At the Richmond Art Gallery until June 28
It is dusk and the stucco façade of a small, postwar bungalow is fading into the shadows. Behind and above it looms a huge, brightly lit building topped with a glowing, disk-shaped roof. From this vantage point—the bungalow’s tidy front yard—the structure resembles an alien spacecraft, making a landing in suburban Richmond.
But although it evokes Stephen Spielberg’s sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the futuristic form is actually the Bing Thom–designed Aberdeen Centre. And the image is not a movie still, but one of a series of highly detailed colour photographs that Greg Girard shot in Richmond over the past two years.
In 2011, when this acclaimed photographer returned to his birthplace, Vancouver, after some 30 years of living in Asia, the city looked exotic to him, awaiting exploration. Old buildings had disappeared, glass towers had multiplied like multistoreyed mushrooms, and the working waterfront had become residential and recreational, lined with high-end condos and restaurants instead of cargo docks and fishing boats.
To a lesser degree, the rapid development here echoed what Girard had previously recorded in fast-growing and densely populated cities on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Given the dramatic transformations that have also occurred in Richmond over the past few decades, many of them in response to immigration from Asia, it makes sense that the Richmond Art Gallery would invite Girard to photograph that municipality in all its contradictory everydayness. A place where shining newness is interspersed with pockets of (relative) oldness.
In the 1990s, Girard won wide recognition for his striking images of Hong Kong, specifically of Kowloon Walled City (which was demolished in 1992), and some of this work is on display here, too. The line of connection between the two series of photos is that much of Richmond’s development has been driven by immigration from Hong Kong (and, more recently, other cities in China).
Although the physical resemblance between the two places may not be that great, Girard has been able to tease out some parallels, including the idea of a city within a city, large movements of people both within and between countries, and the impact of shifting demographics on the social and architectural character of place.
As in his earlier work, Girard shoots many of his Richmond subjects at dusk, making use of available light. The effect can be quite eerie, sometimes even ghostly, as in Cul de Sac Yard. In this image, a pickup truck and two cars, one covered in a tarp, are parked in a leafy yard near a wooden fence. Tall, bare, winter trees, seen mostly in silhouette, stand around and behind them. The foreground and middle ground are shrouded in darkness, while in the background we see a weirdly lit construction site. Its tall rebar columns and even taller construction crane seem to rise up against the lavender sky, as if out of enchanted ground.
Girard used the term “phantom city” to title his photos of Shanghai, a city he lived and worked in for many years. In his Richmond photographs, however, the phantom seems not to be the disappearing postwar houses and farms but rather the new development—the condo towers, shopping malls, car dealerships, and shipping yards that seem to portend an uneasy future.
In addition to architectural and development subjects, Girard’s Richmond series includes photos of residents at work and at play: musicians, shoppers, tai-chi practitioners, a croupier, a hairdresser, a taxidermy assistant, and a man meditating on a public bench beside a busy street. His Kowloon Walled City images include convenience stores, a barbecued-meat factory, dark alleys overhung with densely woven networks of pipes, and children playing on a TV-antenna-spiked rooftop.
There are long shots here, too, of the dense agglomeration of interconnected, 12- to 14-storey buildings—some 300 of them, housing some 33,000 people, erected without the benefit of architects, planners, or permits on the space of a single city block.
The juxtaposition of the contemporary Richmond photos with those of predemolition Kowloon Walled City provokes our thinking about what is familiar and what is strange—and how everyday lives find both shelter and expression in a shifting and unstable world.