Q&A: John Allison, photographer/documentarian


Yesterday, I posted about the work of John Allison, a fine-art photographer who has taken thousands of images of the city in an effort to track its ongoing transformation (read it here). In this interview, he describes why he does it, the buildings he wishes were still standing—and the one that may not be long for this world.

How much time would you say you spend on photographing Vancouver? I’m out and about pretty much every weekend. And I have my compact camera with me all the time.

Why do you do it?
I began to see the city changing in 2004-2005. Saw lots of those Development Application signs around and then places would soon be gone. So, I started to think it was really worthwhile, trying to document aspects of the city that were beginning to disappear—old houses, buildings, corner stores, that kind of thing. Things really came to a head in 2006 and 2007; there were so many buildings being demolished it was hard to keep track. During that time you could pass by almost any part of the city and something was being torn down.

What does your collection look like?
I have thousands of digital images to keep track of. In the last five years or so I’ve been shooting around 7,000 to 8,000 images a year. So, I have quite a collection of backup DVDs and a few hard drives! I’ve made some prints but have chosen to print mostly 4×6-inch proofs just to have a hard copy of images I’m happy with. I’ve decided that right now it’s important to just get images captured, as once something in the city disappears it’s gone forever. I can always look after the printing later!

What is your take on Vancouver’s development story? When an old building comes down is it a tragedy or progress? Both? 
Back in 2006-2007, there was a big rush on development so the city lost a lot of great old buildings. The old Colliers building at Richards and Georgia comes to mind. Recently, there have been some great developments and renovations of some very old buildings. The Ralph Block across from the Woodward’s development on Hastings Street is just finished. I never thought I’d see that building restored so someone should get an award for that one! But of course you have to be realistic too, some buildings are well past their prime and are just too costly to renovate.

Thinking about the “Just a Memory Now” set in particular, which buildings do you wish had been saved?
Places like Molly’s Coffee Shop and some of the old heritage houses on Richards Street. Also, a lot of little corner stores have disappeared, like Henry’s on Hastings Street. There was also a strip of houses on Guelph Street near East 12th that were all torn down to build condos. That could almost be Vancouver’s credo: “If it’s old, tear it down and build condos!”

What are your favourite Vancouver buildings, demolished or otherwise?
That’s a tough one. I’m a fan of the little, old, abandoned building that not too many people take notice of. An example of this would be something like the Blue Eagle Cafe. One of my faves, even though it’s almost falling down, is the Opsal Steel building. It’s really a shame what has happened to it.

A slideshow of Allison’s work is now on the Multimedia section of our website here.

Image credit: John Allison

"Just a Memory Now": The photographs of John Allison


We MOV staffers are constantly amazed and inspired by the archival-like documentation of Vancouver happening online; social media has radically altered the landscape. It’s a frenetic, messy, diverse, ongoing collection, and, perhaps unexpectedly, a high-tech throwback to the city’s original methods of record-keeping, when keen locals like Major James Skitt Matthews (later the city’s volunteer archivist) amassed hard copies of photographs, artifacts, news clippings, and ephemera as a hobby.

I recently came across the extraordinary work of John Allison, a fine-art photographer who’s worked in the photographic business for decades, first as a darkroom technician—even printing Jeff Wall’s Ilfochromes for “three or four years,” he estimates—and now in the digital realm, specializing in large-format printing.

Allison arrived in Vancouver in 1988, but says he only really became fascinated with the city’s history in the last five years. Since then, he’s posted some 4,600 photographs of the city on Flickr. He’s established image sets like Then and Now which sees images from the City of Vancouver Archives and the Vancouver Public Library lined up with present-day shots. Another set entitled Just a Memory Now, catalogues buildings that didn’t survive the wrecking ball; a selection of those images along with Allison’s commentary, is now on the Multimedia section of our website here. Scroll through and you get a fascinating window into Vancouver’s ongoing development, and redevelopment, story. He just might be Vancouver’s next Major James Skitt Matthews or an architecturally-minded Foncie Pulice.

Image credit: John Allison

Flickr Find: Woodward's billboard, 1970s

Not to delve back into the billboard issue—see last week’s blog post on the subject—but I came across this swell image on Flickr and just had to post it. What a sign! What a street. Many thanks to Flickr user lookingatdamascus for the upload. A larger version of the image is linked on their photostream here.

Return of the W!

It’s not the original “W” that crowned the Woodward’s building, of course (that “W” will be displayed inside the redeveloped building), but what a symbol! The new version, consisting of 6,700 lbs of steel and lit by LEDs, was hoisted to the top of the building yesterday. Media coverage abounded. The Georgia Straight has a good summary on their website with links to video; click here for it. Coverage on links to past articles on the—complex? storied? controversial? acclaimed?—redevelopment project.

This image was taken by Honey Mae Caffin. Her Flickr photostream (linked here) has other equally striking shots of the event. We loved them all.

Flickr Find!

Duncan Rawlinson took this great shot from his balcony the other day and sent it over (larger image available on Flickr, linked here). Love it. Definitely a day brightener.

Rawlinson recently launched the site KitsKam, where a webcam snaps a shot of his view every minute. It’s a very nice angle of the Museum, especially right now with all the autumn leaves in the foreground. Check it out—and thanks DR!

Noticed: Flickr as a Cataloguing Tool


We’re always looking for images of Vancouver—new, old, beautiful, strange, revelatory. Browsing photostreams on Flickr—a site invented locally, no less—has become a pastime at the Museum.

Vancouverites, it would seem, spend an inordinate amount of time photographing their surrounds. Two reasons, the first one obvious: we’re a photogenic city. Two: we’re a young city, and in so many ways still settling in. Some of our most populous neighbourhoods are only a handful of years old; others have been redeveloped many, many times over, and have no particular aesthetic. A typical Vancouver city block might include an arts-and-crafts-style cottage, a mid-century bungalow, and an 1980s-era, seashell-pink, stucco-clad two-storey. On so many occasions, you pass a new building on your daily commute and can’t recall what was there prior. Local photography has become a way to keep track; a powerful cataloguing tool, driven by photographers, both amateur and professional, who actively share their work online.

Among this diverse group is Kenny Louie. We discovered his photostream recently and have been scrolling through it—all 850 images and counting—ever since. Many of his images have made their way onto this website. Louie, 31, is a software developer who grew up in Renfrew-Collingwood, and now lives in Burnaby. He carries a digital SLR camera with him most of the time, and has made a practice of taking at least one photograph a day as part of his “365” project. Another informal project has him uploading shots of North and Southeast False Creek every Friday. He says it’s just a “silly thing”—he’s in that area a lot because his wife works at Science World—but the sheer size of his portfolio indicates it’s anything but. He’s amassed over 1,000 images of that area alone, and in the process, produced a thorough chronicle of the contentious Olympic Village construction. Other photo sets capture the Downtown Eastside, Granville Island, and Yaletown, among many other locations. Taken together, it’s a moving portrait of the city today.

Herewith, a sampling of Louie’s online portfolio, with his comments:


Museum of Vancouver: “This was taken on one of my evening photowalks, when I was waiting for my wife. I had been shooting between the Burrard and Granville Street Bridges and was making my way back when I noticed some other large group photographing the Museum and thought, yeah, the light is pretty good.”


The Ovaltine Café: “My dad used to work here. One of his friends took it over, and my dad was semi-retired at the time, so he went to help out on the weekends and a few weekdays. It’s not as bad as you might think it is, because it’s in such close proximity to the police station.”


Stanley Park: “So many of my shots emphasize cityscape. I took this shot of Stanley Park to remind myself of the natural beauty we sometimes take for granted in this city.”

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