‘Last Lane’

Photographer John Goldsmith tells the story behind one of his favorite pictures from Vancouver.

By / April 2012

While a red sports car waits in the shadows of the garage, ready to have its oil changed, one of its occupants, a girl no older than 9, leans against the back bumper and transports the last lane of the Mister Lube into a fashion runway.

The young girl wears a white long-sleeved top, a white skirt and white leggings. Her shoes are black. With her right arm taut against her right hip, and her left leg extended, the young girl performs a classic beauty pose on the grease-stained pavement.

I am walking to pick up a print at a nearby photo lab, when I catch the odd pageantry, spotlighted by the noonday sun. What sort of unconventional Disney set have I stumbled upon in urban Vancouver, I wonder as I stop about 40-feet away to frame the moment with my Canon AE1.

The girl mesmerizes me, not because she’s perfect in her movements or hidden behind a façade of makeup, false eyelashes, spray tans or fake hair, like the models on television, but because she’s unrestrained in her pursuit of turning a boring wait into an enjoyable one.

Sometimes photos creep up on you. This is one of those moments. I take one quick shot and walk on, delighting in the weirdness of life.

John Goldsmith, 40, left behind pharmaceuticals to pursue a career in fine art photography. He lives in Vancouver.

All I had in mindwhen I framed the picture was the girl. When I see the developed image, I am surprised to find a red-white-red theme, with a pair of Canadian flags flying overhead and a triangle of cars parked to the side, to match the girl against the car. How did all that come together? I don’t know. That’s the magic of photography.

I have a friend who told me that the more photographs he takes, the luckier he gets. I can’t disagree. My early photographs were really bad. They had little intention or forethought. But I kept pushing that little button. I didn’t want to stop. It became an obsession. And, in time, I started to have more and more success.

I want to push boundaries more than people are accustomed to seeing. I don’t think of pictures as really life. They’re stills. Nothing moves in them. Photography is as a kind of theater. Once I snap the picture it’s no longer reality, it’s only reality in the way my camera caught it. I am trying to create a theatrical mood that drives people to wonder, that makes them say, “Wow, there’s something in there, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

That’s why I hate captions. Once you put a caption on a photo, it becomes so literal. The mystery, the suspense is removed.

Good photos are meant to make you ask questions: “Is what I’m looking at real?” I don’t want to make it obvious. I want them to look at the photo and possibly not get it. They’re going to come back, one maybe two more times. It’s something they have to explore. They have to think.

Vancouver has also been great for my development, not only because of its rich photographic history — Fred Herzog, Jeff Wall, Roy Arden and Stan Douglas — but their contemporaries. Even the weather, with its heavy, gray skies, influenced my approach and pushed me toward gaining additional technical skills.

Vancouver, while maybe not the most architecturally interesting of cities, seems like it’s at the cusp of being taken seriously. That’s exciting to me because the more I stroll around with my camera, the more I feel like I get to play a part in setting the stage.


— as told to Brandon Hoops