Bruce Stewart – Photographer – Interview

Bruce Stewart 1

Photographer Bruce Stewart with two of his images from the 1970’s. ©Don Denton

Can you give us your basic biography? Where were you born, where did you grow up?

BRUCE: Born in Vancouver, August, 1946, completed second year at UBC then went to LA for art studies at ArtCenter College of Design, graduating in 1971.

How did you first come to learn photography?

BRUCE: Was given a camera at age 11 (Asahiflex, forerunner to the Pentax), began to take pictures around home and when on vacations, then later shot industrial-themed photos for my Dad’s work in the wastewood pulp chip industry. Shot with a small point-and-shoot camera when a young kid, photographing candids of my family at various locations around Vancouver and at home.

Who was your first photo teacher/instructor/mentor?

BRUCE: I first met Fred Herzog when I was around 16, and was invited to view slide presentations Fred gave at work (UBC Faculty of Medicine located then at VGH). Fred introduced me to a whole new way of seeing the world, through the microcosm of the built and natural environment, and introduced me to ‘found art’ observable in the left-over detritus and ‘leavings’ in back alleys and odd nooks and crannies of the city. Rich imagery could be ‘mined’ when one’s mind and imagination were open and stimulated. “Seeing the city” afresh and trying to avoid the cliche; trying to view the commonplace in a way I had not before seen, was one ongoing goal of mine.

Bruce Stewrt Pants
Photograph of pants by Bruce Stewart, Legs at right belong to Fred Herzog. ©Bruce Stewart

Video- Bruce Stewart on photographing a line of pants with Fred Herzog

Who were your first photography heroes, who did you wish to emulate?

BRUCE: In addition to Fred, I suppose I was influenced early by the works of Eugene Smith (whom I once met), Lee Friedlander (who went to the same school in LA, but years before me), Robert Frank (who gave me a sense of  ‘freedom of subject choice and method’), also influences from Fred’s classes.

You’ve made a living as an illustrator. How has that career influenced your photography?

BRUCE: Early on, I incorporated photography into my illustration practice, using the photographic images as an adjunct to inform my illustration work, or to record the finished work for presentation, publication or archiving purposes.

I mostly work in photography-based images nowadays regarding scanning from negatives and slides of the past, and newly created images in digital formats.As a trained designer and illustrator, many influences as to subject matter and composition have been influenced by my education and life experience in design. Today, original painted and drawn medical illustration works are augmented in digital programs like Photoshop, where extracting images, re-assembling them into page layouts and compositions, labels and leader lines applied, layering techniques which can more easily effect changes in see-through structural representation, and augmenting details, highlighting, sharpening areas and blurring out other areas – are all available in this combination of painted plus digital augmentation work.

You’ve had a number of exhibitions and perhaps the most attention for your Dollarton Faire photographs. Can you tell us about what was going on there and how or why you ended up photographing that event?

BRUCE: I had documented a number of Faires both here and when living in California. I was interested to continue the series, as this seemed to be where ‘things were happening’ with a changing youth culture, merging faux ‘Mediaeval’ celebrations with a ‘back to the land’ movement. It was all rather pretentious, but fun when one didn’t take it all seriously! A return to ‘simpler times’ with health care and cars waiting just ‘outside the gates’! Upon my return to Canada and Vancouver, I was interested to continue this documentation and discovered an alternate community living ‘off the grid’ on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. I had been away since 1966 and soon learned that this so-called squatters community had become quite an ‘experiment’ in para-urban living, within sight of the city to the west. A late summer event was planned – the Dollarton “Mudflats Faire” to celebrate the proposed evacuation and demolition of the squat, which had been home to many interesting folks over the years: artists, poets, scientists, lifestyle philosophers, transient hippies, freaks, metaphysicians and the like. Among its sometime residents have been Dr. Paul Spong, artists Al Neil and Tom Burrows, master carpenter and designer Ian Ridgway, Danny Clemens among many others. Ian Ridgway and his crew had just completed the set building for ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ and in 1972 began to plan and execute the design and carpentry for a ‘Faire’ which became the Dollarton event. Writer Malcolm Lowry was perhaps its most internationally famous resident when he arrived in the late Forties, and resided in a little shack near Cates Park (not really at or near the Mudflats site), but was forever after associated with the Mudflats area. It was in this little shack that Lowry began to put together his novel, ‘Under the Volcano’, having compiled it over the years in Mexico.

I ‘sat’ on the negatives for forty years and one day thought it might be worth compiling the ‘lost’ images . . . Bill Jeffries got involved later in the curatorial end and after an attempt to get the show into the Vancouver Museum (we were turned down FLAT, as the Museum ‘suits’ claimed they already had so much material on hippies, etc. etc.). PHG took it up after it was offered and, I suppose a sort of revival movement gave so many a fresh insight into what the squat was all about – really, a work in progress for the examination of a living off the grid community, which at the time was basically destroyed by the promise of developers to turn the ecologically sensitive foreshore into a big shopping centre and condo development with oodles of space for parking and so forth. Infamously, Vancouver’s hippie-hating mayor, Tom (Terrific) Campbell wanted all the hippies run out of town and any trace of the ‘vermin’ extinguished from the city and environs. Campbell used the 6 o’clock news to foment what later became known as the “Gastown Riots”, later termed a “police riot’, as he angrily promised a “riot down there tomorrow night” if any of the Smoke-In ‘undesirables’ showed up. Campbell resigned two months after the Dollarton event was over and soon after the Socred Government fell to the NDP that same year. Years later, the Dollarton (Maplewood) Mudflats became a bird sanctuary (Wild Bird Trust) with a wonderful Nature House and people from all over invited to observe bird life and study at the Environmental Centre nearby.

A good outcome, after all the years that passed.

Video – Bruce Stewart on photographing the Dollarton Faire

Bruce Stewart Photograoher 1
Photo of Bruce Stewart by Fred Herzog. Photo courtesy Bruce Stewart, ©Fred Herzog

What other major projects have you photographed?

BRUCE: I was involved with painting for much of the Eighties and Nineties, so my time was spent largely in the realm of the studio both here in Victoria and previously in Vancouver, in addition to my medical art at UBC. Photography was largely confined to weekends photographing with Fred and others on the streets of Vancouver. I did do some  photography for the Montreal Star newspaper in 1968-69 when at home in Vancouver for summer work, away from LA. We covered diverse topics: photographed Dan McLeod and Bob Cummings with lawyer John Laxton surrounding the obscenity trial of the Georgia Straight. Other events were a trip with Fred to Port Alberni to photograph George Clutesi, artist and poet for an article on his work; documented the Paradise Valley Rock Festival from the stage and ‘after hours’ up near Squamish; the completion of construction of the Roberts Bank ‘Superport’ and a few other events. 

I had a show at Errol Baykal’s “Gallery of Photography” at the foot of Lonsdale in North Van (ironically!) with 115 or so prints from California Faires as well as some shots from the Dollarton Faire. This show took place in late 1972, just a few months after the Dollarton Faire.

I followed Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash who exhibited their photography at a previous show at Errol’s Gallery. Joni, I believe was associated with a few of the Mudflats people as she showed up at a Faire they prepared the previous Fall in Mission, which I also photographed extensively. Some day, I would like to collate ALL my Faire images and have a show on the entire project!

The Kennedys 1970 LA

The Kennedys, Hollywood, 1970. ©Bruce Stewart

One of your main shooting buddies is Fred Herzog who has received a lot of attention during the last decade or so for his early colour images of Vancouver. What did the two of you look for when out on one of your street expeditions?

BRUCE: We wandered the streets (mainly Strathcona, Chinatown, Commercial Drive, East Hastings in Burnaby, Steveston, Downtown Eastside as well as making weekend trips to Bellingham, Vancouver Island, La Connor, Everett and such.We shot whatever came our way: backyard gardens, alley detritus, whimsy along the corridors of town (shop windows, reflections, building details, street people whom we befriended, working fish wharves, kids climbing on boxcars near the old Expo Site – on and on). 

Bruce Stewart PNE Scan
Bruce Stewart in his home office with scan of PNE photo on his computer ©Don Denton photo

You are currently spending much of your time scanning negatives from your archives. Any surprises or amazing forgotten images you’ve come across?

BRUCE: Many, many, many surprises! Especially the change from the ‘old’ Vancouver which was comfortable, easy to see the mountains (and the Woodward’s ‘W’) from almost any vantage point and the incredible changes which provide, now a good counterpoint to a city that has morphed into a more artificial environment. My discovery of ‘forgotten’ industrial images of steam-driven sawmills along the Fraser River, with teepee burners and log-jockey boom men on log booms with their pikes and picaroons. Early Steveston images where Japanese fishermen are mending their nets on now-abandoned wharves and delightful folks in ‘hippie house’ communes cavorting on the streets and backyards. Angry old people defending their properties from prying photographers’ eyes, imagining what evil mischief Fred and I were up to! Backyard social celebrations with neighbors (herring frys, barbecues, ‘happy hour’ events, New Years parties) throughout the Sixties and Seventies, contrasting with those old houses, now largely torn down with ‘astronaut’ kids hiding in Vancouver Specials, which the old neighborhood has become home to . . . abandoned to the ‘new affluence’ of isolation and consumption. The one remaining neighbor family has seen it all – we got out in ’88. All documented photographically!

Also, I experimented with many film/developer combinations to attempt to achieve smooth gradations in contrasty light situations, expanding the range into shadow detail and highlight detail as well. I was trying to achieve a medium-format ‘look’ to my 35mm work, but forlow light challenges. In this way I have used almost every black and white film/developer combination but had settled on one or two combinations for specific light conditions.

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