Foncie’s Fotos: Man on the Street
At the Museum of Vancouver until January 5, 2014
Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, courting couples, elderly marrieds, cheery groups of friends, determined singletons. Arm in arm and gazing fondly at each other; separated by a young child and glaring at each other; walking alone, preoccupied and carrying a lampshade in a big bag. Wearing a feathered hat, white gloves, and a string of pearls. A fedora, overcoat, and three-piece suit. Knee socks and penny loafers, pantyhose and strappy high heels. Horn-rimmed glasses, cat’s-eye glasses, dark glasses obscuring innocence or guile. Nuns in habits, soldiers in uniform, James Dean–style rebels in white T-shirts and rolled blue jeans. People of Asian, European, and First Nations descent, walking quickly by or stopping and posing—smiling for the friendly man with the homemade camera.
And the man—Foncie Pulice—took their picture. As this city’s most prolific street photographer, he snapped them as they strolled or strode along and handed them a claim ticket that could be redeemed the next day. In the 1940s, Pulice charged 50 cents for three photos, a rate that would dictate a very large output in order to support himself and his family. And, indeed, organizers of Foncie’s Fotos: Man on the Street estimate that he shot an astounding 15 million images, working six days a week (and often evenings, too) over the course of his four-decade-long career on the sidewalks of downtown Vancouver.
Of course, not everyone who was photographed ordered a picture, and to the horror of the historically and archivally minded, Pulice destroyed most of his negatives. (It simply didn’t occur to him to hang on to them.) To save time and money, he shot his stills, two to a frame, on large reels of movie film, and by a fluke, two reels survived from May and June 1968. These images, digitized and projected on two large screens, make up the bulk of the photos on view at the Museum of Vancouver. They’re supplemented by a few dozen original small prints taken in earlier and later times, lots of informative text, and Pulice’s camera and its housing, built out of war-surplus materials.
It’s interesting to consider Pulice’s images in the context of both vernacular photography and the historic street photography of artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and even our own Fred Herzog. Although much more limited in its approach and aspiration, there is something niftily indexical in Pulice’s work, recording as it does the coming and going of retail signage, the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic, the rise and fall of hemlines, the widening and narrowing of lapels and ties. Still, what’s fascinating here is not merely the vagaries of streetscapes and fashion, it’s the sense of occasion that earlier generations experienced when they went downtown. Before the Pacific Centre mall and the blank-walled, blocklong fortress that was Eaton’s killed Granville’s street life, before the neon was taken down by order of a benighted city council, before every family had a TV, going downtown was a big deal.
So was photography. When Pulice established his business, just after World War II, at least six other street photographers were at work in Vancouver. Their presence was an indication of the technical and economic conditions of the age: film was scarce during the war, few people had cameras, and often a photo taken by a street photographer was the only visual record poor people, especially, had of certain family members. Conditions changed again, of course, and cameras and snapshots vastly proliferated. Pulice outlasted or absorbed the competition and was “the last man standing”, the show tells us, when he finally retired in 1979.
Foncie Pulice died in 2003, and one wonders what he would have made of this digital age, when there are more smartphones than smarts on the streets of Vancouver, and every banal moment of every hour of every day is snapped and posted online. Street photography now belongs to everybody: we’ve all been Foncified.