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May we suggest

Reviews / June 18, 2009

David Wisdom: Retro Vancouver Views

David Wisdom Gene Kiniski, Seymour Street 1971 Image courtesy of the artist
David Wisdom Gene Kiniski, Seymour Street 1971 Image courtesy of the artist David Wisdom Gene Kiniski, Seymour Street 1971 Image courtesy of the artist

Slide photography is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when one hears the name David Wisdom. Rather, it’s CBC music programs—Nightlines, RadioSonic and Pearls of Wisdom, all of which Wisdom has hosted. His colour film slides date from 1969 to 1979, when they were showcased as part of an annual series of “slide festivals” that also included works by Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham and Jeff Wall, among others.

After 1979, Wisdom kept his slides at home in storage; only after he retired from the CBC in 2007, after 30 years of radio broadcasting, did it occur to him that he might revisit his personal collection of some 9,000 slides. With time suddenly on his hands, Wisdom embarked on the gruelling task of systematically digitizing the slides, the majority of which were taken when, as Wisdom notes in a one-on-one chat, “Vancouver was still a frontier town.” Thirty of them, selected on the basis of their architectural intrigue, are now on display in print form.

Wisdom’s photographs colourfully depict Vancouver architectural forms in a moment of flux. The buildings documented—often from a head-on perspective and filling the entire frame—are presented as a kind of sculpture and aesthetic wonder unfurling in public space. Human figures also sometimes find themselves in the photographs, like in Bus Interior, 1971 or in his PNE series.

Wisdom is quick to point out that he was, as a photographer, quite uninterested in making his images appear picturesque. Not once did he think to use a flash. Keeping a camera on him at all times, Widsom instead was after something a little “brutal.”

Wisdom can be situated alongside classic photographers like Lewis Hine, involved in a kind of cultural labour and preservation. And like the street photography of Fred Herzog’s Vancouver, Wisdom’s visual scope is vast, sensitively capturing both the “humble as well as the grand.” Wisdom documented everything from an upscale apartment in Kitsilano (Apartment And Jaguar, Kitsilano 1971) to the ramshackle mudflats located off of Dollarton Highway, just east of Seymour Creek (Mudflats House 1, Dollarton 1971), which were built, Wisdom noted at his gallery talk, “with great imagination out of available material.”

Though Wisdom did not consciously take the photographs with the intent of preserving a vanishing Vancouver, he was duly aware that “the city was in transition, and that some of these places weren’t going to last.” An avid reader of detective and spy novels, Wisdom views each of his photographs as a kind of mystery; “I’m an observer, I like to look and look, and discover things; there’s a lot to be seen in these photos. They are dense with information.” (515 W Hastings, Vancouver BC)