Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism

by Kiriko Watanabe, Adele Weder, Donald Luxton and Barry Downs
Published by Douglas & McIntyre, September 2012

November 6th, 2012

It’s always rewarding when a publication stands on its own two feet, complementary to but independent from any exhibition related to it. Such is the case with Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism which was recently published to coincide with the photographer’s current solo exhibition at the West Vancouver Museum. With great sensitivity to his subjects and their surrounds, Pullan captured residential, commercial and institutional structures in and around Vancouver between the late-1940s and mid-1970s, documenting the rise of a new architectural movement that was changing the west coast of North America with its post-and-beam construction and poetic integration into the landscape. This generously illustrated monograph chronicles his life and work with more than 70 of his black and white and colour photographs that tell the story not only of West Coast Modernism but also Pullan’s crucial role in capturing and promoting this avant-garde style contemporaneous to its development.

Downs Residence, 1961

Porter Residence, 1955

Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism is a book which is captivating based on Pullan’s imagery alone and will certainly have a reach beyond those interested in architecture or photography. Much like Fred Herzog’s popular images of Vancouver (also the subject of a Douglas & McIntyre monograph) Pullan’s photographs capture the nostalgia of a bygone era and feature happy, carefree families gathered around the hearth or a luxurious pool, as well as perfectly appointed spaces illustrating their absent owner’s superior taste. His work reflects a kind of optimism and innocence mirroring the ideals of the movement he captured, exemplifying modernism’s belief that the integration of visual arts, design and architecture would lead to a better, more fulfilling life. Reviewing the incredible homes and structures featured, the reader quickly becomes aware that Pullan’s body of work acts as a critical archive for the region’s leading architectural practitioners including Ron Thom, Fred Hollingsworth and Arthur Erickson, especially since many of their projects have been altered or demolished. Although it could be said Pullan’s works are documents, his lens captures not just the buildings themselves but somehow manages to distill their essence and character, highlighting their relationship to the idyllic landscape in which they sit, and the way the light pours into their spaces illuminating and activating them. His series featuring the Simons Residence, for example, includes a shot showcasing the sharp angles of the wood construction and its placement encircled by evergreens, an interior view featuring a child and dog perfectly framed through a circular doorway, as well as another exterior picture shot from below in which the a peaked portion of the roof reaches dramatically above the trees that enclose it.

Simons Residence, Interior, 1970

Stittgen Residence, Living Room, 1963

Pullan’s imagery is made richer by insightful texts that enlighten us as to his life, influences and methods, but also the greater social context in which he was working. Kiriko Watanabe, who has worked closely with Pullan for years compiling and researching his images, delivers a biographical essay describing the period of his enrollment at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where Pullan studied Ansel Adams. Early, majestic black-and-white landscapes such as Natural Bridge, Death Valley, 1949 and Death Valley, 1949, suggesting the powerful grandeur of nature reflect Adams’ touch. A text by Donald Luxton describes the rise of West Coast Modernism in the region including the influence of architects like Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright as well as Japanese design, providing a greater understanding of the structures captured by Pullan’s camera. Barry Downs, a long-time associate of the artist, offers a personal touch when he narrates his experience sitting for Downs Residence, 1961. On his first visit, Pullan toured his home, taking in the space, its personality and the way the light fell. He returned with his camera a second time and positioned the family to get his shot – Downs describes Pullan has having an “instinctive understanding of site and spatial design and the ability to tap a building’s emotional context.” Finally, Adele Weder writes on the distribution and influence of Pullan’s images through local journals and taste-defining magazines like Western Homes & Living and Canadian Homes and Garden, elucidating Pullan’s importance in both capturing the movement and promoting its desirability. Combining his images with these texts, Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism skillfully conveys Pullan’s importance in promulgating the aesthetic with which he is so closely associated. The homes he pictures, spotted with Barcelona and Eames chairs, are a startling reminder of how dominant this aesthetic continues to be today.

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