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Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism

By Barry Downs, Donald Luxton, Kiriko Watanabe, Adele Weder

Review By Bill Jeffries

October 28, 2013

BC Studies no. 178 Summer 2013  | p. 141-142

Architecture has been a key site in the evolution of cultural Modernism; the elevator is often cited as an important early Modernist manifestation, and the idea that function creates its own form is a key Modernist precept. Images of architecture are a good entry point into assessing what Modernism has actually bequeathed to us. Architectural photography, however, while appearing to be a straightforward pictorial medium, does contain hidden complexities. It is not the same as “photographs with architecture in them.” In “architectural photography,” the building is the primary subject, its designer named in the caption or title; in photographs with buildings, architecture is present, but coincidental, and architect anonymity is the rule. There is also the question of whether an architectural photographer is “the architect’s eye,” as was mooted at a panel discussion in London last summer. Panelist Simon Allford went so far as to state “if the photograph is not good then maybe it is not a very good building.” A respondent replied: “The image that is distributed to the public is the building.” 

These considerations play into the current interest in West Coast Modernist architecture, its representations, and the lifestyle that it offered. Coast Modern has found a public through books on Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles and via the film Coast Modern, which played to large audiences in Vancouver last summer. The British Columbia version may now be seen in this revelatory monograph on the commercial photographer Selwyn Pullan, co-published by the West Vancouver Museum and Douglas & McIntyre. It depicts BC’s best mid-century Modernist architecture at the moment when it was designed and built.

The book is published on the occasion of Pullan’s second exhibition at the West Vancouver Museum and Pullan himself, now ninety years old and living in North Vancouver, emerges here as the latest discovery in British Columbia’s photographic history. His photographic training, coincidentally, was in the same California milieu that Shulman made famous. In the late 1940s, Pullan attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where he studied with Ansel Adams, among others. While Shulman captured California houses by Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, Pullan worked locally from the 1950s on, his images now strengthening the case that buildings by Barry Downs, Arthur Erickson, Ken Gardiner, Fred Hollingsworth, and Ron Thom can hold their own in the global history of Modernism.

In Pullan’s residential images, the 1950s and non-Hippie 1960s seem coolly seductive; they depict local Modernist aspirations, now seemingly a lost world of creative idealism. The house of mirrors that is architectural photography emerges when one considers hanging it at home as art, as many have. I could imagine purchasing a Pullan to hang in my living room; if I did, what would that say? I’d create a loop in which some photographs have houses in them and some houses have photographs in them. The photograph on the wall could hang in the house pictured in the photograph; or it might end up in a craftsman cottage, perhaps as a sign of the inhabitants’ yearning for a less cluttered life. In Pullan’s images the minimalist interiors also mirror Vancouver’s virtually empty urban streets, and this looping cultural history encompasses a medium (photography), a profession, built forms, landscape, and the interpretation of those elements as examples of humanity aspiring to design truly stunning structures.

Encountering these sumptuous images of Coast Modern homes, theory can easily go out the Modernist window, as one simply wishes to have the experience of living in one of the spaces pictured. Even if such a quasi-austere space is not for you, there is little doubt about the importance of this amazing book; the pictures and the houses themselves are special. Texts by Barry Downs, Don Luxton, Kiriko Watanabe, and Adele Weder shed new light on the era and the aesthetic that Pullan documented, that of post-war confidence in which it was hoped architecture could actually make the world a better place. A labour of love, the book results from hundreds of unseen and unmentioned hours spent cleaning, restoring, and scanning old negatives undertaken by staff at the West Vancouver Museum. This is BC at its best; the photographs are good, so the buildings must be as well.

Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism
By Barry Downs, Donald Luxton, Kiriko Watanabe, Adele Weder
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2012. 160 pp, $45.00 cloth

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.