Crystal Pite - Harvey Southam - Elegance & ClassWednesday, October 15, 2008
Modern dancer and choreographer Crystal Pite has that kind of elegance and class that cannot be explained or defined. When I photographed her a couple of months back for three grueling hours in my very hot studio both of us were exhausted. She looked it. Sometime around the end I made her stand by the wall and I lit her with my very old Hollywood scoop light. This picture did not make the final cull of the ones that appeared a couple of months ago in VLM. But it still remains one of my favourites as it dipslays her poise even in the worst of conditions.
As I looked at this picture today I thought of someone who also had elegance and class. He was my friend Harvey Southam who died by his own hand in Toronto in 1991. His method for leaving us was not elegant nor was it bloody. For the first time since I knew him he lost a bit of that elegance but gained a tad in originality.
Southam was the only rich man who could drive a Buick station wagon (when most in his league drove BMWs) and still make that Buick look good. He looked good no matter what the car was.
We once took a helicopter to Victoria so that I could photograph and he could interview the then leader of the NDP. Bob Skelly. My equipment was specially heavy but he carried it for me. After the successful shoot and interview I told him, "Harvey I want to invite you for high tea at the Empress so that someday I can say that this poor freelancer invited you for tea." He smiled and went along with the charade. We had a great time.
There was a memorial service for him at Christ Church Cathedral a few months after his death. I hate memorial services so I decided I was not going to go. The night before I thought about it. I changed my mind.
I went to the service and sat as far back as I could. My head was leaning against the back wall of the church. The minister talked about idyllic summers in Qualicum Beach. I looked around and I did not see one single person of colour. I had come because that night before I had begun to understand that Harvey Southam's passing and his memorial service in Vancouver would one day be seen by historians as a day when the old guard of Vancouver changed to a new one. It would define the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. By being in that church I would observe the changing of the guard. The idyllic summer days in Qualicum would end and be replaced by quick weekend trips to LA or Hong Kong.
A few years before I had accompanied Southam to one of the Bentall towers. A group of eminent Vancouver businessmen were siting at a very large table. Southam sat down. One of them said, "Who are we going to pick as chancellor for Simon Fraser University?"
A few weeks before I had been invited for dinner at a new Chinese restaurant by city Alderman and deputy mayor (they were known as that then) Bill Yee. I remember that I was sitting right next to City Engineer Fritz Bowers. I felt I was getting an inside look at power in Vancouver. The next day when I showed up at Southam's office (he was the editor of the city business magazine Equity which he had founded) I told him of my experience with Bill Yee and made the comment, "Yee could make our city's first ethnic mayor." Southam looked at me and with a gentle smile said, "Not while we're around."
On another occasion we had gone to Whistler to photograph Vancouver Stock Market honcho Peter Brown. Brown had purchased a restaurant and Southam was writing about it for Equity. We went in his old Mercedes (the one before the Buick) two seater sportscar (the one with the boxy square roof). One of the headlights was not working. On our way back we gorged on a large bag of chocolate-covered expresso beans that Southam had purchased. The combination of the chocolate, the caffeine and the one headlight made our trip back a scary one.
Two weeks before Southam died I was in Toronto to see magazine art directors. On a Friday, late afternoon, I decided to call his office. Southam answered. I was surprised. "Can't you hire someone else to answer your phone?, "I asked him. "Hey," he answered, "I do everything here and that includes answering my own phone." That evening I stopped by his office and we went to a nearby cafe where he had a coke and I had a coffee. He was still that elegant and classy guy I had known a worked with for a few years. I sensed in him that warmth that I had always admired in him.
I can't but think that while something of Vancouver died with Harvey Southam that afternoon at Christ Church Cathedral in 1992, our fair city in spite of its growth and "world-class" beauty may have lost some class and elegance that has yet to be renewed. I can neither explain nor define the loss.