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.
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.”
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.
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
“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