Bob Cain: Hornby Island’s photographer laureate

Bob Cain: Hornby Island’s photographer laureate

PHOTO: Sand castle building, Tribune Bay, circa 1978. For a gallery of Bob Cain’s photography, click here.

Photographer Bob Cain has documented life on Hornby Island for nearly 50 years, capturing the people, events and rituals of island living in black and white, and going mostly unnoticed. Now he’s sharing his voluminous archive with the world.

 

The advent of the 35mm camera in the 1940s and the ensuing popularity of documentary photography that followed inspired a whole generation of baby boomer photographers.

For example, Bob Cain, of Hornby Island.

But like most who found a creative outlet in photography during the ‘60s and ‘70s — thanks to smaller and more affordable high-quality cameras — Cain’s work never attained the notoriety of well-known photographers like William Eggleston or Annie Leibovitz.

He was never published in (the now defunct) Life Magazine.

Nor was his archive of ten thousand photographs discovered posthumously in a storage locker, as happened to the work of Vivian Maier, a Chicago and New York City nanny.

No, Cain’s photographic work has mostly gone unnoticed by the world, as have the millions of other images recorded by the big wave of baby boomer photographers.

Unnoticed by the world, but not on Hornby Island, where Cain, now 74 and retired, has spent the last 46 years documenting the lives of his friends and neighbors and the ordinary rituals of life on a small island. On Hornby, Cain is famous.

Cain is Hornby’s de facto Photographer Laureate.

But now, the rest of the world can view and enjoy Cain’s photographic collection in its entirety.

At the prodding of his son, Fraser Cain, and a growing sense that something must be done with his large and still growing archive of prints and negatives — for historical reasons if nothing else — Cain has created a website filled with his photographs, writings and other memorabilia.

FURTHER READING: A Bob Cain gallery; Photos from Hornby Island

Photos from Hornby Island is an expansive and rambling website, and low on graphic design glitz. It feels more like a personal album of memories spanning nearly 50 years of life on one of British Columbia’s most eclectic Gulf Islands than a high-falutin attempt to scream “fine art.”

Helliwell Park, 1972

As it turns out, that’s one of the whimsical charms of the website and also of Cain’s photographs.

The website spans an impressive 1,114 pages (as of May 22) and nearly 10,000 photographs broken up into 69 categories. Not even the famous Henri Cartier-Bresson consumes that much cyber real estate.

Cain photographs show the people of Hornby Island and how they live in glorious black and white, captured in a deceivingly simple style, as if the viewer was peering in, unnoticed.

But in every image there’s also a sense of the photographer.

Cain’s unique vision subtly makes his presence felt in every image. It might be a touch of humor created by how the scene was composed or the reality of a tableau completely unaffected by the existence of Cain’s camera.

Photos from Hornby Island also includes images from Cain’s travels and much of his early work around Vancouver in the 1960s. There are also writings, postcards, advertisements and cartoon strips that he has created.

The early years

Growing up in the small community of Marpole — a city squeezed between Kerrisdale and Richmond, near the Vancouver airport — Cain took his first pictures with his mother’s Baby Brownie camera, and later with the more advanced Brownie Hawkeye given to him as an inducement to keep delivering the soon-to-be-defunct Vancouver Sun-Herald.

When the family moved into a new house in Marpole that had a fully functional darkroom in the basement, he started to get serious about taking pictures. He and his brother taught themselves how to develop film and print photographs, as well as 8mm and 16mm reversible movie film.

Young Bob

His first real job in the photographic world came in 1967. He worked at Focus Prints in Vancouver making azos, which are black and white line negatives of copy sent over by a number of ad agencies.

But when, in his late teens, Cain discovered celebrated photojournalists such as Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, he moved beyond amateur photography.

“One of the most stunning photo books was by Larry Clarke, “Tulsa,” which greatly influenced my direction,” he said.

But it’s hard to put Cain into any specific category.

“If I take your passport photo, I’m a passport photographer. If I do your portrait, I’m a portrait photographer. Wedding photographer? Fine art copier? If I spot a tree I like I’m an Artist photographer,” he said.

“I’m just a photographer who can take photos that an insightful editor might publish or I see recordable images on the street.”

Moving to Hornby

“I moved to Hornby for a variety of reasons. I didn’t need to get out of the city,” he said. “What I did need was to get away from my job.

“I was managing a photographic outfit (Focus Prints) and we were getting very successful. I was working 12 to 16 hours a day and beginning to dislike photography. I owned a house in North Van and hardly got to see my wife and new baby (Fraser),” he said. “My marriage was suffering. I had to get away to renew my marriage and renew my love of photography.”

After spending a year building his house on the island, Cain worked for the highways department for five years, then spent many years operating a backhoe business, all the while doing passport photos or shooting weddings for Hornby residents.

FURTHER READING: How I discovered Hornby

Bob today

“I moved here in 1972 and used all my learned skills to try and capture whatever I could of this island society,” he said. “I wasn’t the only photographer here but I was the one that pursued the craft (and the art) the most. So, in effect I became the island photographer.”

Cain also started submitting news photographs from Hornby to the Comox District Free Press in the late 1970s.

(Disclaimer: I was the editor of the CDFP, the “Green Sheet,” and published Cain’s first photo of an airplane crash in 1978. And I encouraged him to send more, which he did for many years. Cain has included on his website some of our often humorous correspondence — sent via snail mail and written on manual typewriters.)

How he does it

Cain’s first serious camera was a Nikon F and three lenses brought back from Japan by a former girlfriend who was Japanese. He has continued using this camera for weddings and portraits until just a few years ago.

His favorite camera, however, is a Leica M6, which he still uses today.

“I have two exquisite lenses for this beautiful camera,” he said. “I also still have a Rolliflex, a 4×5 camera and a 6×9 camera. The darkroom on Hornby is still functioning … but not for long, as I’m slowly accepting the transition to digital.”

But Cain is unlikely to give up the wet darkroom, with its smell of Kodak chemicals, anytime soon.

“There is something restful and comforting about working in the darkroom with the dim light of a safelight,” he said. “I still get delighted when the image in the developer starts to appear.”

Can always carried a camera bag, and says he still does, so he’s ready to shoot anything that interests him.

“I think my eyes have turned into viewfinders,” he said. “I see compositions everywhere.”

What’s next for Bob Cain

When he turned 65, “and the government started sending me money,” Cain notified the Island that he was no longer doing passport photos, portraits and “most of all, no more weddings.” Too many family dynamics, he says, that bordered on assault.

Cain says he will continue to take new pictures until his last breath.

“I’ve already begun to distribute the negatives and contact sheets of any personal and private work to the people involved,” he said.

He hopes his remaining Hornby Island photos will find a home in a museum’s archives.

“Although I’ve had an offer by a collector to appraise my collection,” he said (perhaps whimsically). “Could be worth a lot of money.”

FURTHER READING: The Photography of Bob Cain 

Graduating woman enters the world

Graduating woman enters the world

Isfeld senior influenced by strong women

Editor’s note: Today is International Women’s Day

 

BY SARAH NUEZ

The person I am is greatly influenced by the women I want to be. The people and places where I’ve seen acts of femininity, strength, controversy, and attitude, have shaped who I’m becoming.

I’d like to say I’ve already done a lot of growing, and that I’m emotionally and mentally developed for a teenager. This is partly because of the impressive amount of purposeful women I’ve surrounded myself with.

Kiley Verbowski, the one who showed me femininity doesn’t belong in a box, allowed me to be less stressed about not having long hair and a petite body. My mother, who has occupied her time with sports into her 50s. My sister, whose intelligence and can-do attitude is something I always aspire. Frida Kahlo, an early feminist who taught me, alongside Dr. Claire, that it’s okay to be a sexual woman, or alternatively, an abstinent one.

But these are other people, not me. So I ask, what have I done to be a strong woman?

As a graduating woman, how do I know I can make it in the real world? I’m far too full of insecurities to dive into the many new things heading my way with any kind of confidence. The lack of courage is at a point where I don’t even feel sure if I can call myself a woman.

I feel too young and unaccomplished to have that status. I relate being a woman to a strong and independent type of person, a person I feel I’m not yet.

And still, these insecurities feel almost natural. Just because I’m young and naive doesn’t mean I’ll be stuck that way for long. Learning will be a full time job after I graduate, and that goes the same for all my classmates, regardless of gender.

I feel excited to surround myself with new women, to learn more about them and myself. Women unlike the homegrown island girls I’ve spent my whole high school career with and feel judged by and whom I judge. I’ll get to grow to be confident in a different way, and feel empowered by my friends.

I can take on my own part of the world and have the stamina to challenge what I disagree with. I will be ready to deal with the unavoidable oversexualization of my body and workplace sexism.

My attitude is positive and realistic. Struggle is inescapable, so all I can do is look forward to bringing a personal touch to everything I do.

Sarah Nuez is a senior at Mark Isfeld High School and a contributor to the Comox Valley CivicJournalism Project. She may be reached at sarahnuez6@gmail.com.

 

FURTHER READING: The importance of strong women; Beyond #MeToo, with pride, protests and pressure

 

Fraser Cain: from Hornby Island to outer space

Fraser Cain: from Hornby Island to outer space

PHOTO: Fraser Cain launched Universe Today in 1999. Photos courtesy of Robert Cain and Universe Today.

 

Fraser Cain was raised on Hornby Island, but his mind was always on another planet. Most of the time, Cain led the life of a normal teenager. He played video games and fooled around on the two-ferry, two-hour bus ride to school in Courtenay.

But whenever he could, Cain dreamed about the stars, the planets, the universe. He loved Star Trek. Read science fiction books. He watched NASA rocket launches on television.

He devoured information about space like a black hole sucking up everything within its immense gravitational grasp.

Today, Cain is recognized world-wide as an authority on space and astronomy. His website, Universe Today, is one of the biggest and most popular sources of news and information about space on the Internet.

The “Astronomy Cast,” a podcast with Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gray

Universe Today had more than 48 million readers in 2016, and 140,000 people follow the website on a daily basis, and they do it religiously. Space buffs are serious about their interest.

He also hosts a weekly podcast on the website Astronomy Cast with renowned astronomer Dr. Pamela Gray, who runs CosmoQuest, a virtual research facility.

His company has published two books on skywatching, and he has an asteroid named after him.

And he does all of this from his home on the Puntledge River in Courtenay.

The early years

Cain refers to his father and mother as “big space nerds.” His dad has been a sci-fi fan since he was able to read.

“I grew up in Vancouver,” father Bob Cain said. “My brother and I built our first telescope before we were teenagers and spent many nights examining the sky.”

To encourage his fascination with outer space, Cain remembers his parents taking him outside to view the night sky, which is considerably darker than in metro Comox Valley, where they taught him about the constellations.

“In the summer, (we) would take sleeping bags out to Helliwell Park where we would watch meteor showers,” his father said.

And, of course, science fiction books and movies were the standard fare around his house. His mother, Josephine, took him to the first showing of the original Star Trek movie. He got his first serious telescope at age 14.

Two of Fraser’s astronomy columns in The Breezeway, circa 1989.

So it was natural that the family would gather around the TV on April 12, 1981 to watch the first space shuttle launch, something they continued to do for every subsequent shuttle mission.

When Cain arrived at G. P. Vanier High School in 1986, he starting writing astronomy columns for the now-defunct student newspaper, The Breezeway. He recalls they were quite well read.

Educator Brent Reid, who taught journalism and oversaw production of the Breezeway, remembers Cain as “a real go-getter.” He graduated in 1989.

Developing his popular website

Turning this passion for space and astronomy into a career didn’t really begin until after Cain enrolled at the University of British Columbia to study engineering.

Well, after he dropped out, to be precise.

Cain left UBC to write books for role-playing games, and co-founded a company called Absolute Software, which has since gone public on the Toronto Stock Exchange. At age 19, he helped invent software that enabled people locate and recover stolen computers, which you can still purchase at any Apple store.

Cain then joined a web design company, Communicate.com, where he helped clients design and construct their websites.

While there he hired a young entrepreneur named Stewart Butterfield, who went on to found Flickr.

Cain calls that, “one of my better hires.”

But Cain didn’t have any experience running a website, so he decided to start one of his own in order to better understand his client’s’ issues and to learn how to help them.

Fraser at age 14 with his new telescope and the astronomy club on Hornby Island.

He briefly considered a website focused on gaming, but of course he settled on space and astronomy. And that’s when he learned what he wanted to do with his life.

Universe Today was launched in 1999 and became so successful that Cain was able to quit his day job in 2003 and make space journalism his full-time career.

Cain has succeeded in a crowded field because he’s one of the few space journalists who do it well. He focuses on stories “way off the beaten path,” the topics that other space journalists aren’t covering.

Cain has written many of the 15,000 articles in the Universe Today archive, but the website also publishes the work of more than a dozen full-time and part-time other space journalists.

His senior editor lives in the U.S. His video editor lives in Prague.

Back to the Comox Valley

“It doesn’t matter where I work from,” Cain said. “During the course of the day, I talk to people all over the planet, some in space.”

Cain still travels to astronomy conferences, but he prefers to work from home, where he can help raise his two children.

He’s completed his university computer science degree now, and found the time to start up a new software company, Keyword Strategy.

The name, Fraser Cain, has become a personal brand within the universe of space journalism over the last 10 years. His name and face are now widely recognized.

But the Hornby Island boy hasn’t forgotten his roots. Not long ago, he took his sci-fi-loving dad to see the second last space shuttle launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

In a personal article on social media, Cain wrote, “I hate to sound trite, but I’m a living example that you can succeed if you follow your dreams. You know that stuff you loved as a kid, but then decided to grow up and get a real job? That can turn into a real job, if you’re willing to believe in yourself and put in the work.”

 

Down East fiddler Ashley MacIssac performs at The Filberg

Down East fiddler Ashley MacIssac performs at The Filberg

Ashley MacIssac, the Juno award-winning fiddler from Cape Breton Island, performed for a sold-out audience at Live! At Filberg Park Aug. 24. Known for some outlandish behavior in the past, there was nothing controversial about his Filberg performance, except that he did seem distracted with his phone at first by trying to stream the event live on Facebook. Interesting fact: he plays a right-handed fiddle left-handed.

 

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Tribal Canoe Journey visits K’omoks First Nations

Tribal Canoe Journey visits K’omoks First Nations

The Tribal Canoe Journeys landed at the point of Comox Spit today. Members of the K’omoks First Nations welcomed several dozen canoes carrying about 100 families from the Northwest Coast. They are enroute to Campbell River later this week where the ceremonial gathering will culminate. (Click any photo to start the slideshow.)

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