Exhibition Review: Selwyn Pullan

Today I found myself at the lovely little heritage home on the corner of 17th and Esquimalt in West Vancouver that houses the West Vancouver Museum. As I entered through the front doors, I noticed a distinct temperature drop from the 28 degree July day. Looking back, a sign reminds the visitor to keep the door closed to “maintain environmental controls.” The gallery is quiet, save the steady hum of a fan somewhere near the back. On the walls are large black and white photographs, framed delicately with thin black frames, and in the centre of the room an old camera stands on a tall wooden tripod. After being greeted by a lovely white-haired woman, a weekday volunteer, I made my rounds of the small gallery.

I had strolled into a retrospective called What’s Lost for the late Selwyn Pullan (peculiar name, I must say), a commercial and architectural photographer who passed away last September. His work in the 1950’s-70’s in Vancouver did not only to document historic buildings and streets but also fabulously wealthy families in West Vancouver whose mid-century homes blended beautifully into the landscape of mountains and ocean. I gaze at the portrait of Pullan and wonder how it was to be a commercial photographer sixty years ago, when networking in the visual world did not involve Instagram.

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Many of his photographs depict urban scenes with buildings lit up at night, and vintage cars speeding around wide intersections. But as I stand in front of “Ritz Hotel Lounge”, I am absorbed into a warm indoor scene. In this glitzy hotel lounge I can almost smell the cigarettes, hear the quiet chatter, the smooth jazz, and imagine the feel of those leather-backed chairs. Something in me longs for a greater glimpse into this unfamiliar world. To me, this beautiful lounge belongs in films but not in Vancouver, the city I’ve been discovering for 27 years. What did it feel like to walk down the street in Vancouver in 1957?

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Selwyn Pullan, Cavalier Grill, Hotel Georgia, c. 1957 (courtesy of WVM)

Pullan worked as a photographer for several magazines including “Western Homes and Living”, and copies of the magazine sit in a glass case for viewing. On the cover of one, I see an immaculate kitchen, two women consulting a draft for renovations and two perfectly dressed little girls at the kitchen table. This, along with several other portraits of homes with residents (including one with Jack Shadbolt and wife) seem glossy, staged, and impersonal to the 21st century eye. I can’t help but think that Pullan fed into (and helped create) the visual realm of the baby-boomer generation that praised wealth, minimalism, and the family unit. The post-war generation where capitalism sunk its toes into the sand in Vancouver, just like it did all across North America.

The West Vancouver Museum brochure of What’s Lost speaks of Selwyn Pullan highly, his work uniquely “photographing mid-century West Coast modernism”. His career certainly features many impressive tidbits– like how he hand-built a large-format camera in the early days to get the shots he desired before the technology caught up with his ambition.

But I am struck with the profound Whiteness of his work and of the ideals of “Western Living” more than a half-century ago in my hometown. Where are the coloured people? Where are the stories of the lower and middle class? And I wonder what kinds of colonial propaganda invade the visual realm of my generation.