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I have known Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft as friends for nearly a decade, but I have only recently begun to think of them as art collectors. This is peculiar, because, as it turns out, they are among the most important art collectors in the country. They are, however, rather more private about it than can readily be believed. During a three-year sojourn in Vancouver in the late nineties, we were neighbours in Kitsilano. They were (and remain) passionate, hotly opinionated and entirely unpretentious gallerygoers (notwithstanding Beck's penchant for Prada shoes), and one couldn't help but notice that their living quarters - on the middle floor of their ramshackle clapboard house - served as backdrop to a gradually shifting array of photographs.

Mostly, one saw contemporary Vancouver photography there, but the occasional historical piece would drift into view, and it kept you wondering.

Over these first years of our friendship, my periodic requests to find out more about their collecting met with a polite "perhaps some day soon" vagueness. I knew a bit about their past in the city - such as their legendary stewardship of Nova Gallery from 1976 to 1982, the city's most important showcase for photography at a time when photography barely had a market. (They gave Jeff Wall his first commercial show in 1978; he showed The Destroyed Room, an early backlit Cibachrome work, in their storefront window.) Still, they continually conveyed the impression that their collection was no big deal.

When Roy Arden's exhibition, Vancouver Collects, opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2001, however, their outing as collectors began. Arden, himself a Vancouver photographer of note, hung more than 100 of their prints in the VAG's galleries alongside works from other local collectors. I was not the only one to be taken aback. "For me, I didn't start to think about us as collectors until Roy's show," Beck, 61, said to me last week in her hacksaw New Jersey accent, which more than 30 years of Canadian living has not softened. "The idea that I was a collector came to me very late. These were just pictures we really liked."

The VAG's galleries are once again filled with their photographs, this time for the exhibition Real Pictures, and I was in Vancouver last week for a long-overdue tour. The show is a celebration of the couple's recent bulk donation and sale of works to the gallery, and includes 375 of their photographs, valued at more than $2-million. Many of these pictures were acquired early, before the photography market revved up in the nineties. Now some of them are worth more than a quarter of a million dollars.

The exhibition fills many roles. First, it sketches the history of a medium, starting with 19th-century photo pioneers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and the collaborators David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and continuing through to the digitally enhanced present day.

Second, it situates the last 30 years of photo-based Vancouver art within that history. Lastly, and most fascinatingly, it reveals the essence of two lives, reflected in the things they chose to gather around them. If art collecting is self-portraiture, then this is a joint masterpiece.

Walking through the galleries with them is an exercise in dual-track thinking - with both of them talking simultaneously about the pictures, just as they do about everything else.

VAG curator Grant Arnold has beautifully installed a roughly chronological hanging in the galleries. Thematic groupings reflect the leading preoccupations of the medium at the time, starting with Surveying the World, 19th-century photographic accounts of the wonders of Europe and the Orient. Throughout the installation, the canonized keep company with the little known or anonymous, an eclecticism that gives the collection much of its charm.

Sharing a sense of the absurd, they are quick to point out the wildly ridiculous series of seven prints by Montreal's William Notman, which earnestly document a faux moose hunt. "The whole thing is a complete setup," says Gruft with delight, pointing out the painted backdrop behind the supposed habitants and taxidermic moose and beasts of prey. "This is 'Jeff Wall eat your heart out.' Visitors to Canada probably took images like these back to England and said, 'This is how they hunt in the colonies.'." Gruft, now 68, retired from his teaching post at the University of British Columbia in 1999 - he had taught architecture there for 30 years - but he looks at the Canadian frontier with an immigrant's eye, carrying with him the legacy of a European birth (his family fled Poland when he was 2) and an itinerant childhood in South Africa and Brazil. It's like he's never forgotten the exotic strangeness of his new world.

Connoisseurship and the thrill of the chase also play a role in the stories the couple tell. They showed me their print of Robert Frank's famous photograph London, which shows a child fleeing up the street behind the back of an opened hearse. Once we had considered its metaphorical resonance - the swift-footed figure of youth escaping death - Gruft could not suppress a little of the acquisitor's gloating. "We used to have two versions of this print," he said. "Most of them have a white spot in the sky right here," he said, indicating a point in the picture's surface. The spot was likely the product of a hole in the negative, perhaps a burn from a falling cigarette ash. Whatever the mishap, this print was made before it happened, "which makes it very rare." Delicious.

Beck met Gruft 35 years ago while teaching art history at UBC, and art history still informs her eye. Stephen Waddell's 2001 photograph, Man in White Suit (with its vertiginously tilted perspective), arouses a musing on the 19th-century paintings of Edgar Degas, who, she points out crisply, "fucked the picture plane" in similar fashion. Félix Nadar's famous print of George Sand from 1869 inspires a comparison to Ingres. ("Those folds of fabric have a life of their own.") They have their favourites: the grouping of eight works by Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, their Robert Franks (15 from the famous series The Americans), a Raoul Hausmann 1931 portrait of a lady's derrière, miraculously round and plump as a peach (an amorous offering from Beck to Gruft), Samuel Bourne's 19th-century pictures of India, and a large number of historic pictures of Canada's Northwest Coast, including half a dozen by Edward Curtis (with one particularly extraordinary image of a Cowichan dancer) and other equally fascinating but lesser-known documentarians such as Frederick Dally and Richard Maynard. It's a collection deeply rooted in a sense of place.

Mostly, though, Beck and Gruft like surprises. For example, the cover of the catalogue for Real Pictures features a photograph by an obscure British photographer named Harold Chapman, depicting a group of men talking in a bar. It's a portrait of bohemia. "That's why I love this bloody picture," Beck said with a smile of affection. "It reminds me of the Nova Gallery days. What I remember is a real liveliness. We were all just starting." Still, for photography lovers, Vancouver was a strange place to be. "Who were you going to talk to about it?" she asked. "People were afraid of photographs. They were scared that it wasn't art. I think we have finally gotten past that argument." Today, the city is one of the leading centres for new photography in the world.

For Gruft, seeing the collection hung together has inspired thoughts of a more existential nature. "I was thinking this morning that looking at this collection is like looking back at your life," he said. "You realize that where you are hasn't been the product of big, important decisions. It's been the product of a lot of small decisions. You realize that all those little, cumulative decisions - some of which were purposeful, some of which were stumbling - have added up to something important, something that has a shape. I had that thought this morning in the bathroom," he added in mock majesty. "Allow me to clarify: I was cleaning my teeth."

Real Pictures: Photographs from the collection of Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 29 (604-662-4719).