Photo Finish

TEXT Barry Downs
PHOTOS Selwyn Pullan

My first encounter with Selwyn Pullan and his work was during my post-graduation days as a new employee at Thompson, Berwick & Pratt (TBP), the flourishing architectural firm of the day. Although Ned Pratt had often sought the photographic services of Graham Warrington to document his important early houses, Selwyn was fast becoming the firm’s image-maker of choice.

I had already witnessed the prowess and skill of Leonard Frank and Tony Archer, both of whom had photographed my parents’ 1938 neo-Tudor house and garden designed by pioneer architect C.B.K. Van Norman. Somehow Selwyn’s approach to architectural photography seemed desirously simplistic: identify the spirit and essence of the subject building; appraise its setting, interior character and inhabitants; and take a picture that shows a distinctive and powerful image. There was no doubt his insightful photos eloquently captured the qualities of modern-day living. Indeed, his command of the art form reminds us how important exemplary and stimulating design is in our lives today.

During my stay at TBP I was able to sort through Selwyn’s most recent photographs, often admiring the clarity and finish of the fine semi-gloss prints as much as their subject matter. Mounted on firm card, they were always a joy to handle and appreciate for their professional quality. A group of us took Pullan’s finishing process further while handling the firm’s submissions to the newly established award competitions sponsored by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Massey Foundation. We realized that a combination of outstanding and highly edited photographs with pared-down mounting layouts could influence design-oriented juries. The Pullan low-gloss finishing method helped; and with large-format photographs, the observer was drawn into the images to better absorb the beauty and meaning of the architectural statement.

As TBP was Selwyn’s largest supporter, he later invited us to assemble our project presentation boards in his well-equipped, newly constructed studio. Designed by architect Fred Hollingsworth, a longtime friend, the studio workshop came complete with darkroom, layout tables, paper cutter and hot-press equipment, which were essential to producing and mounting a large-scale photomontage onto display boards. Selecting key images, trimmed precisely, we fitted one against the other in a Mondrian-like collage. With Selwyn’s urging, total cohesion and sparseness were accomplished. Architectural content always played a major part in final award selection, but there was no doubt that the “Pullan effect” and his artistry added an extraordinary dimension to our final product. When I joined architect Fred Hollingsworth later in partnership, Selwyn became my unofficial instructor of photography. He captured the substance of my early houses and, later, the work I did with Fred. Sometimes he invited us both to accompany him, and it was during these expeditions that he revealed his instinctive understanding of site and spatial design and his ability to tap a building’s emotional content. As a collaborator, I would help set up interior furnishings or hold evergreen branches a few feet in front of his lens, to provide depth of field or to soften the central image. Selwyn would let me see the framed composition through his viewfinder, sometimes with a grunt of impatience. He was always thinking about negative control, exposures in the darkroom and the direct means to an “expressive print.”

When photographing our house in Vancouver’s Southlands in 1961, Selwyn first made a preliminary visit. He contemplated the character of each room and observed when the sun would penetrate important spaces. On his second visit he arrived with a large-format 4 x 5 camera, a tripod and floodlights and headed directly to our glass-walled garden room, the heart of the house. Soon he had directed supplemental lighting to the dark, beamed ceiling and the foreground furnishings I had built–all to balance indoor and outdoor light conditions. Selwyn asked me to start a small blaze in the fireplace and positioned Mary, the children and myself in a traditional triangular composition. He placed my copy of Arthur Drexler’s The Architecture of Japan at the corner of our low kotatsu tea table, for indeed the house design reflected Japanese influences. Sunshine streamed in through bamboo leaves. Selwyn had, once again, chosen the perfect time of day to blend inside and outside in a family portrait. Framing the subject matter, finding detail in the shadows, modulating the spaces, his camera told the story of the house–revealing its personality, what it wanted to be. CA

From Barry Downs’s essay “Selwyn Pullan: Master Craftsman” in the book Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism © 2012 published by Douglas & McIntyre, an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Barry Downs has been practicing architecture for over five decades, first with Thompson, Berwick & Pratt Architects, then in partnership with Fred Hollingsworth, and later, with Richard Archambault. His designs have been awarded the Massey Foundation Medal and many City of Vancouver Heritage Awards.