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The Postcard Photographer

Summary

Vancouver, British Columbia, is a special city. It has brought peace, dignity and anonymity to so many from all walks of life and nations. The Postcard Photographer takes the reader on a leisurely walk back to the 1960s, the years of Viet Nam, soul-searching, the sudden and sad ending of the Kennedy era, the peace marches and the folk music that stirred the hearts of a generation. The first story in this book focuses on two rather lost individuals; one from Los Angeles and the other from the B.C. pulp and paper town of Powell River. In Vancouver both discover their identities, passions and goals. Though fiction, the two stories reflect the journeys of photographer and author, Dan Propp, who imparts many nostalgic memories as a photo student in 1960s in B.C., doing wedding photography, teaching adult education classes and chasing fire engines, Dan’s stories bring to life the intimate history of the times and places.

CHAPTER 1

Terminal Studios were three rooms in an old building on the second floor across from the train station in Vancouver. A fitting name might also have been At The End of the Track Studios or Flea Market Developments. The Vancouver Flea Market was down the avenue, close to dumpster divers and the city’s finest in camouflaged clothing. The location was ideal, not so much for business – shutter the thought – but latent images locked in at the back recesses of the old retina, distinct from American Kodak with a German Schneider lens, but the human variety. With tracks streaming from Los Angeles, my eyes had nevertheless seen the Canadian National Railway’s Super Continental chug in from its lengthy journey across Canada. Great Northern Railway’s International delivered to and picked up from Seattle, Washington. There were connections in Everett, Washington with the Empire Builder and its mountain goat symbol to points east such as Minneapolis and Chicago. Passengers going or arriving were generally always on an understandable Canadian Rocky Mountain High. Future Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney were political unknowns and Canada was still Canada.

At this station the nation spoke with pride and it still does, strangely enough, despite the McDonalds, converted Via Rail reduced service and its new dual role as a ‘cost effective’ bus station. Stainless steel cars once belonging to Canadian Pacific Railway remain a poignant reminder of the old days despite the railroaded progress of today. At the point where former Premier Bill Vander Zalm’s sky train connects to the sea bus terminal down in Coal Harbour – is where the CPR’s Canadian came home from Toronto and points east.

At my studios, there was one kind of photography I sidetracked…weddings! If I have to see one more groom and bride signing a register, I think I’ll walk down the aisle to complete irreverence. Even though that’s where the best photographic bread and butter are, I’d rather be toast!

Here amid the fumes of developer, stop bath and fixer, the photographic chemicals pose a number of metaphoric questions as to possible solutions. Have recent political developments created an environment where the populace is more alkaline, tempered by a type of stop-bathed complacency? Who is on the right track, the dumpster divers or the camouflaged members of Vancouver’s finest?

At the flea market the vendors make up an incredible variety of independent characters. There are hundreds of weekly regulars who come to wheel and deal, transfixed and addicted to finding that big bargoon fix.

In the 1940s during the war years the same red elongated terminal barn served as a Boeing aircraft manufacturing facility. Now it represents a flight from the norm, for those with rented tables and consumers propelled to ascend above the malady of their ground level existences.

My equipment, excluding trays, tripod, barn door lighting, and backdrop, mainly stems from roots in the City of Angels. There, with a Sergeant Friday exposure “Just the facts, ma’am” black and white glowing Sylvania TV upbringing, I was molded on Oxford Avenue. My parents operated a bakery downstairs. From our second floor ‘home’ we could see the Hollywood Hills in one direction and Western Avenue towards Watts in the other. The riots would come later. Who could have believed that a northern non-entity called Canada would someday become my home!?

Dad was a survivor; short, stubby, stubborn with a drive like a horse and a constitution of a pile driver. It had taken him six years, in Berlin during the mid-1930s, of apprenticeship training to become a certified baker. Outgoing and generous to the extreme, Werner’s Jewish background never was a hindrance in the beginning. That quickly changed, with a vengeance. 

In 1938 he was thrown into Saxonhausen, a camp close to Berlin. There on rock quarry detail he survived by keeping the swastika uniformed guards ‘entertained,’ polishing boots, showing them he could carry twice the required load of rocks from point A to point B, and thanking them for the ‘opportunity’ mein herr! He was a bulldog, waking up every morning in his barracks ready to go while yet another terminated his life rather than survive another day in hell!

What saved Dad, besides his determination, was a well-to-do relative in New York who managed to pull a few pre-war diplomatic strings. Documentation arrived in Saxonhausen with a life-saving visa out of Nazi Germany not only for himself but also a wife. Dad was not married. A fortunate mistake had been made. To save another soul, he married a friend of an acquaintance. In the basement of a house in Berlin, with curtains drawn, under a chupah (a covering) made of blankets and sheets they became man and wife. An agreement was concluded that divorce would be perfectly in order once out of Germany. Under palm trees, I came along a couple years later, but not in California. The visa was for the Philippines; connections were helpful but not enough to bring German citizens to Ellis Island. That could only occur after the war.

Under Manila skies, my future parents used ingenuity to bake Kaiser rolls, marzipan delights, and apple kuchen (cakes) for the local and German community (that they were Jewish was ‘overlooked’ for the moment, being so distant from the fatherland). Compared to Saxonhausen, this was heaven.

I was born in the basement of the Manila General Hospital making the grand entrance at the precise hour when air raid sirens blared and the Japanese invaded.

When the Second World War finally concluded, and with currency converted to gold buried under our rented Manila home, there was enough to literally dig out from under and come to America. By Pan Am clipper we arrived in New York in April 1949. The relatives wanted us to stay but Dad had this vision of Hollywood, ‘half-baked’ as Mom sometimes chuckled in a nostalgic, retrospective way.  We still had enough ‘dough’ to take the three-day coach ride from New York Central Station to the California dream.

CHAPTER 2

Mom and Dad both retained strong, unmistakable German accents. Throughout their Americanization, they spoke increasingly less German. Only if there was something at the dinner table not intended for my ears did that deutsche language come in handy.  The stars and stripes decorated both the bakery counter downstairs and Dad’s little study next to our living quarters above. On July 4th a huge flag always flew proudly at the entrance to our bakery called European Delights.

Although an only child, I wasn’t spoiled. Attending public school, I walked to and from Lincoln Elementary carrying a Gene Autry lunch bucket and a nutritious couple of sandwiches plus an apple, orange and one goody from the bakery. Mom put it together but I always helped out. High school was much the same, though with a fifteen minute longer walk.

Dad didn’t require all that much sleep, four to five hours, but when he did we had to tiptoe very carefully. Waking up due to a noise in the late afternoon or early evening, he’d be pretty grumpy.  Bakers’ hours were from shortly after midnight to four in the afternoon the next day. Mom was at the counter from 9am to 6pm.

Dad worked double duty for various reasons. Forgetting, no doubt, was one. Kneading the dough by hand and virtually preparing everything himself in the early hours was great physical and mental therapy as well.  Preparing birthday and anniversary cakes with artistic designs, colourful icings, and tasteful inscriptions provided an excellent outlet for the artist that he truly was as well. 

The taste of freedom and to prepare so much sweetness was a humbling honour for my father.  The competitive economic nature of the business also made long hours so necessary.

Milk dishes were always kept separate from the meat which was purchased from a kosher butcher. Mom and Dad kept dietary laws at home but outside they would eat conventional food in restaurants, except for pork products, crab, shellfish etc. There was a synagogue on Wilshire Boulevard we belonged to though the honour didn’t come cheap and sometimes required time and sacrifice to catch up with payments. Except for special occasions such as Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and of course the high holy days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) attendance was infrequent.

When my time came for adulthood at age thirteen, I took many lessons for my Bar Mitzvah and managed not to embarrass the rabbi nor my parents too much with my conduct.  Not that my Torah reading was without flaws but I managed. Dad arranged all the catering through colleagues in the food industry and baked with such pride and artistic fervor that cutting into the designs on the dozen cakes was like destroying canvases by Chagall. Nine relatives from New York flew in. There was no one from Europe left to be at my Torah reading or to attend the small but very warm reception downstairs at the synagogue. However we felt their presence in spirit and that morning, though Dad was in his finest suit we could literally see through his formality and envision the defiance in that Berlin baker, in prison clothing, carrying twice the load of rocks at the quarry in Saxonhausen while uniformed SS officers smiled with leather polish and satisfied contempt.  Mom, brimming with pride and tears in her eyes, looked like a queen. Nevertheless one could see past that too and envision her beauty and apprehension at that clandestine wedding ceremony in a Berlin basement home, windows covered, in 1938. I, their only child, was the hope for the future in a land where freedom reigned like royalty, in relative terms.

Dad’s constitution was still amazingly strong but from inside the past would, in the years that followed, begin paying its dues.  Enjoying the baked goods a bit too much and the heavy smoking habit daily didn’t help much either.

A very giving man was my father. Some survivors of the camps became introverted, completely anti-social. Not Dad, he was every day thankful for the opportunity to inhale freedom – despite the smog that increasingly on tough days resulted in precious little oxygen remaining. Sometimes the eyes would literally burn and tear due to the pollution as the Hollywood Hills floated back and forth through the smog. Nevertheless when a relative showed up on our doorstep or there was someone in the food industry to entertain, Dad turned into an instant tour guide, par excellence, no holds barred! A spin to Hollywood and Vine, off to Malibu, UCLA, Laguna Beach, Santa Barbara, or “How about the zoo in San Diego, Tijuana, Mexico, no problem, a piece of cake!” Mom stayed at home and kept the business going as best she could. 

If I wasn’t at school or could get out of helping out at the front counter, I’d head for the hills myself, not with a polished four-door Chrysler like Dad’s but on my two feet. I loved to walk because Los Angeles had so much to offer from a pedestrian’s point of view. The bus service was sparse and I couldn’t afford wheels. Living just off Third Street and Western Avenue was ideal. In a short time you could be at the Wiltern Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard, snacking at Van De Camps Bakery (never told Dad that though), smelling the aroma of Swiss chocolates or strolling by the Coconut Grove where years later Robert Kennedy took his last breath. In the opposite direction, I could be at Sunset Boulevard, the market where Regis Philbin might be snacking between shows, the Capitol Record Building, Hollywood Palace (for a short time also called the Jerry Lewis Theatre) and observing the blinded starlets walking the streets of Hollywood Boulevard.

Another more peaceful walk was in the direction of La Brea and Western Avenue. I could soak in stately Spanish-style houses, lush deep manicured lawns and palms continually nourished by water gurgling in the heat. At the end of the stroll, Farmer’s Market presented itself with CBS Studio City in the background. Often I was the only human on the sidewalks. I felt like a king. The City of Angels spent all those millions for their sidewalks so this baker’s son could have the pleasure of walking on them. Was America lined with gold or what?

The more conventional members of the human species were tooling about in gas-guzzling smog producers.

CHAPTER 3

Way back on one occasion from this more peaceful stroll, I decided to take the plunge and walk into a school located at the corner of Las Palmas and Third Avenue. Art Center had a reputation for turning out excellent commercial artists, photographers, and auto designers. A former Art Center graduate had designed the Ford Mustang in Detroit.

At high school the only ‘subject’ I enjoyed – besides the lunch break – was the photography club. Living in a darkroom with a Durst Enlarger for me was truly a positive development. Later on I enrolled in the school’s elective photographic art courses. This was to me what baking meant for Dad.  Neither, unfortunately – unless you were at the top of the heap – made very much dough. That didn’t matter, it was a creative vocation I was seriously thinking of embracing. To be accepted as an Art Center student though was a dream that came with a pretty hefty price tag – about four hundred dollars per semester plus materials, a fortune in those days.  However, the instructors were all working and successful in their fields.  Even Ansel Adams had taught there for a while.

Walking onto the relatively small campus with a conservative, not particularly ostentatious parking lot, building or even main entrance, I was struck by the simplicity and non-boastful appearance. Opposite a brochure rack listing entrance requirements, course listings, etc. there was a glass covered display case showing models of out-of-this-world automobiles (the type we call mundane and slightly old fashioned today), examples of cool commercial packaging design techniques, fashion and commercial photography.

That ‘chance’ stroll and diversion to inquire was, in a sense, similar to a major candid photograph. It would format me to put together a portfolio at the high school’s darkroom, develop more than a latent image for Mom and Dad’s support and permanently fix my hopes for acceptance the next year.

The first part was relatively simple and also served to give the grade twelve academic pressures a bit of a break as well. With ASA400 Tri-x black and white film I used one of the high school’s Ashai Pentax to capture scenes of the city. Everything was hand-held, recording shapes and unusual angles of people and architecture on walks to Wilshire, Sunset, and Hollywood Boulevards. Being a bit of a contrast freak, the films were purposely overdeveloped two minutes. The Grade 3 and 4 glossy, single weight 8x10 enlarging paper prints were dry mounted on 11x14 mat boards, pencil framed, and proudly presented to the Art Center’s committee for approval, along with the required signed papers.

The Vietnam War was heating up and so were my prospects of being drafted into service. That gave my parents an extra incentive to sign the school’s application forms and provide financial support. Even if that decision meant giving up membership in the synagogue for a while, so be it. I was their only kid and enrollment in legitimate higher education served as a buffer from being called up by Uncle Sam.

I was accepted and prepared for Art Center in September. The first requirement was not to use a 35mm camera for assignments. The small popular size was taboo for initial use. We had to learn to ‘stop looking and begin seeing.’ The perfect and only acceptable tool for that purpose we were told was a large format 4x5 view camera. That meant the pleasures of an upside down image on ground glass covered up by a black cloth, like turn-of-the-century photography. A film holder held 2 4x5 negatives, one on each side. This monster, with bellows like an accordion, could only be used in conjunction with a heavy tripod. I had to face the music without bellowing too much and flow with the swings and tilts of the cumbersome situation as best as one could. My instructors, in retrospect, certainly knew what they were doing because the basic discipline of working with such a large camera physically forced us to slow down to the speed of a sloth and plan each exposure like a director on set focusing on that ground glass even if one had to do a head stand!  Any distractions clearly stood out like sore thumbs for correction on that massive 4x5 ground glass. The premise was our eyes would become so trained that in six months we could effectively go down to 35mm, and see what needed to be changed before releasing the shutter. The cost of one sheet of 4x5 film was reason enough to become selective. Most of us turned into skilled photographic editors quickly.

At the school, a notice board provided a smorgasbord of 4x5s available for sale from students who had progressed or regressed down to 35mm candid flexibility. I would have loved a Linhof Technica with two Schneider lenses and a Majestic tripod for ‘only’ a thousand dollars. Included were a dozen stainless steel film holders, a processing tank, plus other neat ‘free’ goodies. I settled for a well-used Eastman Graphic View for one hundred eighty dollars, and a  basic tripod for twenty dollars, plus accessories for another thirty dollars. I was, after all, only a baker’s son.