Photographing Vancouver’s classic Wooden Roller Coaster

Roller coaster, Playland

Wooden Roller Coaster, Vancouver, 1986

Vancouver’s Wooden Roller Coaster, situated at Playland on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, was designed by Carl Phare, with construction overseen by Walker Leroy, in 1958.

The ride has a maximum drop height of 20m (75 ft) and attains speeds of up to 76 km/h (47 mph). It is recognized by American Roller Coaster Enthusiasts with both “Classic” and “Landmark” status, a designation reserved for rides of historic significance.

Like most Vancouverites, I’d passed by the eye-catching amusement park attraction countless times, on my bicycle, in cars and on busses. My plan to photograph the structure evolved over many years; a nebula of memories clung to the scene.

An old friend, fellow documentary photographer and gallery owner Gerry Duncan, taught me early on that the secret to a good photo is clear intention. Without a viewpoint, a photograph is forgettable.

That might seem like a redundant statement, but let me clarify by way of a quote. When asked why French photographer Eugene Atget’s vintage images of Paris were so timeless, American photographer Garry Winogrand replied, “He knew where to stand.”

If that also seems cryptic, treat it like a Zen koan; don’t over-think. Quite simply, Atget’s beautiful photographs (rescued from planned destruction by Berenice Abbott, Man Ray’s assistant) were the result of an intimate familiarity with his subject and natural instinct for visual simplicity.

Duncan, who gave me my first “real” show at his Action Reprographics Gallery, on W. 4th Avenue, unflinchingly criticized my counterfeit images — those which he said lacked a point-of-view — while praising those that illustrated, as he put it, “You knew what you were doing.”

When I finally made the roller coaster photo, I knew what I was doing.

In 1985, I wandered around it’s perimeter and, early in 1986, I did a recce, using up the end of a roll of film. The results were disappointing, failing to represent the picture I imagined.

What was missing?

It occurred to me that the iconic structure was a kind of rickety sculptural homage to the North Shore Mountains — something that impressed itself upon me vividly during an LSD trip, in 1968. I had to get high enough, so to speak, to reveal the vista I saw in my mind.

As an active mountaineer, I reckoned this would not present any great technical challenge, but I had to take care of some diplomatic preparation before I scaled the heights. I contacted PNE managers and convinced them to allow me to climb the classic coaster. All I had to do was sign a release absolving them of liability should I make an unplanned dive into Playland.

On the day of the shoot, I loaded my 1960 Mamiyaflex camera with a roll of Kodak Tri-X, attached an 80mm lens, grabbed my Hanimex Sekonic “Leader De Luxe” photovoltaic light meter (also 1960s vintage, given to me by my father) and headed over to East Hastings Street.

The contact sheet records that I started out on the lower levels, but it soon became clear that my idea demanded a “summit” push. It was a challenge to haul the camera and heavy Tiltall tripod up the near-vertical ladder beside the tracks. I ended up on the southernmost high point mirroring the far end in the picture.

I wonder how many people appreciate that panorama as they clackity-clack around the turn, preparing for the big, mind-altering plunge?

That day, alone in the park, I had plenty of time to sit on the grey, weathered Douglas fir planks and take in the view. From the cloud-capped North Shore Mountains, southward over the waters of Burrard Inlet, to the tidy suburbs of East Vancouver, shadow and light played over the coastal landscape.

I had realized a plan, but I followed a dream.

In 1992, the resulting image was awarded second prize in Urban Photographic Projects’ “Vancouver’s Vancouver” juried exhibition. A print resides in Vancouver Public Library’s permanent collection, and it has pride of place within my larger “Eighties Vancouver” portfolio.

The image is available as a limited-edition print in 3 sizes, a 7×7 inch open edition or lithographed poster.

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