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A glimpse into West Coast Modernism
Selwyn Pullan’s iconic photos of mid-century North Shore homes are on display at the West Vancouver Museum
Selwyn Pullan’s personality is like the houses he took photos of – direct and to the point, but with something deeper, more complex underneath.
Although he doesn’t say much about himself, his long career as a photographer is worth talking about.
A new kind of architecture was appearing on the North Shore in the 1950s and ’60s. Gone were any ornate details or living areas without purpose, and in their place popped up post-and-beam construction with sleek lines that showcased North and West Vancouver’s rugged natural setting.
At the forefront of this new style – dubbed West Coast Modernism – stood Pullan, who took photos of the exteriors and interiors of houses throughout Vancouver for magazines, helping to spread the trend across North America.
As it turns out, it’s a good thing he did, because many of these uniquely functional homes have been torn down, replaced by the larger houses with more bedrooms and bathrooms favoured by today’s families.
“A good design fits the people who live there and the landscape. Now they fill the whole lot with a building that’s just a building,” Pullan tells The Outlook inside his studio adjacent to his house in North Van. His work space with floor-to-ceiling windows and a high ceiling lets in a lot of natural light, which Pullan says is vital for proper photography. It was designed in the 1960s by Fred Hollingsworth, a leading West Coast Modernist architect and lifelong friend.
Pullan’s photography skills were sought after because he knew exactly how to present houses, according to architects, by showing off the straight lines and expansive windows that enhanced the landscape instead of working against it.
Asked why his photos were so popular (his work appeared in Western Homes and Living, Maclean’s and the New York Times, to name a few), Pullan has a simpler answer: “I gave them what I thought they needed, and it worked for them.”
He says he isn’t being modest, however, just saying it like it is, in his usual style.
Taking professional photos 60 years ago required much more training and talent than it does today. Pullan worked during the time of darkrooms and film, and when taking colour photos was a tricky job.
“Colour was a very unforgiving process,” says Pullan, whose photos were mostly taken in black and white for this reason.
His photography career started when he received a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs after being discharged from service in 1945. He enrolled at the Art Centre School in Los Angeles, where he had the opportunity to study the best state-of-the-art techniques for two years.
After school, he moved to Halifax to take photos for a local newspaper before returning to Vancouver, where he took a job at Western Homes and Living. He was soon hired by leading West Coast architects, including Ned Pratt, Arthur Erickson, Berry Downs and Hollingsworth, the architect who eventually became his friend.
“He is very fussy, and yet he doesn’t give you any inconvenience. He comes to photograph a building and it’s almost lightning fast, and yet you get great pictures,” Hollingsworth told Kiriko Watanabe, assistant curator for the West Van Museum, for the new book Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism.
“There’s a lot of photographers that photograph architecture, but very few that can see it from the point of view of the architect who did the building. Selwyn’s always been able to do that,” Hollingsworth continued.
Often people living in the homes photographed by Pullan don’t realize their historical importance, says Kiriko, adding many homes that haven’t been torn down are renovated beyond recognition.
Asked whether the disappearance of mid-century West Coast homes upsets him, Pullan says: “Yes and no. Some of them, I’m sad to see them go, and what they put up in their place can be even more sad.” He says this with a smile on his face, a break from his otherwise serious demeanor.
“My father was a mechanical engineer, and he said if it’s designed well, it should look good,” Pullan says, adding a kitchen, a few bedrooms and a tiny bathroom used to work well for people, but today, unfortunately, homeowners feel the need to build monster houses.
Pullan still takes photos, but with a digital camera, which he confesses is more “handy” than the cameras he used to take his iconic photos. His studio still has a darkroom, but instead of strips of film, it now has a computer and printer.
“It has everything a darkroom needs to have, that’s it,” says Pullan, again in his usual frank, matter-of-fact tone.
Pullan’s work is on display at the West Vancouver Museum from Oct. 10 to Dec. 15 and admission is free. These events are also being put on b the museum:
Opening Reception and book launch
Oct. 9 from 7p.m.
with the photographer in attendance
All welcome, free admission.
West Vancouver Museum
680 17 Street, West Vancouver
Vancouver Book Launch
Oct. 18, 6-8 p.m.
All welcome, free admission.
50 Water Street, Vancouver
Reception at the Gerson Residence, West Vancouver
(Wolfgang Gerson Architect, 1958)
with the Gerson family
Nov. 2, 7-9 p.m.
Code for registration: 864367
Price: $ 65 (includes hors d'oeuvres, a copy of signed book or your choice of a signed 8 x 10" print from eight selected images from the book).
30 tickets available.
Reception at the Baldwin Residence, Burnaby
(Erickson & Massey Architects, 1965)
with Donald Luxton, FRAIC,CAHP, Principal, Donald Luxton and Associates.
Nov. 14, 7-9 p.m.
Code for registration:864368
Price: 20 (includes hors d'oeuvres and a presentation about the Baldwin Residence)
50 tickets available.
Reception at the Staples Residence, West Vancouver
(Erickson & Massey Architects, 1967)
with the Staples family
Nov. 24, 3-5 p.m.
Code for registration:864370
Price: $65 (includes hors d'oeuvres, a copy of signed book or your choice of a signed 8 x 10" print selected from eight images from the book)
30 tickets available.
Film and Reception at the Kay Meek Theatre
featuring Coast Modern, a documentary film about West Coast Modern architecture from Los Angeles to Vancouver, with film directors in attendance.
The writers of the Pullan book will also be in attendance.
Dec. 11, 7-10 p.m.
Code for registration:864371
Price: $15 (includes hors d'oeuvres and film)
135 tickets available.
For tickets call 604-925-7270 or visit the District of West Vancouver registration website using the registration code listed above. For more information, visit the West Vancouver Museum website or call 604-925-7179.