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Review

Philip Timm’s Vancouver: 1900-1910

By Fred Thirkell, Bob Scullion

November 4, 2013

Review By Robin Anderson

I first met Fred Thirkell in the late 1970s when I ran an antique store in North Vancouver. Fred was a postcard collector, and we played the familiar dance between buyer and seller in the used goods trade for several years. Fred Thirkell’s impressive postcard collection, along with that of fellow collector Bob Scullion, has been turned into seven published monographs for Heritage House, the most recent being Philip Timms’ Vancouver: 1900- 1910. The culture of collection shapes the organization and content of this book and, indeed, of all the Thirkell-Scullion books; these are essentially published displays of the best of the postcard collections divided into topical chapters with accompanying contextual descriptions for each photograph. Any entry into the history of Vancouver and its surroundings is worthwhile, and certainly the Thirkell-Scullion texts, three of which have won City of Vancouver Heritage Awards, are informative and entertaining. [1]

In the Timms text we are given a short introduction to the life and work of photographer and printer Philip Timms, where we learn of his struggle to establish his trade, his professional dependence on older brother Art, and his wide range of personal interests, which included accomplishments as a musician – he performed publicly on both string and brass instruments – and an energetic pursuit of natural and local history. Early on, Timms quite deliberately set out to capture “the city’s vista” and “produce a photographic record of Vancouver and its neighbouring municipalities in the opening years of the 20th century” (7). Thirkell and Scullion suggest that, therefore, the documentarian in Timms determined the character of his photographs; Timms was driven to record in photographic images the physical structures, buildings, streets, and factories, as well as “pictures of people at play, at home and at work,” before these were “all swept away.”

The body of the book, as with all Thirkell and Scullion texts, is separated into an eclectic two dozen or so chapters, some based on regional communities or specific locations, with titles such as “Barnet,” “The Royal City,” and “Hastings Street,” while others are based on events, activities, socio-economic sectors, or institutions, with titles such as “The CPR Comes to Vancouver,” “The Provincial Exhibition,” and “Schools and More Schools.” The authors begin each chapter with a short introduction that situates the photographic subject within a historical context, and then anywhere from eight to fifteen images are exhibited, with short annotations for each. It is hard not to find personal favourites here. I found the chapters on downtown city life and photographs of people caught in motion especially captivating – take the series on Hastings Street shopping, where Timms’ camera captured men and women in mid-moment, sometimes mid-conversation, along the busy street in the midst of their lives during a summer Saturday before the war. Some of these views will be familiar – the well-known photograph entitled “Our First Line of Defence,” which depicts an exuberant line of young boys riding the cannon outside the Beatty Street Drill Hall, still has a classic irony – but most others are new, fresh, and unfamiliar, offering evidence to the fundamental prewar zeitgeist, while also encouraging the viewer to discover the incidental and the accidental.

If these 170 photographs are representative of Timms’ work – he took over 3,000 photographs, of which over 1,200 were made into postcards, and of which the collectors have recovered around 800 – then the buildings, factories, streets, boats, and vehicles appear as important, if not more important, to Timms as they were to the people who used them. Certainly the postcard genre explains this focus on structures: in many of the views the buildings, ships, or other structures are the main subjects; people often adorn the scenes like skirting around an exhibit table. A collectors’ collection, Philip Timms’ Vancouver: 1900-1910 is a work of public history, and for this reason some academic readers may find his pictures important but the text sometimes shallow. Even with its biographical focus, the book makes no real central point about Timms’ body of work, and its scattered approach to organization only reinforces this fact. The anecdotes that accompany the photographs are always useful, often intriguing, and reflect an enthusiasm for research, but they are left as just that: anecdotes. In keeping with the collectors’ impulse to defend the integrity of the collection, the authors also avoid any substantive critical analysis of the work. They raise no critical questions about the subject choices made by Timms, whose work fits quite comfortably within the city’s middle-class promotional prewar engine. When we do encounter images that don’t promote regional industrial enterprise, the work and leisure of the city’s entrepreneurial class, or the bricks and mortar that were its legacy, their uniqueness is left largely unexplored.

Also missing is any analysis of the photographs as images. Thirkell and Scullion see their role as providing historical background for the objects in the photographs; however, analysis should consist of more than simply enlarging on the historical content in the frame: photographs, even documentary images, also have constructed meanings. And it is not as though good recent examinations of Vancouver documentary photographs do not exist. Two exhibits of Vancouver street photography, the 2003 Presentation House show “Unfinished Business: Photographing Vancouver Streets, 1955 to 1985” and the eye-popping Fred Hertzog exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery just this year, have produced excellent written commentaries that delve deeply into the meaning of Vancouver street scenes in the post-Second World War period. From the 2003 publication, Bill Jeffries reminds us how the meanings, and even the perceived value, of such photographs shift over time. There’s also the persistent tension that exists between the act of documentation and the aesthetic intent of the photographer. These understandings were acknowledged by the turn of the century; the practice of documentary street photography had exploded across the urbanizing world and was already raising important compositional questions about the relationship between buildings, people, movement/ stasis, and the urban transformation of the environment. Timms clearly put much care and thought into his photographs, making choices regarding subject, perspective, lighting, timing, and framing. A deeper explanation of these compositional elements and how they were informed by, and perhaps even informed, the historical context could have been attempted here.

Criticisms of the text aside, the Thirkell and Scullion series can be used very successfully in undergraduate history courses as accessible visual entrances into a host of social and cultural history topics. I’ve used an earlier Thirkell and Scullion text, Vancouver and Beyond: During the Golden Age of Postcards, 1900-1914 (2000) both in a lower-level survey and in an upper-level public history course. In the former, first-year students wrote historical analyses of three chapters, of their own choosing, that used images to draw out elements of historical consciousness. In the public history class, the Thirkell and Scullion text was examined as an example of popular print history; in their written assignments, students used the text to identify the different goals, ideals, and practices between popular print history and the histories produced by academic professionals. In both cases, the Thirkell and Scullion text proved to be an excellent, accessible learning tool. With its tighter human focus, Philip Timms’ Vancouver: 1900-1910 could also be used with great success.

[1] Ann Laura Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-century Colonial Cultures,” American Ethnologist, 16-4 (1989): 634-660.