Without a Word, Polygon Gallery, until Nov. 3 (thepolygon.ca).
On the first floor of the Polygon Gallery, the collector inspects a photo that hung in his office for 12 years.
Eyes stare back.
It’s late afternoon and steel-coloured clouds are painting North Vancouver the greyest shade of battleship they can manage. But out of the damp and dim the gallery walls crackle with the shadow and sunshine of 33 different photographers.
But the one that has collector Bill Wu’s attention is of a young child staring out from a car’s passenger seat in New York, 1975. That’s the year of: Ford to City: Drop Dead, the year the police department called it Fear City and a makeshift safety council urged tourists to stay away “if you possibly can.”
The city and time seem wrapped up in the child’s gaze.
“It’s the eyes,” Wu says.
It’s a confrontation with the photographer, suggests Polygon curator Justin Ramsey. The boy’s expression shouts: “How dare you?” Ramsey says.
For Wu, it brings to mind Mitch Albom’s maxim that all parents damage their children.
“Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely . . . “ Albom wrote.
Wu retired five years ago after a career spent working with children, many of whom were abused or neglected. Sometimes, in Vancouver, he runs into a middle-aged man who smokes crack in Oppenheimer Park. Wu knew him when he was a boy.
“When he’s straight he remembers me,” he says.
And so Wu collects. Paintings, sculptures, blown glass, and most of all, photos, all of which work as a counterbalance.
“I deal with so much misery, I just surround myself with beauty,” he says. “It’s either that or drink or do drugs.”
The photos aren’t exactly an escape from the things he’s seen, but a respite.
From New York, Wu shifts an arm’s length to North Carolina and two little girls in a wading pool – one seated, maybe a little worried. The other stands, up, holding a cigarette with a studied, terrifying poise.
The shot of Amanda and Her Cousin Amy, taken by Mary Ellen Mark, is sometimes deemed exploitative, Wu acknowledges. It’s a criticism he rejects.
“That’s real life,” he says. “Look at that girl, she’s probably six or seven going on 40.”
The charge of exploitation was also levelled against Shelby Lee Adams, who documented Eastern Kentucky with photos of stern women, children hanging from dilapidated porches and men who wear every day in the coal mine in the lines of their faces.
Wu has one photo of a grim man sitting between his young sister and child bride. That picture isn’t in the show.
“It’s just too shocking for some people,” he allows.
The gallery collection alternates between the sickly and saintly.
There’s a portrait of an old woman working as a street vendor. She has rows of feathery sponges strapped to her back that give her the appearance of a grim angel.
To the left of that one, there’s a photo of a man who ran a newspaper stand in Prague. After being told he needed exercise, he made wings. He could be seen running up and down hills, almost but never quite taking flight, Wu notes.
Pointing to a Robert Doisneau crowd scene from 1953, Wu spies an older women who’s about to vaporize an oblivious female performer resting her arm on what looks to be the lap of the woman’s husband.
“Get your hands off my man. I’ll tear your fake blond hair out,” Wu intones, chuckling over the man’s dopey grin.
And just down the wall there’s three kids on a street corner in Laugharne, Wales. The one in the middle grew up to be a 300-pound landlady at a pub, Wu says.
Wu studies photographers, but the appeal of the photographs themselves is “love at first sight,” he says.
“It just hits me,” he says. “The first time I lay eyes on it, I have to have it.”
He’s always collected things, he says, recalling a trip to Lynn Canyon that prompted him to roll two boulders home. “I kept them for like, 30 years,” he laughs.
An admitted hoarder, Wu remains committed to seeking out photographs.
Discussing a tour of Wu’s collection, Ramsey says it felt like being a kid in a candy store. There could be more exhibitions that draw on Wu’s collection, Ramsey hints.
Later in the afternoon, Wu is in the middle of discussing his career when his phone rings.
It’s FedEx. His new photos are arriving today.