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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.