A row of buildings back onto a railroad track in Vancouver. (Greg Girard / Under Vancouver)

Greg Girard captures ‘the overlooked and the unloved’

Greg Girard couldn't wait to get out of Burnaby as a young man. Now back in Metro Vancouver, he's looking at the changes in the region.

By Dustin Godfrey | March 4, 2022 |5:00 am

A pair of shadows are huddled together under an awning, as a solitary car’s brake lights reflect off the surface of the wet pavement of a near-barren parking lot.

The photograph, taken in 1976 at a Burnaby grocery store, is dark and misty and has an almost film noir esthetic to it. The two discernible humans in the photo are just silhouettes backlit by the grocery store.

Near the right edge of the frame, a red neon sign broadcasts the location, albeit with a missing letter: SUPER VA_U.

The photograph, taken by Greg Girard, who grew up in the Royal Oak area, appears as a two-page spread in his 2017 book Under Vancouver. The photo is sparsely detailed, save for a handful of sources of light—a telephone booth, the car lights, a few distant streetlights, and that big neon sign and its reflection in the rain-soaked parking lot.

“It, to me, is just like the absolute desolation of growing up in the suburbs—have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and just that utter wanting to get out feeling,” Girard says.

He doesn’t mean it as an insult to Burnaby—he’s speaking to the near universal teenage urge to get away. But for him, having grown up in the city from young childhood to his late teens, Burnaby “was my departure point.”

A pair of huddled figures stand below the awning at a closed Super Valu in Burnaby in 1976. (Greg Girard / Under Vancouver)
A pair of huddled figures stand below the awning at a closed Super Valu in Burnaby in 1976. (Greg Girard / Under Vancouver)

“There’s also just that thing of growing up in a small place where the walkable activity is a payphone at a closed supermarket. That’s the only beacon of life,” Girard says.

“That’s just my teenage years [and] I think a lot of people’s teenage years.”

The big nights for him were instead spent heading to Vancouver, where he captured sides of the city typically not seen. In one, the backside of a billboard. In another, a row of buildings from the side facing a railroad track—specifically, not the side that was built for looking at.

And like many teenagers looking for a break, he got away—far, far away.

The other side of the world

In the 1970s, Girard flew off at age 18—essentially the moment he got a chance—landing in Asia. There, he would find himself visiting any number of countries.

Documented on his website are photos from Vietnam, Japan, and Hong Kong, among others.

He didn’t originally go there for photography—at least, not professionally.

But the globetrotting photographer took his camera along with him, and he captured the scenes around him.

At one point, he landed a job with the BBC’s Hong Kong bureau, but not doing photography. He did newsgathering and recording sound, for the most part.

A haunting photo from Greg Girard's 2019 book Tokyo-Yokosuka 1976-1983 shows a pair of schoolgirls. (Greg Girard / Tokyo-Yokosuka 1976-1983)
A pair of schoolgirls in a haunting photo from Greg Girard’s 2019 book Tokyo-Yokosuka 1976-1983. (Greg Girard / Tokyo-Yokosuka 1976-1983)

But that BBC job, flying around covering news stories around the region, he says was “what really allowed me to make that transition to make a living” doing photography.

He was trained essentially over a weekend before being sent out into the field.

“That was a bit of a baptism by fire experience. And that taught me what newsgathering was about for television. And I used what I learned there to transfer to the magazine world,” Girard says.

“[You] go somewhere you’ve never been before, kind of hit the ground running, do your work, and get the pictures out. And in those days, that meant putting film on an airplane and sending air cargo to London or New York, Paris.”

Girard’s first paid work

After first leaving Canada at 18, it wasn’t until he was 32 that he found his profession in photography.

“I would see working photographers, and I figured I could do that,” he says.

And he got his first major publication in Hong Kong-based magazine Asiaweek, which ran English-language coverage of Asia before it closed in 2001.

The photos were from the Sri Lankan civil war, covering fighting between the country’s government and the Tamil Tigers.

“The thing that allowed me to change from being a sound artist to a photographer was … getting into an area where there was fighting going on between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels and coming back with a set of pictures about the war that was pretty strong,” Girard says.

Spots of light show signs of life in the Kowloon Walled City, a densely populated ungoverned area in Hong Kong, where residents built homemade highrises. (Greg Girard / City of Darkness)
Spots of light show signs of life in 1987 in the  Kowloon Walled City, a former densely populated, ungoverned area in Hong Kong, where residents built homemade highrises. The area was demolished in the mid-1990s. (Greg Girard / City of Darkness)

Asiaweek offered him a job after that, and he stayed on for a year before starting freelancing for publications like Time and Newsweek.

“[I went] pretty hard for a few years, and in a way, it kind of set aside … the kind of photography I was doing, which was just about the poetics of daily life, really,” he says.

“It wasn’t about anything that could appear in a magazine, or a Time or Newsweek or something like that.”

As a result, he says, he was looking at the world through a different lens than he peered through before he got into photojournalism.

‘The poetics of life’

Girard did find his way back to those “poetics of life.”

He’s published at least eight books of photography, much of which derives from his travels in the 1970s and 1980s.

The photography is, geographically speaking, all over the map. Photos on his site weave an intricate web of travels throughout that time: Texas in 1979; Oregon in 1981; Los Angeles in 1976; Yokosuka, Japan in 1976; Pusan, South Korea in 1976; Hong Kong in 1974; Ubon, Thailand in 1977.

The captions go on and on.

But throughout his photography, his style and the themes he explores remain more or less the same.

“It leans towards the overlooked and the unloved, and the things that are just kind of part of the residue of the way we live and how we make our world, what that looks like,” Girard says of his work.

A boy sits in the living area at the back of a shop in the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong while an adult tends the shop. (Greg Girard / City of Darkness)
A boy sits in the living area at the back of a shop in the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong while an adult tends the shop in 1990. (Greg Girard / City of Darkness)

There’s a kind of loneliness or even isolation that shows up in his photography. His photos are most often unpopulated—a narrow, empty street; tables surrounded by empty chairs; a vacant barber chair.

And even many of his photographs that do contain people still manage to portray a certain kind of isolation. It’s a lone person on a rooftop, illuminated by scarlet red neon lighting peering out over a city blanketed by nightfall. Or a boy sitting in the living area in the back of a shop while an adult, around the corner, attending the shop—both alone and separated from each other by a wall.

Signs of life at night

That isolation is perhaps aided by his affinity for shooting at night

“The place looks a certain way during the day and looks a certain way at night. And it might not be interesting to photograph during the day, but at night, just because of the way a streetlight is falling on it, it can have something else going on,” he says.

In a 1981 photo, a twilight sky looms over a worn-down rectangle of a brick building on Franklin Street in Vancouver, with a car parked outside. The street is deserted, but lights illuminate a handful of the windows, hinting at the life inside.

Light shining out of windows is, in many of his photos, one of the only signs of life.

A worn-down building is overshadowed by modern skyscrapers in Shanghai in 2001. (Greg Girard / Phantom of Shanghai)
A worn-down building is overshadowed by modern skyscrapers in Shanghai in 2001. (Greg Girard / Phantom of Shanghai)

And whereas most people would see night as the time when life gets tucked away until sunrise, the tungsten glow of indoor lighting in one Shanghai photo even shows life where it was otherwise invisible.

“So much of the city was demolished, and there was always some kind of holdout in one piece of a row of townhouses that was leftover,” he says.

“It looked demolished during the day, but at night I’m seeing the light on, that it’s occupied. So the night view really served the purpose of what was going on in that city.”

His night photography may have been a byproduct of working regular jobs during the day, but he says he was always drawn to the darker hours.

“I didn’t have to think of nighttime as some leftover part of the day for me to work. It was like a go-to part of the day, so that served my purposes really well,” he says.

Back home in Metro Vancouver

It’s been half a century since Girard snapped the first photos that would eventually appear in Under Vancouver. And he’s been back in Metro Vancouver for about 10 years, now, living in Surrey.

Much of his photography in Asia captures changes in communities. A decrepit or abandoned house will serve as the foreground for modern skyscrapers, or an aging apartment complex will sit directly next door to an opulent house with White House-like pillars adorning the facade.

And while he’s gone from some of the most densely populated urban areas in the world to living in a low-density suburb, he’s found familiarity back home.

Since he’s come back to BC, he’s been noticing changes, particularly in the suburbs.

“I can’t help but notice what’s still around, and in some cases, surprisingly. And you wonder: how much longer?” Girard says.

He’s drawn to things that may not have an “expiry date” but are “past [their] peak moment[s],” like a 10- or 15-year-old car.

A brick building on a deserted street in Vancouver in 1981. (Greg Girard / Under Vancouver)
A brick building on a deserted street in Vancouver in 1981. (Greg Girard / Under Vancouver)

“It doesn’t look retro, just a bit stale. I always like photographing those kinds of things before the retro spotlight hits,” he says.

“I think that spotlight of ‘this is not going to be here much longer,’ I can see it in certain parts of Burnaby, where maybe a few years ago it looked normal. Now you can see this can’t last, like a two- or three-floor walk-up apartment building near Kingsway.”

And that doesn’t just apply to people’s homes, he says.

“The individual, idiosyncratic small footprint that a commercial strip like Kingsway used to have, now, like any place that has substantial traffic, is corporatized.”

To see more of Greg Girard’s work, check out his Instagram page @GregforaDay.

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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