Return to Robson Street: a photographic journey

Robson & Thurlow, Vancouver, BC

Robson & Thurlow (Business Man Checking His Watch), 1984

As recorded briefly in the account of my visit to Vancouver, earlier this month, I re-photographed two sites on Robson Street, in the busy urban neighbourhood where I lived and worked in 1978.

My stay there, living in a cockroach-infested room, above the Golden Wheel Chinese Restaurant (follow link above for contemporary photo) lasted just 7 months, before I lucked out on a shared top floor of a house in Kitsilano, a block from the beach. At $190.00 a month, split two ways, that was a considerable saving on the $170.00 I paid for the Robson Street apartment, not to mention the savings on insecticide.

Five years later, I’d graduated to a larger house, shared with four others, in the South Cambie area. There, I had a makeshift basement studio where I shot portraits and small product for catalogues.

Between commercial jobs, I began the project now titled Eighties Vancouver.

According to my journal entry for the day, I spent March 2, 1984, “… in complete abandon to my personal work.” I exposed “three rolls of film in my Mamiyaflex 2¼ X 2¼  camera,” wandering around Vancouver’s West End, “following the light.”

Starting “around noon, at the ocean’s edge, near Sunset Beach,” in Stanley Park, I “walked up Robson to buy some film.”

Film choice was part of a technical decision in a pre-visualization process (a la Zone System lore) that had evolved over several months. Slow, low ASA, film would allow me to “photograph the busyness/business of the downtown … [and] the best way to show this is by getting as much depth of field as possible and as slow a shutter speed as possible.”

Unable to find my preferred Ilford Pan F film, I settled for Kodak Panatomic-X. Nonetheless I was eager to see how it would look, processed in Ilford developer. Ilford’s panchromatic black and white negative film was rated at ISO 50, with the Kodak equivalent incrementally slower, at ISO 32.

Notes on the back of the final contact-sheet record that I developed the film in stock (undiluted) Ilford ID-11 for 9 minutes— resulting in a medium-density negative.

I set up my tripod at the corner of Robson & Thurlow and metered the scene, settling on “a shutter speed of 1/5 sec. and f.32.”

“I made the big silver tower [Prudential Building,1090 W. Georgia] stand straight, while I let the old Manhattan Apartments lean wildly into the street.” I anticipated “… people and cars …  blurred life in the otherwise starkly crisp landscape,” except, I noted, “for one frame where I caught a man standing still.” That moment would become Business Man Checking His Watch. It reminded me of Salvador Dali’s The Chemist of Ampurdan in Search of Absolutely Nothing.

Robson & Thurlow, Vancouver, 2015

Moving southwest to the intersection of Robson and Bute (nearer my old digs), I documented pedestrian traffic crossing the street in a blur of motion, the base of the Blue Horizon, and the Empire Landmark Hotel with its revolving restaurant in the distance.

That negative was #11 of 12 on the roll of 120 film. The final exposure on the contact sheet shows the front of the Blue Horizon Hotel (see also story of my latest visit), which I have yet to scan.

Robson Street, Vancouver

Robson & Bute, Vancouver, 1984

I shot three rolls of film that day — an extravagance I could scarcely afford — ending up back down at English Bay, “where I tried a couple of seascapes.”

Bookended that month by financial and career anxieties, such as how I’d pay the rent after blowing the budget on film and chemicals for this speculative project, my journal entry ended on a hopeful note.

“I think today’s work may prove important.”

Robson & Bute, Vancouver, 2015

Larger examples of the recent colour digital work can be found in the Urban Scenes gallery. See the Eighties Vancouver gallery for more original black-and-white images of the city. Prints available from the Sales Gallery.



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