Greg Girard: Under Vancouver 1972-1982
At Monte Clark Gallery until May 27
Photographer Greg Girard is widely acclaimed for the images of Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Hanoi he created during the three decades he lived and worked in Asia. Less well known are the photos he shot in his hometown of Vancouver, when he was a teenager and young man, just beginning to find his way toward his urban subjects. His new book, Under Vancouver 1972-1982, and the companion exhibition at Monte Clark Gallery, reveal aspects of the social and architectural character of our port city before Expo 86 brought it to the attention of international investors and ravening developers.
Not that Girard, in his youth, was aware of the changes to come. As a high-school student living with his parents in Burnaby, he was drawn to Vancouver’s seedier neighbourhoods. Many of his images focus on down-market shops, cafés, pool halls, and hotels in the area that used to be called Skid Row and is now known as the Downtown Eastside. As well, there are shots of the back side of the working waterfront—warehouses, processing plants, overpasses, and railway lines. In an interview with David Campany that serves as the introduction to the book, Girard reflects on this early work, saying, “I did feel Vancouver was a sad town…the way the natural beauty surrounding the city was at odds with the more down at the heel parts of town.” These were the areas he would visit as a teenager, taking the bus in from the ’burbs and renting a room in a cheap hotel for the weekend. A wall of one such room is adorned with pink and red balloons, sentimentally arranged in the shape of a heart. A couple of the balloons are deflated.
At Monte Clark Gallery, the 176 photos in Girard’s book have been distilled down to 19 framed works, most of them shot outside at night using ambient light. The brilliant neon, glowing in the misty darkness, gives the colour images a moody, film-noir quality. In American Hotel, neon signage in the upper part of the photo reflects blood red in a puddle of rainwater in the foreground. In Silver Grill Café, by contrast, a customer is enveloped in warm and welcoming yellow light as he enters the late-night café, which is otherwise surrounded by darkened shops and set in a cold, snowy streetscape.
Originally shot on slides, the colour photos, with their saturated blues, reds, and yellows, appear to be reserved for the shabby and peeling built environment, much of it framed without occupants. In this exhibition, anyway, black-and-white photography appears to be dedicated to human subjects. Grizzled old guys, wearing fedoras and sagging overcoats, sit on a bench in a pool hall or tie their shoelaces in a railway-station washroom. Presumably, these are the retired loggers, miners, and fishers who lived, on very little money, in the area. Man With Bandaged Nose, a close-up of a squinting and battered individual, whose tightly zipped jacket is worn inside out, was obviously taken with his permission. He looks frankly—although anonymously—into the camera.
It’s interesting that the hotels, cafés, and bars in these photographs are named, but the people are not. This fact adds to the sense that Girard was an outsider on Skid Row—and that we, his audience, are outsiders too. “I was something of an interloper,” Girard tells Campany, “but my youth protected me.” One never doubts that he sincerely believed that the Downtown Eastside, not the well-groomed suburbs, was where real life was happening. The problem is that it wasn’t his real life. The socioeconomic disconnect
is an uncomfortable one.