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Revisiting the modern in Selwyn Pullan's photographs

Q & A with architect Barry Downs (from 2012)

Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism: Selwyn Pullan photographs, featured in new Douglas & McIntyre book, on display at West Vancouver Museum until Dec. 15, 2012. 

ARCHITECT Barry Downs, a longtime friend and colleague of photographer Selwyn Pullan, spoke to the North Shore News about the exhibit at West Vancouver Museum and his involvement in writing and compiling the book Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism with Kiriko Watanabe, Adele Weder and Donald Luxton.

North Shore News: How did you meet Selwyn Pullan?

Barry Downs: I met Selwyn when I was working for Thompson, Berwick & Pratt in the 1950s. About 1957 I got to know him quite well because he was then printing up some of Thompson, Berwick & Pratt's work. They were the most powerful architectural firm of the day in the '50s and '60s and even in the '40s. There were five of them and C.J. Thompson was the oldest. The firm in the '30s designed the first buildings at UBC, you know the library, and then along came the war and (afterwards) some of the vets came back and joined Sharp & Thompson which became Thompson, Berwick & Pratt. Like Erickson, who you might know better now, they were the office to work for. I graduated from the University of Washington and then came back home and in '54 was employed there mostly as a water colourist and a designer. They were days of plenty. The partners would go up country and nail down 12 or 15 schools to do. There was this great post-war optimism that drove everything. So Pulley came into my life then as I was in charge of some of Ron Thom's work and Ned Pratt's and Roy Jessiman's as well. In fact Pullan was so busy with their work because we were vying for awards and publicity. It turned out in the end that Erickson was the master in that area but that's another story. The importance then was to win awards like the Massey Medal - to win a gold or silver was pretty good. You got a lot of publicity that way and indeed your houses and other construction captured in Western Homes and Living was the means to show your work to a large group of people. And then House and Home used to pick it up in Toronto and some made the architectural magazines as well.

North Shore News: You employed Pullan?

Barry Downs: In the early days in the '50s Thompson, Berwick & Pratt employed him. He came back from L.A. and was immediately asked to photograph architectural work for the reasons I just mentioned and so that was the beginning.

There was so much work that young architects like Blair McDonald, myself, Archambault who I partnered with later in life, we were doing moonlighting if you like. Ron Thom would have us doing night work and then we'd have a few commissions that would come along from friends - like a good friend of mine, Art Phillips, who had me do his first house in 1957. That was the beginning of my own sort of private work and of course we would have Selwyn Pullan photograph it and that's how I got to know him.

North Shore News: When he photographed your work were his images destined for a magazine? Were the majority of the images made for PR purposes?

Barry Downs: Yes, in that instance, definitely and another house in the book, the Cocking residence, and then of course my own work. By that time I was living in Vancouver, with my wife Mary, and then we came over here to West Van in about '79 in this house that we're in now.

Sometimes they were made just for showing clients to help with nailing down jobs. Hustling work you could create a portfolio of schools for example. Everything was being built in those days and, of course the BC Electric building, BC Hydro now, sprouted up in the midst all these West End wooden houses from the '20s. It was an iconic building immediately and Selwyn photographed that of course. So that launched Thompson, Berwick & Pratt into an era of building larger buildings downtown. The images were used in various ways and indeed some of that shows in the book - some are devoid of people and they're very much composed with views that architects would love.

North Shore News: What's the distinction? Are the ones with people the ones that were for magazines and PR?

Barry Downs: Pretty Well. Zoltan Kiss' house was photographed from the exterior in a severe wonderful shot, Jytte, his wife, is pictured in the kitchen in the next view, so there was often a blend of the two. I think Harris Mitchell was the editor of Western Homes and Living in those days and he wanted people shots, you know popular culture, because most people were interested in people not buildings. Selwyn would dress up folks. We were posed of course. Mary, I and the children and not ashamed to do it because a cover of Western Living was a big jump ahead.

North Shore News: What was it like to work with him in that situation?

Barry Downs: As Fred Hollingsworth says he was fast. He usually came out on a surveillance trip first and he would rumble around with me and not say too much and have a look at the house and experience the house and was very observant. He was looking at where the right light would be at certain times of the day and what he would photograph first and foremost and then what would be secondary views. He would arrive a week or two later after surveillance with his equipment. Set us all up, rumpled up some paper and threw it in the fireplace, and put my favourite books on the table and the furniture that I had built. He had a knack for capturing the essence of the design. It was a unique skill. He had an intuitive way of capturing the emotional qualities of a space.

North Shore News: Did he take a lot of photos and edit later or did he set up for one special shot?

Barry Downs: He took a lot of photos. Those were 5 by 7s. You read about his homemade camera but later on it was all Hasselblad work and he could click away with a wide-angle lens. Basically, he was self-editing as he photographed. And, of course, you can compose with these large format cameras. He would fire off a few shots, maybe change the lighting a wee bit if he used it because he was a real fan of using only natural light. That gave him some of the spatial quality that he wanted. He'd head back to the darkroom. He had a wonderful way of dodging in dark skies and cropping a bit if necessary and of course black and white initially and then colour and then he would mount them on this card. They were semi-gloss and lovely to hold. His product was very special as well. You wanted to save them. He had great technical skills and was very meticulous.

North Shore News: A lot of his work seems to have been preserved and saved. I know he owned his own business.

Barry Downs: He did and he saved all his negatives. It's a resource. What we have in the book is especially important because there's views of architects as well as their work and some of their work is seminal. It's the very top stuff of that period. His work represents the variety and the evolution of the modernist movement here. As a body of work it is outstanding and needs to be saved.

North Shore News: Even now, 50 years later, his photographs have an immediacy about them.

Barry Downs: They do and you know modernism is being revisited here in the 21st century - a lot of young guys are referencing work that was done 50 years ago. The Pullan works are a compendium of great stuff.

He loved the equipment you know. He loved the (Jaguar) XKE and that for him was a modernist statement as well. You could play that pattern against something that was quite woodsy or whatever. We did in wood what they were doing in steel and brick back east because we had so much of it. This whole movement moved out of L.A. and San Francisco and northern Cal, Oregon, Washington and then here. It was a wonderful movement, free-thinking and spirited. A cultural moment.