Robson Street: a photographic memory

Up on the Roof

Up on the Roof

“Memory … is the diary that we all carry about with us.” ―Oscar Wilde

Southeastern British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains stripped me of many worldly affectations, not to mention temporal baggage. But one of my backwoods compatriots — a visiting New Zealander dedicated to freeing himself from the burdens of materialism — cursed me with the gift of a Zenit-E camera.

Built like a tank, this Russian 35mm camera and its two screw-mount lenses accompanied me on many adventures over the next couple of years, until its cloth shutter, temperamental at best, made its final curtain call.

The surviving negatives and slides made with the camera (some were lost to a cat who decided my shoebox filing-cabinet looked like a litter-box) date from my last year in the Purcells, to the big city sojourn illustrated here, and a few mountaineering expeditions — where the Zenit probably weighed more than the rest of the climbing gear hung bandolier-style around my shoulder. Seen chronologically, these images represent a sort of scouting period, between my Kodak Brownie days and my commercial career, beginning just three years later.

Coal Harbour, 1978

Coal Harbour

There is much personal colour mixed into the pigments of these unremarkable Kodachromes — details I hesitate to reveal. Getting around to this post has been a bit of a struggle between the impartial observer/documentarian and the self-indulgent diarist, who after all launched the “Words & Pictures” category here with the idea of detailing some of the stories behind the scenes.

Obviously, there’s nothing compelling me to disclose autobiographical details, other than my own vanity — the thing that compels so many to casually expose their lives today on social media. Before the Internet tangled us in its interconnected web, documentary photography became public via books, newspapers, magazines and shows. Those who shared their family lives with the world (e.g. Sally Mann) presented as “art,” often found themselves at the mercy of public scorn, as much as victims of today’s Facebook panopticon.

Sunset Inn, Robson Street, 1978

Sunset Inn, Robson Street, 1978

A photograph is like the recipe — a memory the finished dish.” ~Carrie Latet.

These particular images are ordinary documents of my surroundings at a critical time in my life, revealing nothing of the turbulence behind the camera. but they reinforce my belief that photography, like no other artistic expression outside of music, has more power to evoke memory and its emotions.


Denman & Georgia, Vancouver, 1978

In 1978, I had just exited a failed relationship, moving from a tipi in the aforementioned mountain paradise to one of the most densely-populated urban neighbourhoods in Canada: Vancouver’s West End.

A climbing buddy had alerted me to a job opportunity at a Vancouver bike/outdoor store, advertised in a cycling newsletter. My work experience in the industry, dating back to my teenage years, landed me the job at The Great Escape, notwithstanding the irony of my move from a log cabin in the wilderness to urban captivity. I found a little bachelor suite above a Chinese Restaurant on Robson Street, just up the road from the shop, located on the southeast corner of Denman & Georgia, now the site of a high-rise and, at street level, Spokes Bicycle Rentals.

No Compromise

Robson (the hard) Street, 1978

As mentioned in a recent post and illustrated as the building stands today (fourth photo in the gallery at the end of my summer holiday post), my stay in the bustling West End was brief: not more than three seasons, before I moved across English Bay to Kitsilano, extending my daily cycling commute into a trip across the Burrard Bridge, often detouring through Stanley Park, just for fun.

Work, my colleagues and fellow adventurers, photography practice, escapes to the mountains, rides through the trails of Stanley Park and jamming across the street at the Sunset Inn talent night, relieved my melancholia. Still, old diaries reveal in recorded dreams and elegiac poetry the loss and loneliness that accompanied my stay in that little room on Robson.

Recently, my old Kiwi spiritual pilgrim, who has now attained Nirvana in Hawaii, contacted me (via social media) to thank me for archiving our shared experiences in words and pictures. Perhaps, after all, that’s what lifts these obsessions above self-indulgence.

And when the yellow leaves fall
from the solitary tree beneath my window
what shall be left on the hard street
but compromise?

The Blue Horizon Hotel (Robson & Bute), 1978

The Blue Horizon Hotel (Robson & Bute), 1978

Image notes: The originals, as mentioned above, were made with  Kodachrome colour reversal film, introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935 and discontinued in 2009. It was arguably the most archival of colour processes. I scanned the original transparencies with an Epson Perfection V750 Pro scanner, then edited them in Photoshop and Nik software. I resisted the temptation to over-process the images and only removed the largest artifacts from years sitting in carousel trays and storage boxes. Hell, people use filters on digital photos to achieve looks like this. In the vertical window shot, I left the edge of the cardboard slide mount visible as a kind of homage to all things analogue.

Love vintage Vancouver photos? Be sure to check out my Eighties Vancouver portfolio.

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Raymond Parker Photo
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