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Portraitist captures 'little life moments' for Vancouver anniversary exhibit

Tim Van Horn is on a quest to put a face to the city of Vancouver.

He moved to the coast from Alberta, imbedding himself into the city's daily routines, seeking what he calls "little life moments."

He got up every morning to hit the streets. His tool was a camera, his canvas the passing parade.

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A tuque on his head, his hands protected from the chill by fingerless gloves, he asked every passerby - student and elder, sober worker and drunken vagrant, businesswoman and househusband - to take a moment to pose.

It is the photographer's goal to compile 2,011 portraits of local residents to be used in a mosaic in honour of Vancouver's 125th birthday next year.

He envisions a pop-up tent whose interior walls will be filled with his images. The tent would be moved from park to park during year-long anniversary celebrations.

He has given himself six months to complete the assignment.

But this is not even his most ambitious endeavour.

Mr. Van Horn is also midway through a project as expansive as this great land. He envisions creating a flag mosaic composed of more than 10,000 portraits. He has an unmovable deadline - July 1, 2017, Canada's sesquicentennial.

How did he come up with the idea?

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"I took my sense of duty to my country," he said, "and married it to my art."

Mr. Van Horn hit the road many months ago. He has travelled through all 10 provinces and three territories in the past year and is currently in Yellowknife for a four-day stay.

He has no sponsors, no Canada Council grants, no income at all from taking these portraits. He recently sold a piece of land in Manitoba to finance his wanderings.

"I'm just a one-man show," he said.

He lives out of his white van, the exterior of which is lined with 650 of his photographs.

Mr. Van Horn, 41, shares the interior with a male Labrador named Bo and a female border Collie named Mya.

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His wife left him early in the Canadian Mosaic project. She is now in Grande Prairie, Alta.

That is not his place. His place is on the road. With the Canadian people.

"This is my life-calling," he said. "It's what I think I'm supposed to do."

Mr. Van Horn, 41, is a former commercial photographer and published author. He has documented the disappearing grain elevators of his native Alberta.

For a book marking his home province's centennial of joining Confederation, he and a collaborator travelled more than 15,000 snowy and dusty kilometres over two years, snapping 17,500 photographs in about 320 communities, from booming oil towns to sleepy hamlets. I Am Albertan has been placed in every library and school in the province.

A self-described army brat, he was born in Edmonton, moved to Bermuda at age 2, then to Inuvik, on to Haida Gwaii when it was still known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, and on to Cold Lake, Alta., before settling in Red Deer, where he attended art college.

His wanderlust is limited to his native land. He wants to show Canadians who they are without the imposition of values from governments or corporate sponsors.

While in Vancouver, he parked at night beside the rolling lawns of Vanier Park. He liked to be as close as possible to the flagpole atop which flies a giant Maple Leaf flag.

It is possible the true worth of Mr. Van Horn's photographs will not be known for decades.

His democratic sensibility calls to mind the late Foncie Pulice, the proprietor of Foncie's Fotos who hustled on bustling downtown sidewalks from 1934 to 1979. Foncie was an indefatigable portraitist, snapping hundreds of casual shots every day. Passersby were offered the opportunity to purchase prints as a "lasting souvenir" - three for 50 cents, eight for a buck - by coming to Foncie's shop the next day. He became known as a Karsh of the Concrete.

Only years after his retirement did historians and museum curators come to appreciate the documentary evidence to be culled from what originally seemed to be ordinary, even mundane, portraits.

Mr. Van Horn considers himself a journalist as he shoots medal-bedecked veterans, mothers with babies in backpacks, swells in the latest fashions, immigrants in clothes from faraway lands, poor people whose harsh lives can be read in lined faces.

"People can sense my passion to capture them - to capture their homes. They trust me. They trust me even to take pictures of their kids.

"That makes we well off.

"That makes me want to cry."

What does he get out of it?

Strangers invite him home for supper and he is offered cold beer at beach barbecues. The road offers adventure and he spends his days with his fellow Canadians.

That is reward enough.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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