Vancouver Then & Now

New 'old' postcards with a city edge an 'art form that belongs to everyone'

Pair of collector-photographers combine resources -- and survive a Hollywood washout -- for new look at Vancouver

John Mackie

Vancouver Sun

July 16, 2005

CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

Former Vancouver Sun and Province writer Lee Bacchus, who has returned to his first love -- photography -- since taking early retirement, holds his picture of the Vancouver Art Gallery from an angle that captures the building's neo-classical architecture.

A Chinatown fish vendor.

CPR tracks taken from the Main Street overpass looking west.

Cambie and Water, looking south, in Gastown.

Lions Gate Bridge is captured from North Vancouver for Lee Bacchus’s postcard series.

Yaletown highrises blend to the point where the viewer can’t tell where one ends and another begins

Photos by FRANK HERZOG In 1957 (above, left) False Creek residents had a stunning view of the North Shore mountains; by 2004 a wall of concrete, steel and glass is mirrored in the waters of False Creek.

In a better world, Lee Bacchus would be a world-famous writer. But it was not to be, and so now the former Vancouver Sun and Province writer is working on option No. 2: becoming a postcard mogul.

Bacchus, 55, has teamed up with childhood buddy Brian Graham to produce a new series of Vancouver postcards that evoke classic early 20th-century postcards.

The dozen black-and-white photos in the series feature fresh views of familiar sights such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, Lions Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Granville Island, Siwash Rock, Gastown and Yaletown.

Bacchus turns out to be as talented a photographer as he was a writer. His shot of the art gallery is from an unexpected angle that captures the building's neo-classical architecture against a backdrop of other buildings (the Hotel Vancouver and Cathedral Place).

His Yaletown photo features several highrises whose glass windows blend together so that you can't tell where one ends and the other begins. His shot of Siwash rock is utterly timeless, and so beautiful someone had it blown up into a four-by-five-foot print for their office.

Bacchus has been a serious photographer since he was a teenager. When he took early retirement a couple of years ago, he turned to photography to fulfil his artistic bent.

Both Bacchus and Graham collect old postcards and like to take photos of the city. So when Graham suggested they do a postcard series, Bacchus agreed.

"This is the era of e-mail, so postcards have taken a dive," he says.

"But we both collect postcards, and we like it as a kind of people's medium. It's an art form that belongs to everyone, and we like that. And we thought there's room in it to do stuff that isn't schlocky.

"The idea was to do it as if you had a relationship to the city, instead of just doing it as a tourist might see it. We hope that people who live here might like these as well."

A good example of their approach would be a picture of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, taken from the Main Street overpass looking west. The photo is a mini-history of Vancouver: it's got the railway tracks, Gastown and a forest of modern steel and glass skyscrapers, all in one shot.

Finding views like this turned out to be a lot more work than Bacchus expected. He figures they took 3,000 digital shots of local landmarks. Once they settled on the right spot, they hauled out a Wehman field camera (a folding view camera) to take the actual photos.

The Wehman is a modern version of the kind of camera that early photographers would have used. It takes large eight-by-10 negatives which give you incredible detail, but it's heavy, time-consuming and costly: $2,000 for the camera and $20 a picture ($12 for film, $8 for processing).

"This was insane, really, getting up at 4 a.m. with this camera and hiking around," says Bacchus.

"One day we were on the Granville Bridge trying to shoot the Yaletown development. We've got this camera, which is huge -- it blocks the whole sidewalk -- and all of a sudden this fleet of water trucks comes by, spraying water.

"We've got this $2,000 camera with the film in it, and we're thinking 'They're going to turn the water off, right?' And they keep coming and the water's not going off. It was a Harrison Ford movie. He comes flying after the trucks in this car, which is being pulled by the camera car. And it's supposed to be raining, so they're spraying all this water and we get soaked."

Once they had the right images, they took them to Printworks, a printer in Japantown. They got 12,000 postcards, greeting cards and bookmarks for $1,800, and then set about flogging them to stores such as Chapters, which has agreed to take some.

The postcards are published under the nom de plume Lucien Frank (the first names of their sons), because "photo by Lee Bacchus and Brian Graham" is too unwieldy.

It also references the great Vancouver photographer Leonard Frank, whose beautiful early postcards provided inspiration for the series.

Bacchus is also selling prints of the series for about $100 (e-mail [email protected] for information).

And in case you were wondering, no, he doesn't miss writing.

"I don't ever get the impulse, other than to write a letter to the editor," he says.

"But I miss venting, when you get that chance to pop off."

© The Vancouver Sun 2005