Vancouver’s Golden Era of Photojournalism

Glenn Baglo reflects on his 42 years documenting the city of Vancouver. 

Ana Maria Caicedo, Community Relations Manager 

On a warm August day in 1971, an estimated 2,000 people gathered in Gastown’s Maple Tree Square for a marijuana smoke-in street party. Just one month earlier, Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell had mobilized a new policing strategy dubbed “Operation Dustpan” to eradicate the influx of counter-culture, cannabis-smoking youth in Vancouver. Police arrested 59 people on possession or trafficking charges during the first 10 days of implementing the strategy. In protest, Vancouver members of the Youth International Party organized the smoke-in, writing articles in The Georgia Straight to promote the event.  

Glenn Baglo, then a 22-year-old junior photographer at The Vancouver Sun, arrived early on to capture the scene. The young photographer was bent on revolutionizing the paper’s approach to photography. “The Sun at the time used tons of pictures, lots of pictures. But a lot of the pictures were vacuous, pointless space-fillers,” he said. “I wanted to change it, to have more news orientation towards the stuff.”   

As an aspiring photojournalist, Baglo sent a portfolio of his work to a columnist at Camera 35 magazine. To his surprise, the columnist wrote him back. “He actually responded with a two-page, typewritten, single-spaced letter advising me not to pursue a job in photography,” said Baglo.  

After working for the now-defunct Ladner Optimist and Lionsgate Times, Baglo’s images were spotted by a managing editor at The Vancouver Sun, who offered him a summer gig at the paper. The four-month stint turned into a decades-long career. 

“Nobody worked Saturdays except the juniors, so that’s how I ended up with that assignment,” he said, referring to the smoke-in. Among the crowd were young dancing hippies, families with children, and bystanders who came to observe the scene. Some were smoking weed, some not. A giant 10 foot-long mock spliff was lit, and ice cream bars were being handed out.  

A giant mock spliff is lit at a Gastown marijuana smoke-in street party, which later developed into The Gastown Riot. August 7, 1971. Glenn Baglo
Material published with the express permission of: Vancouver Sun, a division of Post Media Network Inc. 

Towards the evening, the peaceful gathering was interrupted when mounted police officers arrived. Operating on a false report that windows had been broken, they charged the crowd. Baglo was right in the middle of it.  

“All the crowd split each way, and the cops went after them, and I ended up in the middle,” he recounted. Mounted police cornered people into doorways, beating them bloody with riot batons. One of the officers reached for Baglo’s camera, managing to rip off the strap as Baglo gripped tightly, narrowly avoiding getting trampled by the horses. 79 people were arrested, 38 of them were charged. It would come to be known as the Gastown Riot, and Baglo’s photographs from that evening revealed a grotesque display of police brutality that shocked the greater public and prompted an inquiry into the event by the Supreme Court of British Columbia.  

Baglo, who retired in 2012, spent 42 years at The Vancouver Sun documenting Vancouver. Influenced by his father, who was a Lutheran minister and hobbyist photographer, Baglo made his first prints from a Kodak box brownie camera at the age of 12, later taking photos for his high school dances and sports matches. “I learned that if you took pictures for the teachers you could get good grades without having to do the work,” he chuckled.  

I first encountered Baglo’s images in the photography book “Vancouver in the Seventies” by research librarian Kate Bird. Bird worked at The Vancouver Sun and The Province for 25 years as a graphics librarian. When she started, the photographers at each paper would shoot about 4,000 assignments annually, accumulating around 10,000 rolls of film each per year. Her job was to index the entire collection of negatives on a computer database.  

“I was ambitious about what we could put in at the beginning, but then that had to be pared down just by the sheer magnitude of it,” she laughed. 

In the mid-2000s, after working as a research librarian for other authors, Bird was approached by Greystone Publishing, who asked if she was interested in curating a photography book.  

The resulting book, published in 2016, is an expansive collection of photographs that showcases the plurality of newsroom photography in the 70s. “I wanted… to show the breadth of what was covered by news photographers at that time,” Bird told me.  

Flag-waving students from Van Home elementary school mark the start of Canada Week at the Vancouver courthouse. June 21, 1975. Glenn Baglo.
Material published with the express permission of: Vancouver Sun, a division of Post Media Network Inc. 

The photographs composed a portrait of Vancouver I was unfamiliar with and fascinated by. One photograph, taken in 1975 by Baglo, caught my eye. It shows children of varying ethnicities during a Canada week school assembly. They look dazed as they stare off in different directions, waving miniature Canadian flags. This photograph made me realize – in a way that only a photograph could – the wealth of stories and history of Vancouver that I have yet to explore, a history beyond the sanitized stories of the same white, male Canadian figures that were taught to me during my public school days. 

As I traced the silky black and white pages of the book, Baglo’s name kept appearing under each of my favourite images. I was particularly drawn to a photograph of a nude family embracing in the ocean, taken in 1971 at Wreck Beach. “I had them stand carefully, and waited for a wave to come to hide all the naughty bits,” Baglo recounted. It’s an image that emulates the kind of fleeting intimacy that makes his work so magnetic.   

A hippie family at Wreck Beach. July 19, 1971. Glenn Baglo.
Material published with the express permission of: Vancouver Sun, a division of Post Media Network Inc. 

“In the early 70s, Glenn was a young man. He was like a young hippie, and so he had this other take that some of the guys that were in their forties and fifties might not have had,” Bird observed. “So for instance, they would send him to rock concerts ‘cause the older guys didn’t like it.”  

Before the 60s and 70s, Bird explained, stiff, posed photographs were the dominating style of newspaper photography. “There was no such thing as a candid shot,” she stressed. In the 60s and 70s, American photojournalists like Robert Frank spearheaded a style of photojournalism that favoured the unposed and realistic.  

Looking at Baglo’s photographs, the influence is evident. “Glenn was, at that point in his young career, a young guy working at a newspaper, and he had that documentary style that was the new way – whereas the older guys that were working at the paper were still doing that posed thing from the past,” noted Bird.  

Baglo’s photographs reminded me of the decisive moment, a term coined by pioneer photojournalist Henri Cartier Bresson that emphasizes the timing of a photograph – the defining click of the shutter that suspends action and tension, separating an engaging photograph from a mundane one. Anticipation, Baglo explained, is key. “I would hang around for hours waiting for the picture to appear,” he recalled.  

As I spoke, he got up to search for a photography book by Cartier-Bresson, but couldn’t find it, so he handed me a W. Eugene Smith book instead, his favourite photographer. Sunlight spilled over the 35mm and medium format analogue cameras that lined his shelf.  

He pulled a small, immaculately-kept 35mm camera off the shelf and placed it in my hands. I examined it closely. It’s a Leica M4 Rangefinder, the same camera he used to photograph Rod Stewart at his concert in 1971. “It’s not exactly intimidating,” Baglo remarked. I handed the camera back to him.  

“When I was shooting – I’m basically like this – I got both eyes open,” he said as he lifted the camera up to his face, one eye under the viewfinder, the other looking directly at me. “So you talk about anticipation – you can see stuff moving in from the sides, and anticipate the person entering the frame, and see what’s going on around. Somehow-or-other, by looking at them like this, they’re making contact with you, not necessarily just the eyeball of the camera, right?” 

In the 1980s Baglo was promoted to Assistant Graphics Editor, a time he doesn’t remember fondly.  “[I] worked my way up to the point of being totally useless,” he groaned. “It was like eight years of attending meetings I didn’t wanna go to.” Baglo eventually returned to working as a photographer, but by that time the age of image control had arrived.  

“PR people would go crazy because they wanted to ‘help’ me, and I didn’t want any help, I just wanted to observe and I wanted them to go away so that I could concentrate on what I was doing!” he exclaimed. “These days I don’t think you can get rid of a PR person. It doesn’t matter what you’re covering, they have to be there to try and manipulate the picture. That drove me crazy in the end.”  

In 1994, the Commonwealth Games were held in Victoria, and demand for quick turnaround times prompted The Vancouver Sun and The Province to experiment with digital cameras for the first time. The improved efficiency and potential cost savings lead the papers to purchase twenty Kodak/AP NC2000 cameras in 1995. A collaboration between Kodak and The Associated Press, the camera shot at 1.3 megapixels and cost approximately $17,000 at the time (to compare, an iPhone today shoots 12 megapixels and costs around $1,000). The Vancouver Sun and The Province became the first newspapers in the world to switch their photo departments to digital. It marked the end of an era of analogue photojournalism, and the methodology and aesthetics that came with it.  

“When you think of over 4,000 assignments per year, that’s covering all aspects of the city,” Bird observed. “Especially at a time when – unlike now when people have their own camera on their phone and can take a picture any old time – back then, not that many people were photographing the city except for photographers and artists, and various people like that. It’s quite amazing how much they covered everything that was going on in the city.” 

With so much news photography and video content now being crowdsourced digitally, it seems as though photojournalism, at least in its traditional identity, has suffered a death.  

“The business has undergone so many changes and is having such a hard time that – back in the day, with The Vancouver Sun in the 70s, there would have been almost, you know, 20 photographers. Now there’s, you know, one, or two,” said Bird. 

It’s not just the profession that’s suffered. One of the most remarkable things about Baglo’s photographs is the people within them and their ease with being photographed. 

I asked Baglo about a photograph of a crowd of fans at the Rod Stewart concert in 1971. It displays a mass of people, so many they blur beyond the frame. A woman is centred, with her arms dangling above her, she looks directly into the camera. I think of how her gaze embraces the lens, how unaware the other fans are of the presence of the camera. It seems impossible, I say to him, to capture that kind of image today. With online platforms like Instagram and Facebook encouraging the public promotion of self through photographs, it seems people have cultivated an association between being photographed and being exposed or surveilled.  

“I think people are posing all the time,” Baglo contemplated. “With everyone taking pictures with their cellphones and the like and then the subjects all have their preferred smile that they wear for the camera – I don’t know how you get an honest picture anymore.”  

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