Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition is an urban harvest fair. It has been held annually since 1910. Since then it has evolved from a small gathering on the outskirts of the city to one of the largest events of its kind in North America.

The word "fair," according to Webster's New Collegiate dictionary, derives from the Italian "feria," meaning holidays. It goes on to define it in part as a gathering of buyers and sellers at a particular place and time for trade.

"Marketplace PNE" is that part of Vancouver's fair where small business entrepreneurs can rent space to showcase their wares.

This marketplace is currently housed in the 44,579 sq. ft. Forum building, built in the 1930s as an arena for hockey games and major entertainment events. For the duration of the fair, the building is transformed into a massive exhibition space holding hundreds of display booths.

Operating within a carnival atmosphere, vendors in the Forum Marketplace, each with their well-rehearsed pitch, compete vigorously for attention and dollars.

A successful pitch, that winning blend of aggressiveness, credibility and sincerity, can take years of trial and error, in contact with the public, to develop.

Some vendors represent products which they themselves have developed and produced for market. Others buy into franchised products which have had a proven track record on the international fair circuit.

The range of products is diverse. What they have in common is the singular intensity with which they are presented by the vendor. In this context, these products take on an exclusive, even limited edition status. It is the personal endorsement embodied in the pitch which makes these products appeal to an otherwise cynical consumer. Perhaps within this personalized exchange, the making of a choice outside the realm of corporate influence and the myth of brand name security, suspends consumer cynicism, if only temporarily, and contributes to that sense of freedom and exhilaration one might expect from a visit to the fair.

For the past ninety years the PNE site, including the racetrack, has grown to occupy 114 acres of the 160 acres that constitutes Hastings Park. In 1910, the park, some miles from the population center of Vancouver, surrounded by bush, seemed an ideal location. Since then a stable, mainly residential community has grown up around the park. Within that community, the impact of the annual fair and it's attendant hordes of visitors has been tolerated by local residents. However, in the mid nineties there arose a groundswell of support for a plan that would see the PNE lease discontinued and the park reclaimed as greenspace for the benefit of the surrounding community.

By 1996 a move seemed inevitable. The PNE corporation had begun it's search in earnest for a new home, and landscape architects had begun to draw up plans to redevelop the park for the people.

It was this sense of imminent change, a venerable Vancouver institution about to dissolve and reinvent itself, which attracted my attention.

The notion of the PNE has always given me mixed feelings. First off I think: hype, crowds, weather, parking, junk food, expense, noise, danger (those speeding rides), all of this amidst seemingly great confusion and lineups for everything. However even taking all of this into account, the PNE, in much the same way perhaps as the secular part of the Christmas celebration with all of its tacky commercialism and emotional stress, somehow seems to prevail year after year. We could blame the whole thing on the children! The fair has been a regular part of my family life for the past thirty years.

In 1997, moved by this sentiment, and the growing atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the future of the PNE at it's Hastings park site, I began working on a photographic project to study and record aspects of the fair which I felt might be radically altered or even altogether lost. During the past four years I have produced a number of albums, each of which represents, in part, the production and consumption of this popular event. "Vendors" is one of these albums.

For much of the 20th century the PNE functioned as a marketplace bringing the suburban farmer producer together with the urban entrepreneur / consumer for their relaxed mutual exchange of products and ideas. Being both an annual, community, agricultural fair and an urban amusement park, the fairgrounds provided exhibition space for food production from family-based farming operations. The fair is a venue for competition in which prizes were awarded for excellence in categories ranging from livestock, milk, eggs and cheese; fruits and vegetables; kitchen preserves and handicrafts. For an urban public becoming increasingly more disconnected from rural life, these competitions provided entertainment as well as insight into the issues involved in quality food production, at the same time supplying a link with those people and their animals who provided for their basic food needs. On the other hand, the fair provided the urban entrepreneur with a site in which to sell state-of-the-art amusements and to mount displays promoting the fruits of modern technology, the latest mass production techniques, and popular culture.

In 2000, the number of PNE visitors topped I,000,000. Staging an event this size each summer has come to involve the collaboration of over 15,000 people rallying together to deliver an ever diverse range of activity and entertainment. Over the two week period the site becomes a community composed of smaller communities ? each of which produces a particular facet of the overall entertainment package.

The vendor's world is one such community. Entering the Forum building feels a bit like stepping on to an island. There are no windows. Each booth is lit by spotlight from the ceiling, creating a theatrical feeling. Visitors are surrounded by the ever present collage of sound generated by the interaction of humans engaging in the ritual pursuit of commerce.

The Forum public fall into three main categories. First there are those browsers who feel it compulsory on a trip to the fair, to at least wander through the building soaking up some of it’s unique ambiance, and in the process perhaps discover something really unique and indulge in an impulse buy. Then there are the great number of repeat customers who seize the opportunityeach year to replenish their stock of unique items which they have found to be indispensable and are either cheaper and/or only available at the PNE. Finally there are those who find themselves there by some mistake or error of judgement, perhaps they are on a short cut to somewhere else, or to indulge a friend or to escape a downpour (this is, after all, Vancouver). Finding the whole exercise distasteful, they make a beeline for the nearest exit.

The vendors themselves often know each other from previous events, here and elsewhere. They might from one year to the next, switch from product to product, this year selling “Speed Cleaner,” next year ? “Magic Pads.” Often it is a family affair. In order for me to make contact with the person who I photographed selling Floral Gel last year, I was directed to her mother who was pitching for the Ginzu knife. Aunt Marge is famous for selling her home made fudge in the Forum since the 1950s. Next door, Marge’s husband’s booth offers an eclectic array of products to alleviate, amongst other thing, sore feet, wrinkles and arthritis.

Vendors routinely spend twelve hours a day in this building seven days a week. It’s intense, the crowds vary, their booth represents a sizeable investment and they feel the pressure to be on-the-case in order to increase their likelihood of recovering costs and turning a profit.

The vendors fit neatly into the PNE tradition of personalized exchange - in this instance, between entrepreneur and the general public. It is a mode of commerce, which, at the beginning of the 21st century seems genteel, increasingly rare and under siege, as "big box" stores everywhere absorb their competition in order to insure market share and enhance corporate profits.

Michael de Courcy