Foncie Pulice’s Photographic Legacy

June 3, 2013

I have a picture of my father walking along Granville Street, somewhere around the time I was born. It's shot in smoky tones of black and white, and you can see the neon swirl of the old Studio Theatre sign over his shoulder. His hands are stuffed inside a billowing overcoat, and he's wearing the wide-brimmed fedora I remember trying on as a kid. Like the town he called home, he looks young, carefree, and eager to step into the future.

It's the kind of photograph that would look perfectly at home in some long forgotten shoebox. Typical of several street photographers who worked Vancouver's downtown core in the postwar years, it conjures up the giddy imprecision of a moment that has yet to find its true destination. There's no identifying stamp on the back, but odds are it's the work of the late Foncie Pulice.

The long-time proprietor of Foncie's Fotos, Pulice remains the undisputed king of Vancouver street shooters. He began his career as an apprentice in 1934 and took his last professional shot in 1979. At his peak, he averaged between four and five thousand shots a day. Approximately 15 million photographs later, he wasn't so much the last man standing as the last man stooped over a lost art.

By the mid '60s, I was already comfortably familiar with Pulice's reputation. Before I was old enough to hit the streets after dark, I was a devoted reader of Jack Wasserman's column in the Sun. The last of the old-school saloon writers, Wasserman embraced characters that seemed straight out of Guys and Dolls. Pulice's Runyonesque name-set in the same bold type that heralded an upcoming appearance by Louis Armstrong or Mitzi Gaynor-was a regular feature for decades. I admired his elegant sense of hustle. There were nightclubs like the Cave, with blonds in fishnets who'd happily take your picture for a price. But Pulice was out there on the pavement, clicking away while the blush was still in your cheeks. He seemed to understand that the best pictures captured the delicious expectation of something just about to happen.

Maybe that's why there's such a brisk sense of momentum in so many of his snapshots. Happy couples captured arm in arm. Wannabe Brandos, collars turned up against the rain. A blind date strolling toward the coffee shop of possibility. Bathed in the light of another time, his images provide evidence of a town that knew it was fun before we developed a complex about it.

There's a lot to be said for that, which is why the Museum of Vancouver's retrospective in tribute to his work is so welcome. Entitled Foncie's Fotos: Man on the Street, the exhibition opens June 6. Joan Seidl-the museum's director of collections and exhibitions as well as the exhibit's curator-calls the material that makes up the show "a great, juicy gem."

"There are so many people in Vancouver who have a stake in Foncie's Fotos," she says. "They interacted with him; they had their photo taken by him. He was a real democrat with that camera. What he did really reaches out across the city. It was photography without class barriers." Keep Reading

 Foncie's Fotos runs at the Museum of Vancouver from June 6, 2013 to January 5, 2014

Shooting Gallery

Thousands of photographs purchased from Foncie Pulice (three for 75¢, five for $1) are salted away in closets and attics around B.C. The Knowledge Network, working with the Museum of Vancouver, has set up a website to upload images and stories, some of which will air on the channel and at the museum during the exhibition. Too, look for a documentary on Pulice (who died in 2000 of pulmonary illness) airing on August 5. 

Check out the project at Fonciescorner.knowledge.ca

 

As we talk, the museum walls are bare. But Seidl shows me Pulice's camera, an elaborate contraption designed to come alive at night. The hooded flash-powered by a car battery back in the day-brings to mind tabloid photographers bursting into seedy hotel rooms. The camera is perched atop a stainless-steel box on wheels, the front featuring a neon sign that reads: "Electric Photos."

With the sign at rest, the set-up has the look of a one-eyed hot dog cart, a crazy invention salvaged from some World's Fair where the future let us down. But it was actually a practical thing. Loaded with movie-sized reels of film, the device allowed Pulice to shoot with the ease of a kindly machine gunner.

It was his standard practice to destroy the negatives. But as it turns out, his wonderful contraption held one last secret. When the camera was donated to the museum, staff discovered a surviving reel containing over 10,000 negatives. Shot on Granville Street, near Robson, in May and June of 1968, it captures the ebb and flow of downtown street life during Vancouver's seminal hippie era. A major feature of the exhibit, the entire reel has been digitalized for continuous projection-a painstaking process that will allow viewers to see the images streaming toward them large as life.

"I'm hoping that people will be able to imagine themselves walking toward Foncie's camera," Seidl says. "You'll see a lot of changes happening in Vancouver. But you'll also get really tuned in to the small degrees of change within that continuity."

The exhibit will be her last show before she retires, ending a full-time relationship with the museum that began when Seidl accepted a position as curator of history in 1992.

Originally from Wisconsin, she laughs when asked what brought her to Vancouver. "I came here as the trailing pregnant spouse of an academic," she says. She's always known she wanted to do museum work. "I'm the sort of person who has a hard time believing that the past actually happened unless I can touch something real.

"I really respond to the materiality of objects," she explains. "I like to turn them upside down and feel how heavy they are. I like to see the grubby fingerprints and imagine the lives of people who handled them."

A stranger to the city when she arrived in the early '80s, she can now point to any number of homes and say, "Hey, I've been in that basement." It's the legacy of so many years spent poking in dusty corners, looking for the tangible things that unleash "the surprising power of memory."

Seidl feels privileged to be paying tribute to the work of Foncie Pulice with this final show. "Every photograph is a trigger that can set off a floodgate of memories," she says. "What you were feeling, what you were wearing, what your father said at the time."

Glancing at Pulice's exhausted machine, its guts empty and spent, I can't help but feel strangely grateful as Seidl finishes her thought. "It's the little details that bring local history to life," she says. "They have a way of really mattering to people."

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