Canadian Art


Selwyn Pullan: West Coast Wonder

Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver Jun 3 to Jul 19 2009
Selwyn Pullan  <I>Gardner House, Vancouver</I>  1960   Selwyn Pullan Gardner House, Vancouver 1960

Selwyn Pullan <I>Gardner House, Vancouver</I> 1960

The camera did for modern architecture what the loudspeaker did for politics. Photography not only amplifies the experience of architecture, it also adds a certain character to the reproduction, and people enjoy this newer mode of consuming form. Though the process of photographic amplification was already underway during the period of heroic early modernism, it sped up in the postwar period as commercial photography became increasingly professionalized and photographs of buildings became architectural photography. Dovetailing with the explosion of consumerism and the spread of picture magazines, photographers of the era reframed modernist design from elite prototype to widely available commodity.

The magazine editors who were Selwyn Pullan’s primary clients (before architects themselves hired and directed photographers) used the photo-essay format to deliver the message of modernity. And Pullan, whose work was the subject of “Positioning the New: Photographs from 1945 to 1975” at the Charles H. Scott Gallery, was adept, often shooting no more than what would be published. The exhibition’s curators, Darrin Morrison and Kiriko Watanabe of the West Vancouver Museum, included spreads from Western Homes and Living to demonstrate this, but the exhibition was dominated by single images—mostly new digital prints supervised by Pullan, who at 87 did the Photoshop “corrections” from scans of his original negatives.

Trade architecture magazines of Pullan’s era often used individually composed images, as opposed to the narrative sequences of lifestyle publications. While Pullan successfully portrayed both the social space of a building’s inhabitants and more abstract shots of pure architecture, it is his images of lived space that fascinate. With a contemporary sensibility, Pullan’s garden view of architect Kenneth Gardner’s own house almost presages the Vancouver School of photography and its use of architecture as a stand-in for disembodied signs.

While skilled with the black and white format preferred for major projects such as Ned Pratt’s 1957 B.C. Electric office tower, Pullan also excelled at a domestic scale. Particularly revealing are his shoots of projects by Fred Hollingsworth, including a portrait of the architect mischievously rearranging the decor while his client looks on. Hollingsworth also designed Pullan’s bucolic North Vancouver studio where he still works.

Trained in the early 1950s as a commercial photographer at the Los Angeles Art Center (now the Art Center College of Design) and an early follower of Ansel Adams’ zone system, Pullan’s work helped to legitimate the experiments of a generation of young architects (many of whom were just back from the war in Europe like Pullan himself). That cohort laid the ground for the West Coast regional style, whose best-known exponent is Arthur Erickson.

As his contemporary Julius Shulman is promoted to the rank of co-author of California’s architectural modernity, it seems fitting that Pullan, too, is finally being recognized—not just for his technical finesse, but for his deep understanding of lived subject matter and his ability to present the fragile power of the West Coast aesthetic to a national audience in a way that architecture itself could never do on its own.

This article was first published online on November 12, 2009.


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