Exhibition Review: Sellwyn Pullan—What’s Lost

The skills of Selwyn Pullan (1922-2017) and other architectural photographers of his generation changed the way we see architecture of the postwar era. The image is not transparent to the building; in its setting, it creates a scene. Through staged elements and framing of specific views under particular lighting conditions, architectural photography instituted an idealized relationship between viewer and building. As the current exhibition at the West Vancouver Museum reminds us, photography is a much more intention-laden medium than is commonly presupposed.

This exhibition reveals a photographer testing his mastery, fully exploiting the range of his film stock, first in capturing the image, then in the darkroom printing where great craftsmanship was required. Today, Pullan’s images reveal degrees of obsolescence neither intended nor even conceivable at the moment of their making.

Sellwyn Pullan, What's Lost, West Vancouver Museum
“Clarke-Simpkins Showroom,” Vancouver, 1963, a car dealership designed by Thompson, Berwick & Pratt; demolished 1993.

These photographs show a side of Selwyn Pullan distinct from his colour pictures of sleek new postwar houses with happy young Vancouver families within. Instead, the night photos investigate a uniquely Canadian view of technology: “the electric drama,” as Marshall McLuhan called it, evoked by broad windows and brightly illuminated signs, and the purity of black and white film. This “cosmic” view of technology, however, hints at a darker counterpoint: the deprivation and emptiness that would grow out of these new technologies.

Among the roughly 50 images on display in What’s Lost, four pictures stand out to me as exemplary pictures of innovation that now appear as an imaginary technological pastoral. First, “B.C. Electric Headquarters.” Pullan had taken many daytime photos of this renowned building, but this night shot offers a different perspective. The view gathers the cityscape, luminosity and detail into a panoramic gaze associated with modernity and the sublime. The glowing tower brings order to the phantasmagoria of scattered streetlights and illuminated windows of the few remaining 19th-century houses around it. Yet flattened by a wide lens, the building becomes just another vertical sign, like those of the movie palaces in the foreground.

Sellwyn Pullan, What's Lost, West Vancouver Museum
“Hungry?” Vancouver, built 1956 (photo c. 1963); architect unknown.

Next, “Clarke Simpkins Showroom.” The advanced design of the car dealership is characteristic of high-end imports, but the real subject of this picture is light. First, we have the glowing glass box and the signage, topped by four lanterns on the building’s roof. In the adjacent lot sits an enormous arc-light, dimmed but ready to light up the dark sky. On the opposite corner, an ordinary street light barely illuminates a wooden power pole and drab apartment building. Pullan has meticulously assembled a complex dreamscape of history and technology as if to anticipate obsolescence.

Then, “CKWX–Radio Station,” which presents communications as a utopian ideal in Pullan’s time, one that would help create a modern Canada. The anachronism of broadcast radio is made more poignant by the tiny scale of the constructivist mast that holds both the station call letters and transmission antenna. Note the paltry vegetation: in a city where the forest biomass defied the settler’s axe and imagination, nature is now ornamental.

Sellwyn Pullan, What's Lost, West Vancouver Museum
CKWX Radio Station,” Vancouver, designed by Thompson, Berwick & Pratt; 1954-56 (photo 1956).

Finally, the photograph “Hungry?” depicts a decidedly gendered space: even though the figures are veiled by window glass, we know the drivers to be predominantly male, with the female consumer dominant in the home. Just to the left is a woman in an apron talking to a child. For Pullan to have cropped them away would have been so easy, but he has left them there to inhabit the scene of absence.

These images of bright figures against the rich black of the night suggest a city and a culture emerging from its past and still imagining its future.

Robert Kleyn is an architect and artist based in Vancouver. What’s Lost is curated by Kiriko Watanabe and exhibits at the West Vancouver Musem until July 14.