Unfinished Business

The Rain Review of Books, Issue 4:2, Summer Autumn 2006, Vancouver.

Photographs are the primary collatoral of the Vancouver Brand, and support the shifting scaffold of this city’s visual identity. They simulate ‘the view’ in interactive panoramas on the real estate websites, views that can be purchased and resold as ‘assignments’, far in advance of breaking ground, and provide reassuring evidence in the high stakes speculation involved in purchasing little pieces of the sky. Photographs illustrate our ‘liveability’ at planning departments and architectural conferences around the world. Literal portraits of Downtown Eastside neighbours, or the figurative images of garbage, detritus and abandoned campsites that stand in, slightly less distastefully, for their bodies are used to back up requests for federal tax dollars. The photograph is deployed as a redemptive object in projects that arm the poor and dispossessed with disposable cameras in order to take on for themselves the daunting task of representation. Whether reducing the rain forest to a view from Shangri La, or brutally revealing the world-class stature of our social problems, the relationship of the photograph to the real and its power to persuade is too robust a currency to abandon when preparing an idea of the city for export.

Vancouver’s identity as an artistic community is similarly reliant on the international export of photographic images. The market success of some local artists has caused them to be grouped together (with much dispute regarding membership) as the Vancouver School, a term tellingly coined in Europe. As a value-added resource exchanged and legitimated in the global art marketplace, these photographs have been an important part of serious public and private portfolios for some time. Their influence is now brought to bear upon all photographic projects from this region, even ones that pre-date their profile.

This creates a conundrum for curatorial practices in this city, one that is exemplified with the exhibition Unfinished Business: Photographing Vancouver Streets, 1955 – 1985. The curator of the exhibition, Bill Jeffries, states that he sought to develop a legacy of ‘street photography’ for Vancouver, as distinct from the better-known ‘decisive moments’ found in the work of Helen Levitt or Walker Evans. This curatorial decision to resist the sentimentality of picturing human interaction in public space allows him to avoid the worst examples of victim photography in local photo-documentary practices. It can also be seen as a slight resistance of the unavoidable nostalgic tendencies that the chronological framework – 1955-1985 – would encourage. The selection, then, favours a more disengaged, cooler view of the city, its built environment, transportation systems, and commercial signage. In other words, the streetscapes culled from the very broad and loose category of ‘street photographs’ of Vancouver, are the images that most closely resemble the early work of the Vancouver photo-conceptualists. In this way, once again, the Vancouver practice best known elsewhere inflects upon those lesser known, even here. The detached viewpoint and flat affect of photo-conceptualism sets the aesthetic standard through which the unwieldy non-category of Vancouver street photography is managed. Rather than form a challenge to the hierarchy of importance established by export markets, this curatorial approach arranges a set of malleable pictorial documents so as to accrue further value to work that was in no way intended to intervene in the street photography ‘genre’.

This point is made clear in the engaging and informative texts by Ian Wallace and Chris Dikeakos, and in Jeff Wall’s interview with Jerry Zaslove, Fred Douglas and Glen Lowry. The photo-conceptualists are careful to create an altogether different story of their artistic context and stringently distinguish their practices from those framed by the indexical and documentary function of photography. Critical texts by Sharla Sava and Clint Burnham also take pains to differentiate between the humanist and scientific, the literal and the semiotic, the realist and the structuralist. Sava draws a line between capturing an image to staging one, as a technique that both exploits and refuses the relationship of the photograph to the real. Burnham sees this line as a rupture in “Fourteen Reasons for Photoconceptualism” and Petra Watson, in her abrupt The City, the Flaneur and the Man with the Camera, draws in the overlooked importance of Martha Rosler’s critique of documentary with an impatience I share. These texts, written in different discursive genres, share a markedly different tone than the frank and very funny arrival story of Henri Robideau; Fred Herzog’s account of ‘exploring’ the city, or Jamie Reid’s Curt Lang. Their syntax – scholarly critique or personal memoir – further separates the apples and oranges that the exhibition presented as fruit.

When conjuring an imaginary City or an imaginary School out of the wilderness, a frontier narrative can be helpful. Key features of frontier narratives include: certain heroic trailblazers, an assumed vacuum of previous civilizations, and the general unavailability of women. In Dissent, Tree Stumps and Bohemianism in Early Modern Vancouver, Jeff Wall notes that, “A serious critical study of your own past takes a lot of confidence. Provincial places tend not to have that sort of confidence, for all sorts of reasons.” Between the exhibition and the production of the book, a reader can sense an unsettled pause, a confidence shaken. Avoidances come back to haunt the project, as avoidances tend to do. The emptiness of the pictured streets summoned up a recollection of specific absences and a generalized sense of loss. Utopian impulses expire in How to Grow a City: South False Creek’s Forgotten Visionaries and Bob Williams on the History of Planning in Vancouver. The elusive city centre slips away in Transient Vancouver: A Difficult Typology. Political activism is a distant drumbeat in Commie Conversations on Commercial Drive and Michael Barnholden’s account of Vancouver riots. The abstracted ‘negative production’ of concrete technology fills in lost space in Derek Simons’ Impressive and Interstitial Space in Vancouver’s False Creek. Whether immersive accounts of a city experienced, or analyses of the city as an object of study, these testimonies represent a more sober post-Expo frontier. Discovery has lost its innocence, and has taken on forensic connotations – in the reconstruction of undocumented settlements in Hogan’s Alley and Retrospeculative Verse, by Wayde Compton and Robert Sherrin, in the seemingly endless Discovery phase of the Pickton trial that haunts the marginal monuments of Adrienne Burk’s Speaking Between the Lines. In anticipation of the next drunken blowout in 2010, still hungover from the last desperate celebration, we can ruminate on the themes of amnesia, excavation and residue offered here as a restorative to the intoxicating narratives of VANOC. These texts serve to ground, steady and straighten up the sketchier juxtapositions of Unfinished Business. They complicate the apparent resemblance between pictures pulled from an archive of unclassified documents, and pictures composed in the spirit of photography’s democratic potential, and pictures devised to simultaneously capitalize upon and undercut the power of the mechanical image. Because the writing implicates the curatorial premise of Unfinished Business by association, rather than direct critique, it is unlikely to interfere with the further development of relationships between the ‘pre-conceptualists’ and their antecedents. Given the expanded trade opportunities of the vibrant global art marketplace, it would come as no surprise if certain of the ‘street photographs’ resurface, re-printed and re-framed in formats designed to appeal to just that market.