As a middle-aged Italian-Canadian waitress strides through the narrow straights of compact restaurant tables, a customer flags her down and asks about a series of photographs hanging on the western wall of Anton’s Pasta restaurant in north Burnaby.
“Are those Foncie’s?” asks an older, bearded, grey-haired man, taking a minute away from a half-eaten red mountain of fusilli alla Romana to yell his question over the dull roar of the bustling restaurant.
The wall is covered with many pictures but five of them are similar in size, quality and composition.
The weathered waitress, with frazzled, dark hair and heavy mascara, studies the black-and-white photography and turns back to the man with vibrant speckles of tomato sauce in his salt-and-pepper beard.
“Yes, they are,” she answers with triumphant exclamation. “You’ve got a good eye. They are all photos of Tony, the owner, walking downtown with his friends.”
One of the photographs dominates the rest of the images on the wall. A group of young men, wearing black leather jackets and white shirts, with slicked back hair, pose and wait for the street photographer’s flash to illuminate the Granville strip in front of Scott’s Restaurant.
The waitress and the man carry on with a brief-friendly conversation about how uncommon it is to see street photography on display.
Five simple photographs, hanging on the dimly lit wall of Anton’s pasta bar, have a lot to say about Vancouver’s past, but they do not come across as powerful documents of history. Many photographs like these have been lost over time or are buried within ancient family photo albums.
Despite being forgotten, these photographs continue to tell everyday life stories of millions of people from Vancouver and around the world.
For over half a century, one man stood on the corner of Granville and Robson and made a living photographing an endless stream of people passing through Vancouver’s downtown.
Alfonso “Foncie” Pulice began his career as a Vancouver street photographer in 1934 and didn’t stop until 1979. During this time, Foncie was a permanent fixture, flashing thousands of photos along Granville, Robson and Georgia streets and even at the Pacific National Exhibition.
At the time, each picture was a trivial reminder of a night out on the town or a quaint portrait but, now, these photographs are little family treasures, exposing life as it was during a bygone era.
“Everyone feels famous under the glow and glitter…”
Hidden between Victorian-era Vancouver and the psychedelic ‘60s exhibits along the crowded halls of the Museum of Vancouver, there is a small but meaningful exhibit of Foncie’s tools and work in a room dedicated to the splendor of the 1950s.
A television in the corner constantly reminds visitors of the golden days of the ‘50s with a short film featuring the Pacific National Exhibition’s world record-sized relief map of British Columbia, highlights from the Vancouver Grey Cup in 1955 and a commercial for Sylvania light bulbs.
“Step right up and win the pretty girl a teddy-bear,” the voice on the television says almost every seven minutes. The crackling static from the film’s music carries through the room of artifacts and adds an authentic ambience of 1950s noise.
Basking beneath the hot-pink glow of the Silver Grill Cafe’s neon sign stands what appears to be a space-aged robot from a science-fiction novel. Despite its non-threatening appearance, the machine is held captive behind a Plexiglas box.
Standing about four feet tall, cast in a dull, beat-up metallic armour, Foncie’s camera resembles a hybrid of R2D2 and Short-circuit with a wide base, an oblong elliptical camera for a head, a large lens and viewfinder for eyes, and a flash bulb protruding from its shiny skull like a small satellite dish.
To complete the space-aged look, the words “electric photos” are printed across the front of the machine in bold, italicized sans serif caps.
At first, Foncie’s bizarre camera turned quite a few heads and enticed many people to walk by for a photo opportunity.
Cecil Hutchison, a local handyman, was hired to engineer and build Foncie’s dream electronic photographing machine. The camera was powered by a car battery and it was made out of a collection of old war surplus materials, readily available in the decades after World War II.
The large base, or the body of the camera, was actually a cart, modified to hold “movie reels” full of film so Foncie could take hundreds of photos before changing film or going back to his shop to acquire more reels.
The metal casting is beat up, with scratches and dents, giving character and life to the droid-like machine. Every year of Foncie’s career is accounted for by a rough edge or a deep scar running along the body of his camera.
“The significance of Foncie’s photography to Vancouver’s history lies in the democracy of the street photographer’s camera,” Wendy Nichols, curator of collections at the Museum of Vancouver, said. “Foncie captured the faces of Vancouver residents and visitors to the city as they experienced the excitement and pleasures of shopping trips, big dates and nights out.”
Inches away from Foncie’s encapsulated camera is a small book with two dozen photos of frozen moments of families and friends out on Granville Street experiencing those excitements and pleasures.
In the book is a photograph of David Jensen taken in 1952. It is old photograph of a young boy dressed in formal Scottish dance dress. Jensen stands ridged and firm on the street, without a smile, posing for the picture after, most likely, being persuaded by his parents. A small token of remembrance of a day long ago.
Another photo captured Johnny Andrews and Eunice Tossell, arms locked in mid-stride as they walked to a restaurant along Granville Street to enjoy a meal and a movie while on a date. To their right, on the street, a new Ford Fairlane with powder-blue trim and a big beautiful chrome bumper passes by the couple.
Without anything being said, the couple simultaneously notices Foncie standing with his camera.
With the pop of the flash and the click of the shutter turning at 1/60th of a second, the moment was frozen and another portrait was painted from silver halides burning light to the reel of film.
Taken by surprise, Andrews and Tossell were handed a retrieval slip explaining Foncie’s rules and regulations for claiming their street portrait.
Next to the beat-up metallic camera and the small black book of photos is an example of the retrieval stub and the essential information required for customer pickup:
Foncie’s Fotos: Original street and flash photography. Call and see a natural living picture of yourself and friends for a lasting souvenir, at Maison Henri Limited Jewelry and Gift Shop. 550 Granville – Vancouver.
… three for fifty cents…
… six for seventy-five cents…
… and eight for one dollar…
If the customer wanted, they could visit Foncie’s store the next day to view a proof of the photo and to place an order for the quantity and size for copies of the photo. The negatives were kept on file in Foncie’s shop for only a year. After that they were discarded in order to maintain room for the endless reels of new film.
“There were other street photographers in Vancouver,” says Nichols. “However, Foncie was the most prolific and best remembered. In addition to the documentary use of his photographs, the shared memory of this man and his business by so many Vancouverites is a wonderful Vancouver story.”
In 1934, at the age of 20, Foncie started his career as an assistant to Vancouver street photographer Joe Iaci. Street photography, during the 1930s and ‘40s, was a common business practiced in cities across North America. During that time, film was not readily available to the general public because of rationing established during the war years.
“The public couldn’t get film, so street photographers were all they had,” explained Foncie during a 1979 interview with the Province. “Servicemen would come home on leave, they’d have pictures taken. Families would get together, we’d take their picture. At one time, I was taking 4,000 to 5,000 pictures every day.”
By the 1950s, there were a handful of photographers running their street portrait business in Vancouver but Foncie was the most recognizable because of his bizarrely unique portable camera and his quick-on-the-draw, shutter-happy photographic methods.
“Pulice practised a kind of benign surveillance, capturing again and again that moment in which his subjects begin to arrange themselves,” Peter Cully said in The Just Past of Photography in Vancouver, a book dedicated to showcasing the careers of Vancouver photographers. “For a long time these photographs disturbed me. The people in them seemed to be robbed of their humanity by the obtrusiveness of Pulice’s technique. But the fact that Pulice’s subjects are so often captured in process, in the split second preceding pose, which gives them a purity and power of expression.”
Along with the successes and joyful pictures, Foncie’s work inadvertently captured millions of ordinary people dealing with personal problems. There are countless photographs of people dealing with problems like migraines, cancer and even a death of a friend or a family member. Even though these ailments vary with each picture, there are volumes of untold stories hidden behind the smiles and blank stares of those caught by Foncie’s flash.
The 1950s and ‘60s were the golden age for “Foncie’s Fotos.” The streets of Vancouver hummed with life and pulsated like the flicker of the yellow, pink and blue neon lights that lit the avenues of entertainment. One by one, Foncie captured thousands of faces during the days and hundreds more when the sun went down. With the push of a button and the pop of the flash a nobody suddenly became a somebody, immortalized under the glow and glitter of the Granville sidewalk.
Foncie worked without taking much time off for vacations or days of rest. After taking pictures for 45 years, it is believed that Foncie photographed more people than anyone who ever lived. Various assumptions have calculated that Foncie could have taken anywhere from two to 20 million photographs during his life time.
Even with the cost of compact cameras dropping and the explosion of amateur photography during the 1970s, Foncie still managed to make a living taking portraits of new generations of people passing on the street.
Foncie called it quits in 1979 because he had promised himself that he would leave the business when he turned 65. He was the last the street photographers left on the block. With Foncie’s retirement came the end of spontaneous explosions of a flash bulb stretching dancing shadows along the cement sidewalks under Vancouver’s electric neon nights.
On retiring, Foncie, and his wife Ann, left Vancouver and settled in Kelowna. Foncie died in 2003, at the age of 88.
Hiding in the crawlspace with albums of aging eras…
Thousands of Foncie’s photos have been displaced across Canada and throughout countries around the world, but some of the most meaningful discoveries come close to home.
Three, to be exact.
Lodged in an old album are two nearly identical street portraits of two well-dressed men. The pictures were taken on separate occasions but the location of the camera and the positioning of the two men are strikingly similar.
Both photographs were taken along Granville Street under a flashing sign that read “Honey Dew.” The older man, in both pictures, is wearing a stiff brimmed fedora and a long buttoned-up overcoat. His left hand is comfortably placed in the coat’s pocket, but he is smoking from a pipe in only one of the photographs.
There are no distinguishable markings to identify that these pictures were taken by Foncie Pulice. On the back of both photos, written in shaky elderly hand-writing, are the names Earnest Bruun and Keno Balla, dating from 1933 and ‘35. Balla was my great-great-uncle and Brunn was his father-in-law. Since both men died before I was able to form tangible memories, I was intent with understanding who these men were and my grandparents were more than happy to reminisce about distant days and family matters.
It is unlikely that Foncie was the photographer of either of those sepia-stained pictures. One was taken in 1933, which was before Foncie started learning the tricks of the trade from Iaci. The second photo is dated 1935 and there are no distinct markings on the back that identify the photographer but it does share compositional elements to Foncie’s photos. Despite a being a little unfocused and showing areas of camera blur, the angle and crop are virtually identical to the vast majority of his later work.
Lost within a tight crawlspace, overcrowded with forgotten board games, discarded Black and Decker manuals and Christmas wrapping paper, was a street portrait from late March 1970.
In the photo are two smiling young women, both wearing long overcoats, with loose-fitting pants and casual footwear. They are walking along the sidewalk carrying large, unmarked paper bags full of various items acquired during their day on the town.
The photograph was pasted into a scrapbook my mother had made during her youth, documenting memorable moments she had experienced in her teens.
After steaming the back of the photograph with an electric kitchen kettle, the faded green construction paper was slowly peeled off. In smudged black ink, the words “FONCIES FOTOS” were unveiled from the musty pages of the aged scrapbook.
Along with the photograph was a flyer for a bingo night and other collectables that add depth and understanding to the girl’s story. In the ledger is a narrative of the days events scribbled out in a 16-year-old girl’s hand. The photograph was an anchor that provided visual reference to a day in Linda Evans’, my mother’s, life.
One page of the scrapbook was dedicated to the events leading up to Burnaby Spade Club’s Bingo fundraiser night. Unfolding the square flyer glued pages revealed the advertising for the fundraiser. In simple purple and blue text, the flyer proclaimed that all “proceeds go to buying roller skates for the retarded children of the Donald Paterson School.”
“The Bingo hasn’t happened yet but things sure are rolling,” she wrote. “Every Saturday, Marny Malmgren and myself are out and about. We are in charge of getting prizes donated. We’re doing fantastic!”
A list identified a wide range of donations including pillows from Woolworths, a poncho from an Indian shop and boxes of chocolates from Rexall Canadian Pharmacies.
“It’s a lot of fun. Of course we have to treat ourselves to lunch, so we go to crazy places,” Evans wrote and drew an arrow down to a napkin from Brother Jon’s restaurant in Gastown. Multi-coloured felt pen doodles stain the delicate paper napkin, suggesting the high school girl’s whimsical daydreams and playful lunch etiquette.
After lunch, the girls left Gastown and headed towards Granville Street. Evans and Marny Malmgren, clutching oversized parcels of pillows and other donated goods, noticed the street photographer take aim a split second before the powerful flash enveloped the scene.
Ghost stories and faded faces…
There is no mystery to Alfonso Foncie Pulice’s life. He was a man with an astounding work ethic and a love for photographing. Together, these traits carried his career 40 years and produced millions of little mementos for the masses to purchase, forget and discover years later.
Foncie’s photos are delicate windows to the past that reminds us of Vancouver’s young but diverse history. The photographs are testaments of Vancouver’s cultural-identity from street level.
The importance of Foncie is not reliant on the man but on the photo and how it continues to relive those lost days even decades after they happened. It’s the simple pleasures we get from revisiting or even understanding a memory of a long lost moment.
Foncie’s photos are everywhere, you just need to know where to find them.