A Master Photographer: In Praise of the Silo

Blitz Magazine, January 2000


Canada is not beautiful in detail, but by the immensities of its proportions…This rudeness…one tries to express it in extreme simplicity of composition, form, strength, obvious contrast in light and shade. One is not looking for gloom, but rather dramatic strength…for the forms, contrasts, proportions and designs which belong to Canada and to no other country.

         John Vanderpant, 1928

John Vanderpant arrived in Alberta in 1911. A photo-journalist, he was on assignment for a Dutch newspaper. He stayed. In 1919, he moved to New Westminster, BC and, by the mid-1920s, he was (along with other West Coast photographers like Johan Helders, Harold Mortimer Lamb and Harry Upperton Knight) an acclaimed figure within the international circuit of Pictorialist salons.

siloHowever, speaking about Vanderpant’s 1925 solo exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society in London, a critic noted that his work reflected little of the Canadian spirit. Vanderpant resolved to “unlearn the Old World concept of beauty in relation to its environment,” and turned away from the aesthetics of Pictorialism, adopting a simplified graphic economy in his photography, emphasizing rhythmic pattern and simplicity.

Vanderpant and his colleagues–Frederick Varley, Vera Weatherbie, Beatrice Lennie and Jock Macdonald, among others, formed a group which resolved to combine, in their paintings and photography, Utopian ideals with a modernist approach. The idea was to create new ways of viewing the interaction between nature and technology. These artists believed in the power of art to shift patterns of thought and lead away from the social conflicts that reigned over the Depression Era. They broke with traditional photography and painting to challenge the British colonial mentality which dominated Canadian culture at the beginning of the century. And their approach was to combine European Modernism with an enthusiasm for British Columbia as the frontier between East and West, the natural and the urban.

Meanwhile, the architecture of the grain elevator had been recognized by modernist European architects as a symbol of the dynamism of North American culture, and its ability to progress rapidly by breaking with archaic European traditions. Le Corbusier extolled the virtues of the engineer who was able to create structures that combine form and function, and identified the terminal grain elevator as one of North America’s most significant contributions to architecture. Really? Well, yes. Grain elevators were seen to emphasize the potential for social harmony, rather than to represent social struggle.

 vanderpant2 vanderpant1

In Canada, the elevator was an important emblem of the vitality of the Canadian economy, and the prosperity that Vancouver’s middle class was enjoying in the 1920s, as the country captured an increasing share of the international grain trade.

Vanderpant turned his camera on the terminal grain elevators that first appeared in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet in 1916. Writing about a series of grain elevator photographs which he took between 1934 and 1936, he said that grain elevators “rise on lakeshore and terminal throughout the land and in their rigid strength and sublime simplicity are the unpretentious temples of trade. As seen through an artistic mind, the print gives strength of form and cement, the tenderness of beauty, of texture, the design possibility in form and shadow, the feeling of safety in the storage of abundance, they give an almost religious adoration of significant form.”

Yeah, well it’s important to appreciate your subject matter.

He also wrote about the abstract patterns found in vegetables; we can assume that he was an interesting dinner guest.