My idea for Hot Properties arose from an experience I had during my first sabbatical in 1980. After eight months in Boston, my wife and I headed south to begin a perimeter trip around the United States, photographing as we went. By the time we reached San Antonio, Texas, I had become discouraged because I hadn’t found (or seen) anything very original. I continued to make photographs, but knew most of them would not amount to much. I pulled off the road to investigate an industrial area. It was depressing: massive, grey buildings and warehouses everywhere. Then, we turned a corner and discovered an incongruous, beautiful, little plot of land with a small cottage surrounded by a picket fence. The house itself needed repairs, nevertheless with its garden – a lush paradise of tropical plants and flowers – it was an absolute gem, obviously cared for lovingly, within the means of its owner. Excited, I stopped and knocked on the front door. An old woman, Lilly, came out looking puzzled, wondering who I might be and why I was there. I told her I loved her place, that it was spectacular and asked would she mind if I took some pictures. Her face lit up and she toured me around her garden. We chatted while I photographed and she pointed out the plants she was particularly proud of. Afterwards, I thanked her and left.
During the trip home, I kept thinking about how, even though she lived in the midst of industrial ugliness, Lilly had managed to not only express herself through her home but she had created a world for herself and her family that was a powerful antidote to the surrounding bleakness. Her upbeat personality was proof of this and its effect on me was profound. When we finally returned to Burnaby, I was astonished and delighted with what I saw. My sense of the place had changed completely following my encounter with Lilly and her San Antonio home. I was now able to see and appreciate the unique qualities of the many small homes that dot the neighbourhoods of Greater Vancouver; the importance of connections between people and their homes; how a picture of a carefully tended home and garden can be a portrait of the person who lives within.
So, I began my Hot Properties project. I was drawn to houses from a period just prior to, during, and shortly after the Second World War. When first built, they shared a similar, modesty of scale and starkly simple design. But each one evolved in its own interesting ways. As a whole, each house and its lot is a one-of-a-kind pocket environment. Looking at the details, you can get a sense of what that person feels about the world outside.
No. 25, from the series Hot Properties 1987
chromogenic print 56.3 × 60.7 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa