Turning on. Tuning in. Dropping out. The 60s definitely have a huge appeal because it was the era of change, which saw a massive shift to the left as a result of things building up and finally boiling over. People were taking a stand against common standards and the powers that be, the civil rights activists, the feminists, the hippies, the protesters, they all gratefully carried forward what the beatniks had left behind - and just when philistinism couldn’t stand it no more in the early 70s, the unloved movement died and got turned into something cool by punk. Bruce Stewart was there when an expanded summer of love finally bowed out for good in the Pacific Northwest in 1972. Originally a skilled illustrator, he soon took pleasure in (street) photography and captured many Faires at that time in Canada and in the US - and the one he is most famous for certainly is the Dollarton Pleasure Faire in 1972, a two-week celebration of alternative living at the infamous Maplewood Mudflats squatter village in North Vancouver, which was one of the last bastions in terms of sustainable, communal living in harmony with nature. The dream finally died in 1973 when the last remaining structures were destroyed.
Lodown had the chance to chat with Mr. Stewart about resisting middle-class urban life and capturing counterculture in cold November 2016.
Bruce, as I understood it, you were actually a fully accomplished illustrator and painter before you got interested in photography, right?
I trained as a medical illustrator at Art Center in Los Angeles. I worked for years at UBC Faculty of Medicine providing illustrations for medical conferences, textbooks and medical journals, in mainly all the wet and dry media - watercolor, acrylic painting, pen and ink and half-tone carbon dust techniques - to depict newly-developed procedures in the fields of surgery, dentistry, histology, pathology, and related fields of medicine, for teaching and publication. It was while at UBC in my twenties that I met and was befriended by the now well-known photographer, Fred Herzog who took me under his tutelage, accompanying him on frequent outings to photograph the goings-on in the street. Mainly our beat was Vancouver, but we travelled to Washington State and Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia.
How did you end up documenting the Dollarton Pleasure Faire? Was this kind of alternative lifestyle something you rather embraced back then or were you basically a tourist for a duration of two weeks?
While living in Los Angeles, I wanted to carry on my documentation of the street and in addition photographed the “Pleasure Faire” scene in So. Cal. - and was interested to document the “Faire” scene in Vancouver upon my return north. I wanted to contrast the Dollarton “Maplewood Mudflats” squat in North Vancouver with the more organized, yearly built Faires in California, which was started as a fund-raiser for a listener-based radio station in the LA area, KPFK. The annual Faire sparked interest in Renaissance Faires elsewhere in the state and later, all over the U.S. and, eventually Canada and other countries. When I realized the then infamous Dollarton squat was under threat of eviction after many years, I immediately wanted to document it in its final phase, culminating in a grand sendoff. Some say the floating cabins on the foreshore of Burrard Inlet had been around since the late 1940s, with writer Malcolm Lowry (author of “Under the Volcano“, e.g.) being an original and perhaps most famous resident. Gradually the cabins were occupied by other writers, artists, scientists, carpenters, people on the fringe and such throughout the sixties, culminating in its end of days in the mid-1970s. The “End of Days” Celebration came to my attention by word of mouth. I was not a part of the Dollarton Community, but wanted to document the event and in some small way, attempt to preserve a part of this time for my own archives and interest. I went over to the squat while the carpenter gangs were working on the build and, knowing one fellow, Dan Clemens who was “in charge”, asked him if he and the fellows and gals would mind if I documented the event, from start to finish. I remember joking with them, assuring all that I was not a cop, or a real estate developer or an undercover narc and wanted to document it all as I had a suspicion this might be my last chance to, as the times were a-changing. We all shook on the proposal. My only requests: that I had access to all that was going on... and “try not to look into the camera!” I had photographed the group of carpenters (known as “Deluxe“) a year before (September, 1971) at a wonderful forested Faire they constructed in the woods near Westminster Abbey in Mission, B.C. and was impressed with their abilities and the lightness of the event, contrasted with the more “formal” Renaissance Faire events in California.
What happened to the community after the authorities closed it down for good? Would you say that it really did feel like the end of an era?
After the big celebration at summer’s end in 1972, I returned a year later in the winter to re-photograph the site. All but two or three shacks remained with everything else burned to the waterline and removed. I do not know what happened to the wonderful decorative framed windows, fireplace mantles and bric-a-brac that once adorned the houses, all salvaged originally from teardowns in Vancouver’s West End and Fairview Slopes. I lost track of most residents, but would run into a few in the area where I lived, in Kitsilano. Many went to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands and to the Kootenays, I was told. Some returned to the States. It truly felt like the end of an era. By 1980 the last of the houses had been burned or torn down and eventually, the Mudflats were returned to becoming a funded Nature Sanctuary - and luckily it’s wonderfully preserved to this day.
Vancouver and its surroundings changed very drastically over the last few decades. Do you get a sense of nostalgia or even melancholia when you look at your series - especially since the kids of today seemingly aren’t too interested in any form of rebellion anymore, even though modern life offers even more reasons than ever to do so?
I feel that a big innocence is missing nowadays with the total city of Vancouver changing in all aspects, especially a huge bump in population and the overwhelming building and densification that perhaps was inevitable. This, I believe was partly due to the presence at the Expo 86 where the world dropped by and some stayed. Definitely, more people arrived after the Expo event. The land values are now priced well beyond what most working class people can afford, so many of the communal houses are either gone or now ask for stratospheric rent. Certainly the people I knew who lived in them could no longer afford to live there. But, that was 46 years ago, and the young kids in the early photos are now in their 50s and 60s. I guess we had the “Age of Aquarius” notion that our world was changing and we - the (young) people - were changing it. The big hype and commercial fashion industry followed suit, but that was later.
Ironically the hot topic today is “living off the grid” and downsizing, sometimes quite drastically. Affordability is one thing, but personal desirability has to part of it, too. Also, young people were being drafted into the US Armed Forces and fighting in Vietnam, and there seemed to be a huge wall between the young people and the military suits. Expression manifested itself in protest, and the trend to live more simply, more away from the so-called straight world and strive for a more stress-free life. Probably not realizing that other different stresses awaited!
But, yes, I do feel a terrific nostalgia when spotting and retouching scratches and emulsion bubbles from the images on the computer. I feel I am right back there in time where we enjoyed the great summer heat and “informal” bathing. The nudity was never a big thing, as the heat forced the issue! Many, of course thought that bathing with clothing on was a bit crazy, given the heat! I also remember in addition to candles and coal oil lamps there was an electrical wire running down to the Mudflats to power a blender to make smoothies. Otherwise, it was pretty much truly “off the grid”! The NFB film “Mudflats Living” fills in some of the areas of life on the ‘Flats before the final sendoff party. A glimpse into daily life, people, arts, gardens, meal preparation and kids.
What made the Maplewood Mudflats pre-destined to become this kind of alternative sanctuary in the early 70s?
I think it was an ideal destination for those seeking a simpler life; free from utility bills, rent, taxes, etc., but more importantly a place to “nourish the soul” in a total urban environment. Many have said it would have been an ideal place to study the early attempts toward living off the grid and to gauge the success of interacting with the shore environment for growing gardens, harvesting driftwood for fire, raising kids in a safe but challenging environment. Unfortunately, all this came to an end in 1971 and again, in 1973 and 1980 when it was all burned and pulled down and hauled away. Fortunately, however, the Mudflats were incorporated as a bird and nature sanctuary under the Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia.Many people go there to do nature trail walks and to enjoy the pristine habitat. At the end of my Dollarton Show at Presentation House Gallery, a gathering was held there and about 100 people who had seen the gallery event, showed up to visit the sanctuary, including myself. It gave me an opportunity to photograph, once again the Dollarton (Maplewood) Mudflats.
Am I right in guessing that your current work differs quite a lot in terms of the topics you’re dealing with?
Very much so, but my work was always fairly diverse. These days I am producing books on automobile mascots and hood ornaments for a local collector and author, Dr. Jim Colwill. We have seven books out already, over 8 or 9 years’ work. I still do the odd book on medical themes - having just illustrated a 420 page text on Orbital (Eye) surgery for Dr. Jack Rootman of UBC and UCLA. This was my fourth book for Jack since 1983. Also, I am busy collecting, scanning and finishing several hundred finished images for a potential show on Vancouver Street Photography. I have been documenting the collector car events and personal collections of car restorers from Lower Vancouver Island over the years, and am cataloguing around 400 of my paintings on such themes as disappearing neighbourhoods in Vancouver and car culture in general.