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PROFILE: Photographer captures a lifetime of moments

Ralph Bower always in the right place

Railbird: A horseracing enthusiast, especially one who watches races at the outer rail of the track.

Railbird is Ralph Bower’s nickname, or as the veteran photographer might say, it’s his moniker.

There’s an aura of the old time newshound about Ralph that is also present in his photographs.

In Ralph’s era, news photographs told a story. To get that story, he had to be in the right place at the right time. It isn’t easy, but Ralph made it look that way, perhaps especially in his racing photographs.

Ralph has provided some of his most memorable turf photographs to support the Hastings Jockeys Benevolent Fund. Portraits of riders, trainers, celebrity horses like the B.C.-bred champion George Royal, and human celebrities too, are on display at the new Ralph Bower Horse Racing Photo Gallery at Hastings Racecourse. The gallery is open on race days, admission is free, the PNE is in full swing next door and all proceeds from sales of prints go directly to the fund.

The man who created this visual record of the sport of kings lives just across the inlet. One block in North Vancouver’s Queensbury area has always been home for Ralph. He’s had the same neighbours for all of his 80 years and he married his high school sweetheart.

Joan Clark met Ralph for the first time in elementary school and again in high school. That first time, “he offered to show me how to play croquet,” Joan remembers. “Years and years later, I found out he made it up. He didn’t know how to play croquet.”

“I knew enough,” her husband chips in.

From the Bower family home he hopscotched to the next house over where he and Joan raised their own family. Forty years later, the couple hopscotched again to a home they designed together. Their five grandchildren make it four generations of Bowers to live on the north side of Burrard Inlet.

“I had a path from my house through the bush right down to the water,” Ralph recalls, “until the war time houses zoomed in everywhere.” He and pals Barry and Buddy Bird — “we were the three main sailors,” Ralph explains — stashed their flat-bottom rowboat and a set of paddles in the bush at the water’s edge. Climbing aboard their hand-built craft along with Ralph’s canine sidekick Pudge, a husky mix with a sporty patch over his eye, they would voyage across the inlet, a journey that took one hour going and four to return.

When he wasn’t roaming around with his pals, Ralph was earning cash to pay for the first of his many cars. Summer jobs at North Vancouver gas stations taught him how to get on with people. “In those days, you’d meet the public, pump gas, get the windows, do it right.”

Joan concurs. “He does have a nice way about him when he’s asking people to do things for his photographs.”

Working on the North Vancouver high school newspaper, the Nova High News, snagged Ralph and pals Arv Olson and Johnny Walls summer jobs at the Vancouver Sun.

Arv and Ralph worked as copyboys until a decision came down from on high: one was to be a writer and the other a photographer. Ralph wanted to be the writer.

“No,” came the answer. “We’ve chosen. He’s the writer. You’re going into the dark room.” Arv went on to a distinguished career as a sports writer and author. Ralph picked up a camera and has rarely been without one ever since.

He doesn’t have a favourite photograph. “That’s like choosing a person in your family you love best,” he says. “I always liked working with children and animals — you never knew what they were going to do.”

From a squirrel on skis to the tragedy of a collapsed bridge, from sports hero Harry Jerome to national hero Terry Fox, from Karen Magnussen to Phil Esposito, a pair of stars on skates, the moment Ralph’s camera captures is always the right moment. Though he downplays his photographic expertise, “some were fuzzy and some weren’t,” North Vancouver’s own Ralph Bower admits, “my era was the best of times. It gave me the nice little special pictures and all these little happinesses that I had.”

Laura Anderson works with and for seniors on the North Shore. 778-279-2275 [email protected]