less qualms.

John, I think a Google Search should turn up some of my previous work. Good luck.

John Goldsmith said...

Andrea - I don't take what Blake said as mean spirited. If I may, what he was getting at was that the rich have some place to go at the end of the day. Many of those on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside do not and thus they should be afforded some added privacy on the street because the it might just be their home. That means that everyone else is fair game. If that's not Blake's view, I know it's mine.

Blake - Thanks. I'll seek out those photos. I always enjoy seeing how other photographers picture the same location.

John Pitsakis said...

I'm embarrassed. I know your work so intimately, I have books with it. Shit, I didn't realise the name was more than a coincidence. Silly huh?

Blake Andrews said...

Don't worry, John P., it's a very common mistake considering all the Blake Andrews doppelgangers out there, not to mention the impersonators. For example, I'm not even the one who wrote this comment.

Mom said...

Blake, you're starting to sound a lot like that Winogrand feller. I'm concerned.
You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool mom. Now come home and eat your brussel sprouts.
~ Your Mom

Marilyn Andrews said...

Re: "MOM said" in the above comment about Blake eating his Brussel sprouts; that is not me.

Signed, The Real Mom Marilyn Andrews

Andrea said...

I don't think Mr. Andrews was being mean-spirited; I just think that the automatic view of "wealth = bad/poverty = good" (or well, less bad) as being a black-and-white state is something that should be questioned. I used to have a friend that admitted to the impulse to throw a lit cigarette into any open convertable car he passed. He made this and other wealth-envious statements frequently, even though he lived a comfortable life in a suburban home and had a nice (though not a convertable) car. It used to irritate me, and I started to question my own envy of wealthy people and their displays of wealth, and to look at my own life to see how much envy of people who had stuff I didn't was holding me back.

I also had family members who had addictions that basically ruined not just their lives but the lives of those around them, and a lot of their problems were there own fault -- but guess what, so much of their self-justification for their clinging to their bottles or drugs was about how much it hurt them that people had more possessions than they had. It's true that some people are just fragile and can't take care of themselves for no fault of their own, but that excuse shouldn't be extended to people who are perfectly healthy but let envy ruin their lives.

Blake Andrews said...

Andrea, I think you misinterpreted my comments. I would write a rebuttal but it would just rehash what I've already written here. My thoughts on wealth/dignity are right there above yours. Please reread. I'm not sure how much more plainly I can express them, or how they could be so casually misinterpreted. This has nothing to do with envy.

This is actually turning into an interesting discussion from a street photography angle since this is an issue that always lurks in urban photography. How much privacy/dignity are various people afforded, and does it change for some people vs others?

And yes, this is the real Blake writing.

Microcord said...

Andrea: "I mean, how do you know from just looking at them what they did to get that fancy car? Maybe they worked extra hours for it. Maybe they won it. Maybe it was a gift."

No matter how it was acquired, it's likely to be guzzling more gas, and to be doing more damage, than a cheap, anonymous car. When the car says "Look at me, I'm screwing the planet", this is surely a license to be irreverent.

Back to the homeless or desperately impoverished. It's an excellent subject, for those who have the time, personality, and skills (and perhaps funding) to go about it conscientiously. Indeed, I wish there were a lot more photography of the homeless or desperately impoverished, even if this were the expense of any of a number of genres. Or anyway I wish there were more if I thought it might have some effect on the electorate and public policy. Yesterday for the first time I got to see the monster three-volume collected (B/W) works of Bruce Davidson -- which I recommend to anyone with $200 and a lot of space in sturdy bookshelves -- and there's fine work in that, work that demonstrably did have an effect, but then of course the effect was before the hard right came to power and had the bright idea of dubbing any protest about throwing people on the trash-heap "the politics of envy".

Zisis Kardianos said...

Blake, I don't care how you feel about the super rich or the desperate but I disagree with the base of your reasoning.
You see I don't accept that "taking" photos of strangers in public, it necessarily means that you indade someone's privacy or deprive him of his dignity unless you are setting out to do this in purpose.
And if between the two poles of the fortunate spectrum it's easy to decide which ones to "shoot" and which ones to let go, how do you feel about the rest 80% of the population, the common people.
Are they worthy preys to have their soul stolen?

SR said...

More on rich/poor tangent:
Socioeconomic differences aside between shooter and shot nobody has mentioned so far the photojournalistic/visual record value in documenting the homeless,downtrodden, less fortunate in the humanist tradition that not only records but personifies their plight. Well done the image may be considered art or iconic... eg the FSA. When I see such a street scene these thoughts and whether I might arouse anger,is the person mentally stable are considerations in whether or not to make an image. Actually I usually find my own socioeconomic subjects visually ' boring' and infrequently photographed.

Anonymous said...

I see my photographic subjects as actors on a stage. It doesn't matter who I photograph, it's the overall look of the image (stage set) I'm going for. If someone happens to make the composition work, I take the picture. If not, I move on.
A picture of a homeless person holding a sign, begging for money, or just lying on the street does nothing for me as a photographer. To me, that image is trite, mindless, and opportunistic. The work of an amateur trying to imitate photographers that came before.
Bleeding heart liberals should take note. There is a very good reason most of these people are homeless and it's not the government.

Check out Flickr sometime. I believe every single homeless person has been documented at one point or another. Enough already.

Anonymous said...

$8,000 dollar camera photographing a homeless person. This world is insane.

jophilippe said...

Nice post Blake, thanks for your feedback on Vancouver.

Re: the questions raised here, I think a lot depends on whether you have an agenda or not as a photographer. And to me street-photography differs much from straight documentary photography for that matter. If you have an agenda, if you are skilled enough to clearly articulate it through a photo project then you end up in a situation where you are opened to discussion, criticism that justifies the act of photographing. On the contrary I believe SP in its purest form is much more elusive for that matter, and every so often follows no identifiable agenda, which is a strength as well as a weakness. That lack of agenda makes it difficult for street-photographers to justify why they are out there shooting otherwise than with rather vague arguments.

Another point which to me is important is that street-photography often has something of "trophy-making", which gives an uncomforable perspective to the the dignity/privacy question - and IMO makes the stolen-soul argument somewhat valid. Hence why the questions in relations to the ethics are unavoidable for SP. Finally the street photographer should expect to be the "self-righteous asshole with a camera" for part of the audience.

Blake Andrews said...

Interesting comments everyone.

In reply to Zisis' question, I don't really walk around with some wealth-meter in my brain deciding who or who not to shoot. I'll shoot just about anyone if the photo is promising. But I am fairly sensitive about people's private space, probably too sensitive in many cases. Hence my comments on stalking/voyeurism. I have a hard time shooting that way regardless of the subject. Most of my images probably have less emotional resonance because of that, and are built more on form and geometry.

In regards to wealthy/homeless, I tend to feel more comfortable shooting someone if they've met me halfway with their persona. If they're dressed up nicely or in costume or projecting a conscious image to the public, which I think is generally more true as you go up the income scale, I am probably more apt to shoot them.

Ben said...

Hi Blake. Too bad you didn't get up to Equinox. We stayed at the Comfort Inn off Granville at Nelson. It was about a half hour walk south on Granville across the bridge. I got two signed Fred Herzog books (Locations and Vancouver Photographs) for the same price as unsigned. Real nice. I avoided DTES based on everything I read. (Didn't think my wife would go for it. Granville scruffy enough for her.) I definitely plan to spend more time in Vancouver. I'll leave the politics to other but an interesting post.