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Facing History: Portraits from Vancouver

by Karen Love, ed.

Is it possible to capture the essence of a city by photographing its inhabitants? That is the underlying goal of Facing History: Portraits from Vancouver ($29.95 paper 1-55152-127-X, 160 pp., 8 x 10, Arsenal Pulp Press). The book, an extension of an exhibition at North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery, is an eclectic collection of photographic images spanning half a century. The subjects are celebrities, artists, and ordinary Vancouverites of all races and social stations; the works encompass photo-based art (by emerging contemporary artists as well as those of international renown such as Jeff Wall), journalistic and commercial photography, and production stills from long-forgotten CBC shows. The archival documentary images, free of artistic gravitas, are most likely to resonate with anyone who has a long-established connection with the city.

Some of the works are accompanied by short written pieces, the best of which illuminate and complement the photographs. Others, though, are infuriatingly fey and unhelpful to anyone not familiar with the artist or subject. Ultimately, as editor Karen Love concludes in her introductory essay, the many and varied images in Facing History cannot hope to coalesce into a comprehensive portrait of the city of Vancouver, but rather comprise “a visual cacophony of possibilities.” Perhaps this clangour is just right: a more harmonious collection would ring false and fail to capture the city’s unique and vibrant heterogeneity.