Today, the term ‘Street photography’ refers to photojournalists, documentary photographers, or flâneurs like Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fred Herzog, and Vivian Maier. But back in their heyday of the 1930s to the 1950s, the term ‘street photography’ described a photographer who solicited strangers on the street offering to take their photos for a fee. Like most cities of the era, the streets of Vancouver were once host to street photographers and their sidewalk studios.
With the early 1930s came the era of the Street Photographer. During the Great Depression, people barely had enough money for the necessities in life, much less for any extras like a family portrait taken in a studio. During times of economic struggle, people are often forced to re-invent themselves and the way they do business. That’s exactly what happened in 1930s North America, when many photographers had to move from their refined studio spaces to the outdoors. They were literally out on the street.
Street photographers (also referred to as “sidewalk photographers”) would take “walking photos”- candid shots of individuals, couples, families and other groups walking down the street. The photographer would then hand the subject a numbered ticket with an invitation to drop by their shop later that day to purchase a copy of the picture. The trend gained momentum into war years of the 1940s, when film was in short supply and servicemen on leave would want photos of themselves in uniform to send home or have a photo memento of their sweetheart to take with them.
“It wasn’t only men that worked as street photographers. During my research I found many newspaper ‘help wanted’ listings from the 1940s and 1950s by street photography studios looking for ‘camera girls’.”
According to a 1941 ‘Province’ article, 18 sidewalk photographers from five different companies “snapped” roughly 3,500 Vancouverites per day at the height of “the picture season”. However, only 20% of the images were purchased as prints, which left a lot of unused tickets littering the streets downtown . The litter became such an issue that in 1941 a City committee investigated the operations of the street photographers. Realizing that they couldn’t just eliminate them, the committee recommended that the photographers hand out smaller tickets to potential customers, take ‘snaps’ less indiscriminately and ask that recipients not throw the tickets away on the street.
An exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) in 2013-14 called ‘Foncie’s Fotos’ celebrated the era of street photography, and one photographer in particular, Foncie Pulice. Foncie was undoubtedly the most famous and prolific of Vancouver’s street photographers, most likely due to the fact that he stuck around the longest. He created about 15 million images in his 45-year career (1934-1979) as a street photographer.
Much has been written about Foncie already. I won’t go into detail about his story here, but you can learn all about him in Chuck Davis’ “The History of Metropolitan Vancouver” website, and view many of his photos and a documentary film at the ‘Foncie’s Corner’ website.
Foncie may have been the longest running street photographer, but he was far from the only one. There were a number of street photographers working in Vancouver in the 1930s to 1950s. In fact, Foncie’s first job was as an assistant for street photographer Joseph (Joe) Iaci, who established ‘Kandid Kamera Snaps’ (1939-1955) at 612 West Hastings. After Iaci left the photography business in the early 1950s to go into the hotel industry in Campbell River, Kandid Kamera Snaps continued operation under the proprietorship of Edward G. Brooke. He added a second location at 624 Columbia in New Westminster.
There was also a company called ‘Movie Snaps’ which operated from 1939 to 1950 from 541 Granville. A check in the Vancouver and New Westminster City Directory from 1940, lists the proprietors as Earl R. Jones and Roy S. Craig. The second half of the 1940s sees Movie Snaps under the proprietorship of Francis P. Stephens. Curiously, the 1950 directory lists Alphonso (Foncie) Pulice as the proprietor of ‘Movie Snaps’. This is very interesting as the same directory has a listing for ‘Foncie’s Fotos’ at 955 Seymour. Pulice later moved the business end of Foncie’s Fotos to Granville.
The other ‘street photography’ studios operating in Vancouver during this era were:
– ‘The Movie Flash’ (on West Hastings St.) operated by Vince Costello from 1939 to about 1946/47
– ‘Souvenir Walkie Snaps’ also opening around 1939 was operated by Roy Bacon and George Wynne at various locations downtown until 1949
– ‘James Photo Service’ (#23 -441 Seymour St.) opened by R. McCarty and Paul F. Schenkel in 1945, by 1947 Schenkel is listed as the sole proprietor until about 1951
– ‘World Wide Action Snaps’ operated by Julius Balshine out of 867 Granville Street for 10 years from 1941 to 1951
– ‘Metro Fotos’ (Photos) located at 193 East Hastings was run by Ernest Metro Brandt from about 1945 until about 1949. Before he opened his own business, Foncie Pulice was the manager at Metro Fotos in 1946
– ‘Famous Pictures Movie Snaps’ (1946), ‘Totem Photos’ (1954-1958), and ‘Vancouver Movie Snaps’ (1948) were also on the scene
– And even milkshake murderer Rene Castellani got into the street photography game in 1948 operating ‘Rene’s Photos’ out of the old Movie Flash spot at 417 West Hastings Street.
Though street photographers are believed to have operated as early as 1934, I cannot find any listings for them in the City Directories prior to 1938/39. My guess is that street photography didn’t become a full-time “industry” until a few years after it emerged on the streets of the city. It’s likely that most street photographers, like Foncie Pulice, were initially only working part-time ‘snapping’ the citizens of 1930s Vancouver.
It wasn’t only men that worked as street photographers. During my research I found many newspaper ‘help wanted’ listings from the 1940s and 1950s by street photography studios looking for “camera girls”. One such photographer was Audrey Gibson, who worked for ‘Movie Snaps’ in 1942. This photograph from the City of Vancouver Archives shows Gibson in action, camera strapped around her neck, handing a receipt to a customer…
By the late 1950s only two street photography studios remained – Totem Photos and Foncie’s Fotos. The advent of television meant that more people were staying at home to be entertained rather than head out to a movie theatre, and the birth of the suburban shopping mall meant that less people were shopping downtown. In the end, only Foncie was left to keep the street photography tradition alive until he retired in 1979.
I love looking at these old ‘walking photos’ they possess a lively sense of animation and engagement – they are more relaxed portraits than those captured in the studio. These images also reveal a sense of formality in the way people dressed while out and about on the city streets. Whether they were conducting business, shopping, or going to the cinema – in those days people would dress up to go downtown, especially if they knew they were going to get their photograph taken.