Columns

Noir

Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis explores the photographer as Vancouver's most interesting historian.

During the summer of 1935 the shopkeepers of Vancouver were inconvenienced by a string of robberies carried out by a gang of hoodlums whom the newspapers dubbed both the Silk Stocking Gang, after their stocking masks, and the Blue Sedan Bandits, for the colour of their getaway car. They seemed to be uncatchable and were becoming a major embarrassment for the city’s police force.

One evening W.W. Foster, police chief of Vancouver, was crossing the Granville Street bridge in a patrol car when news came over the radio that the gang had just knocked over another store. Moments later the telltale blue sedan hurtled past, and Foster and his driver, a constable named McKinnon, took up the chase. The two vehicles sped down Broadway as the cops and robbers exchanged wild gunfire. At length, the driver of the getaway car swerved into a side street, lost control and crashed. Four men jumped from the bullet-riddled wreck and took off on foot. McKinnon shot and captured one, still wearing his mask, and two others were later taken into custody. The leader of the gang, who turned out to be a teenager, confessed to twenty-eight armed robberies.

This incident has many of the ingredients of what the historians Diane Purvey and John Belshaw characterize as “Vancouver Noir”: the neon-lit night-time streets of the urban jungle, a car chase, the tabloid crime scene, the resolute crime fighter battling an underworld of gangsters with nicknames taken from the pages of pulp magazines, violence and death just around the corner. In their new book, Vancouver Noir 193–196 (Anvil Press), Purvey and Belshaw present a picture of a city that is a far cry from the sun-dappled scenery of the tourist brochure. Instead of sailing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon, residents of that other Vancouver are likely to be throwing dice in a Chinatown gambling den or sharing a bottle of bootleg whiskey at a downtown after-hours joint. Noir, according to Purvey and Belshaw, “is most often associated with crime, corruption, cynicism and moral ambiguity, with a netherworld of gangsters, hustlers, junkies, femmes fatales, drifters, political fixers, private eyes, city officials on the take, and charismatic cult leaders as its stock characters.” This is the lens through which they view the history of the Terminal City.

The Noir era began with the financial crash of 1929, and the decades that followed were marked by a series of moral panics reflecting middle-class anxiety about crime, sex, disease, miscegenation and left-wing political protest. The focus of this anxiety was the east side of Vancouver. Purvey and Belshaw argue that affluent west-siders employed the conventions of Noir to perpetuate an image of this down-at-the-heels neighbourhood as a zone of deviance where vice of all kinds flourished. The atmosphere of the mean streets is conveyed in the book’s many photographs: black-and-white images of rain-slick pavement, crime scenes, nightclubs, mobsters and hookers. “Life in the Noir era took place in public,” write Purvey and Belshaw, “and much of it in the streets.” Which presented a problem for the city’s elites, who mistrusted the streets and what went on in them. “Civic leaders—particularly those on the west side—viewed ‘the street’ as too spontaneous a space, too dangerous and corrosive to the vision of respectable society.” It was the era of the speed graphic camera, which was used to plaster the most lurid details of urban life across the front pages of the daily paper. Vancouver Noir retrieves this disreputable side of the city’s history and presents it in all its black-and-white glory.

When the history of Canadian photography is written, it will need to devote an entire chapter, or two, to Vancouver. The Pacific port has been home to some of the country’s finest snapshot artists—Philip Timms, Leonard Frank, Art Jones and Ray Munro (known together as Artray), right down to the present-day photo muralists Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas, to name just a few. Recently Fred Herzog’s work has enjoyed huge popularity, and it is the subject of another new book, Fred Herzog: Photographs (Douglas & McIntyre). Herzog arrived in Vancouver from his native Germany in 1953; his colour images, using Kodachrome technology, mark the end of the Noir era. These stunning photographs capture the city just before it transformed itself from a slightly seedy, less than prosperous regional port into the modern “city of glass” that it has become, for better or worse.

Yet a third new book that reflects on Vancouver’s history through the lens of photography is Stan Douglas: Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (Arsenal Pulp Press). The title is a reference to Douglas’s large photo mural mounted in the new Woodward’s Centre in the city’s rapidly gentrifying Downtown Eastside. The piece is a reconstruction of a scene from the infamous “Gastown Riot,” when club-wielding police broke up a peaceful, pro-drug street demonstration just a few metres from where the mural is now located. Once again the forces of reaction are deployed to suppress the spontaneity and disreputability of “the street.” The book describes how Douglas staged the reconstruction in a large parking lot using false fronts and actors, and also contains articles and interviews reflecting on the significance of the event it depicts.

What these three books confirm is that photographers have become Vancouver’s most interesting historians. It is they who are providing the most intriguing versions of the past. Take Douglas’s photo mural as an example. It is a commemoration, but not a conventional one. It does not celebrate an individual like a statue would, or explain an event like a plaque, or even tell a story like a narrative. It is a new form of historical commemoration in which the event itself is re-presented with all its immediacy and ambiguity intact. Why were those people there? What were they doing? What is the meaning of the event for today’s city? “People have been clamouring to have some kind of plaque with a phrase or a paragraph that explains the events we’ve depicted,” Douglas says. “But I wanted to avoid that. I’d rather that the photograph produce a conversation…” Similarly, Fred Herzog’s bold images of the less-scenic side of the city, and the crime scene photographs in Vancouver Noir, ask us to rethink the place and our experience in it.

Vancouver has long suffered from its location. Supposedly the best thing about the city is what surrounds it—the mountains, the ocean, the beaches. But the popularity of photographers like Herzog and Wall suggests that there is a hunger for looking at the city, not beyond it. It has been said that Vancouver has such a weak historical consciousness because it is overwhelmed by the beauty of its location. The historical photographers ask us to reorient our gaze away from the mountains back into the city—to look at it with fresh eyes and perhaps see it for the first time.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at danielfrancis.ca.

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