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If you were looking for Vancouver photographer Raymond Parker in the 1980s, you’d either find him in a small commercial studio—some of his advertisements ended up in VanMag—or riding his bike, taking photos as the city prepared for Expo ’86. To celebrate VanMag’s 50th anniversary (and Canada’s 150th!) we spoke to the England native about his Eighties Vancouver photo series, how the city he loves has changed and how he keeps projects interesting.What inspired you to take photos of Vancouver when you lived here?I grew up on the intersection of the industrial midlands—where the industrial revolution literally began—and the traditional bucolic English countryside, which wasn’t hard to escape to when parents didn’t wonder where their kids were every second. My father, besides being a photography enthusiast, was also a bricklayer at the time, so I learned both of those skills from him. I would say that my work is probably informed by my early experiences and my connection to older buildings—I just love old buildings. It’s the surfaces that attract me, and the geometry. I find that there’s a sense of the numinous in older things which I personally don’t get from newer things. I like the rough edges.Ultimately, I’m obsessed with the photographic process and with great photographers. So with my Eighties Vancouver series I hoped that I could create something as beautiful as what was affecting me at places like Presentation House Gallery, which did a great job of bringing great photography to the Vancouver area. Also at that time, with Expo ’86 about to put Vancouver on the world stage, I was aware there were big changes happening. It doesn’t need saying that many buildings and urban landscapes that I documented in those years have disappeared entirely and have been transformed by consequent development. I embarked on renewing it digitally about three years ago as a way to preserve that landscape.You’ve been a professional photographer since you were in your twenties. How do you keep things interesting?I force myself out onto the streets to get away from the studio. I try to break through looking at things in a predictable manner and try to wake myself up, because most often, I believe there is something special about the ordinary. We tend to fall asleep and I believe it’s the documentary photographer’s job to try to see something special and take care of the technical details and hopefully someone down the line sees something special beneath the surface of a two-dimensional photograph.
The Lovers, Vancouver City Hall, 1983I always come back to The Lovers, as the experience was really evocative. It was informed by my own personal relationships and my place in the city that I loved at the time. And of course part of City Hall is in the background. The backstory is that I was photographing for Mountain Equipment Co-op and impertinently I took a shot of one of their more popular backpacks on the back of the male lover and then I said that I needed to come back with my medium format camera. So I did.Industry, False Creek, 1984I really like the Industry shot which is one of my most popular ones. For this shot I climbed up to the top of the Cambie Bridge, illegally of course, to wait for the sun to rise and suddenly this crazy flock of birds flew into the smoke. So it was the kind of thing I couldn’t plan. And of course that area now, as I first discovered a couple of years ago on Google Street View, is now completely flattened presumably waiting for more condo development.
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Wooden Roller Coaster, Vancouver, 1986Ninety-nine percent of the photos in my Eighties Vancouver series were shot on a tripod and I pre-visualized where I was going to stand and what I wanted and then hoped for the surprise underneath all that preparation. For the Wooden Roller Coaster shot I had to sign a release saying if I died it wasn’t their problem. I doubt I’d be able to do the same today. I probably went back three or four times and each time I’d come home to figure out it wasn’t what I was looking for. For the shot I actually got, I arrived there and the light was fairly boring, the sky was boring and then, just as the sun started to get low in the sky, all those clouds boiled up over the North Shore mountains and there it was.Under Burrard Bridge, 1985One that I always come back to that’s not that popular is Under Burrard Bridge—and that really works for me. Often for a photographer there’s personal things associated with it that the average viewer just doesn’t get.