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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The terminal city and the rhetoric of utopia: John Vanderpant’s photographs of terminal grain elevators Arnold, Grant


This thesis examines the photographs of terminal grain elevators produced by John Vanderpant, a successful Vancouver commercial photographer who also produced images that were consciously positioned within a high art discourse. Vanderpant turned to the grain elevator as subject matter in response to the remarks of an unidentified English critic who, while praising the images in a 1925 London exhibition of Vanderpant's work, noted they lacked an identifiably Canadian character. In taking up the grain elevator, Vanderpant positioned his work within the national visual culture constructed around the work of the Group of Seven. He also tapped into symbolic meanings which resonated around the elevator's modern functional architecture, an architecture which has been held up by Le Corbusier as a specifically North American expression of the engineer's rigor and purpose. In the midst of the prosperity enjoyed by Vancouver's urban bourgeoisie during the mid-1920s, the terminal elevators operating on Burrard Inlet embodied the promise of abundance held out by an increasingly centralized and modernized resource economy. Vanderpant's earliest elevator photographs employed the stylistics of Pictorialism, a genre of photography that relied on soft focus and hazy atmospheric effect to suggest a painterly surface. In response to the tension between his formal vocabulary and the modernity of his subject matter, Vanderpant rejected Pictorialism as a mode of representation that "travelled by horsecart midst the progress of motor power on wheel and wing." Throughout the 1930s he worked within a modernist idiom that emphasized what were seen to be the intrinsic properties of photographic technology: sharp focus, clearly delineated form, and tilted perspective. His modernist elevator photographs verged on geometric abstraction, in an attempt to penetrate "superficial appearance" and reveal the underlying "strength and sublime simplicity" of the elevator's structure. Combining an interest in mysticism and a Kantian understanding of aesthetic experience, Vanderpant accessed a version of modernism that held onto an optimistic, Utopian vision in the face of the social fragmentation of the Depression. My thesis addresses the position of Vanderpant's elevator photographs, and the shift in his aesthetic vocabulary marked out by these works, in relation to the construction of a national movement in Canadian visual art and an historical context in which the state and capital were employing specific measures to unify and transform a fractured social body. I argue that, within this context, Vanderpant's project was fragile and contradictory. Despite the antimaterialism he articulated as the Depression advanced, the ideological force of Vanderpant's Utopian vision would seem to have been aligned with the forms of modern scientific discipline, such as Taylorism, that promised Utopia through success in production while naturalizing dominative social relations.

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