Outsiders may refer to Vancouver as the City of Glass, but those of us who reside in the not-so-shiny underbelly—that is, anywhere outside of the downtown core—are more familiar with its wood, stucco, and brick. It is in these materials, and the structures they form, that the true narratives of the city are told.
Photographer Kevin Lanthier has been fascinated with Vancouver’s streetscapes since 2009, when he was looking for a basement apartment to rent and realized that every place he saw was exactly the same. He identified the home’s design as a sort of “new” version of the love-to-hate Vancouver Special: a wider, bigger variety that had room for two ground-level suites (the only way to afford a mortgage in today’s real estate bubble). And so, Lanthier began capturing the city’s home architecture trends with his camera, building out a series that is on show at Ian Tan Gallery from now until Aug. 31, 2017. “The old houses on the east side, the old houses on the west side, they just have a sort of different feel about them,” Lanthier explains as he walks through “The Special,” as the exhibition has been appropriately dubbed. “And it sort of spilled out from there, so I started looking at different neighbourhoods and the stories about the city.”
Each image represents a different architectural style, from the storybook homes of the west side to the Victorian ones of the east—and, of course, those ubiquitous Specials. The photographs are striking on their own, each with five structures that paint very distinct and vivid pictures of Vancouver. But perhaps even more striking is the knowledge that these images are actually composites, meaning Lanthier photographed each home individually and then put them together on one landscape using Photoshop. In fact, each aspect of every composite—from the gates between homes, to the sky above, to the trees behind—was photographed on its own and then morphed together to create something that teeters on the line between fact and fiction. The structures all exist, but not in that context; as such, Lanthier forces the viewer to hone in on his specific agenda. “I’m interested in creating things that tell stories, convey narratives, and create moods that you just can’t do by going and finding a place and taking a picture,” Lanthier explains. “But I want it to look photo-realistic at the same time. I want to suspend that disbelief so that people think this could be a photograph.” Adding to that is the flattened perspective of each piece; rather than showing the buildings with sides and depth, Lanthier made them flat against their backgrounds. “You know when you tell a kid to draw a house, and they draw a square and draw a triangle on top of it and say that’s a house? Really flattening out the perspective reduces it down to that symbol, but because it is made up of real photographs, people buy it first as reality,” he says. “And so it creates that space between reality and fantasy that I think is really interesting to live in.”
Together, the photos of “The Special” can spark discussions about our city’s transient past and present. How much longer will the whimsical heritage homes outlast surging property taxes? How many more Specials will be knocked down to build something prettier?
One of Lanthier’s works, Vancouver Vanishes, shows homes in various states of disrepair, upheaval, and construction. Since the photographs were taken a few years ago, some of those houses have already been torn down.