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Monday, March 27, 2017

San Francisco, How I Shot It

Since this blog is, apart from the ravings of a madman, occasionally about process, I have decided to write up something of what went through my mind making the previous essay and pictures. Also, I am extremely vain. These remarks will almost certainly contain some ex post facto rationalization. I'll do my best to excise it, but like a particularly pernicious cancer, I am unlikely to get it all. To extend the analogy past the breaking point, good taste being long ago left in the dust, feel free to administer chemo in the form of comments.

This is written at speed, with not much correction, because I want as much a "brain dump" as possible. If I start sloshing words around and correcting overmuch, I think some truth will get lost. Plus, I am extremely lazy. Read on at your own risk, etc,

I went on a short vacation to San Francisco, a city which, I have noted, I know quite well in certain ways. This vacation was special, in that it included several days in which I would have literally nothing to do. I mean, I could have laboriously contacted old friends and tried to set up lunches and so on, but I am very bad at that sort of thing, and fairly anti-social besides. So, I had many hours in which to wander.

I arrived, therefore, camera in hand, and with a vague notion. I knew that I did not want to "document the city" because let us be realistic, the last thing this world needs is more goddamned pictures of San Francisco. I had some notion of looking at the current culture of the city as compared with the way I remember it from about 2009, when I last lived there. A very vague notion. Perhaps a compare-and-contrast deal, something like that. The rise of the "tech bro"? Something about differences, I thought.

I wandered around shooting things. New things, old things, things I remembered being there and things I did not. After a little it seemed to be that the city, at any rate SOMA where I spent much of my time, was infested with a small set of archetypes. A sort of young person on the make, a tech bro, a would-be venture capitalist, young women generally looking hunted, bros on various powered skateboard variations, some cyclists but not many.

At some point, I do not recall when, I decided on a words and pictures format, perhaps a magazine. Daniel Milnor has been pushing this pretty hard, so it was on my mind, and at some point it crystallized into a fully conscious decisions. Some time after I arrived and started shooting, and some time before the last day.

I experimented with contrasts, shooting a bunch of pictures of "finance bro" types passing the Mechanics Monument on Market St, which was pretty much like shooting fish in a barrel. The pictures didn't read, particularly. The monument is too big, I cannot simultaneously capture the bronze laborers and the well-dressed rent-seeker convincingly.

I also explored the possibilities of contrasting signage. A high end fashion label and a run down hotel in the same frame. Again, it didn't particularly read.

At no time did I consider shooting the ubiquitous homeless people. There's simply no point.

Eventually I jettisoned the idea of contrasts between haves and have-nots, partly because it wasn't working visually, and partly because it seemed trite. A lot of pictures of "old" San Francisco, and of old/new contrasts got binned. By the last day I was completely focused on the haves, and had decided to let the words speak to the have-not side of things. After all, why bother taking pictures of the homeless? All I need to do is say "homeless" and 1000 pictures, all better than what I could shoot, flood to mind. Better to shoot, I decided, what seemed to be unique to my experience.

At this point it became clear that the pictures couldn't just be a standard illustration of the words, since half of the subject matter was just going to be missing. Well, that was something of an evolution. I think I actually continued to shoot "established", "old", "have-not" subject matter for a while, but it was petering out.

The monochrome cars hit me, I think, on my first day of walking. I was walking down 3rd Street, past RayKo, when I turned to what I knew was a commuter parking lot. At first glance, I thought it had become a fleet parking lot, and then I muttered quietly "holy shit" as I realized it was still commuter parking, but commuters were all driving grey cars. A turned to the street and there it was. Holy shit. The stream of monochrome cars. Once I noticed it, I was appalled, and started shooting the cars. I have many shots from various angles, but finally settled on shooting them side-on with a brightly colored object in the background for contrast. These eventually became a collage, because I could not imagine inflicting more than one frame of this tedious on even a hated enemy, and yet I wanted to convey the mass of similar cars.

The brand collage came about similarly. It is, as one commenter noted, a common trope. Because it works. All those big names of fashion are huddled together near Union Square, and I think all the stores I included have arrived in the last 5 or 6 years. Saks was in town previously, and their big store remains at the corner of Powell and Post, but the one I shot was a new, second, storefront on Market. Again, I could not fathom including one more frame of this stuff, but the point was to show the multiplicity.

The visual that had really struck me, as I think it always does, is the masses of young people on the make. They're always there, always different looking (on my every-few-years visits). This visit really hit me hard, though. These people were the main point I wanted to make, so I took a lot of pictures of them.

I wanted to pin down the "guy on an electric skateboard" thing, of which there is a surprising amount. Sometimes it's a homemade segway-thing, or a weird thing with a single ball in lieu of wheels, or whatever. At one point I had the shutter speed quite low, to create motion blur on the skateboard guy, and started back in shooting walking tech bros. This gave me the blurry people, which I decided I liked, for no particular reason. While I never got my guy-on-a-skateboard shot, I wound up with a lot of B-roll of blurry bros.

Finally, as part of my standard peregrinations, I went slowly through Yerba Buena Park and, as I always do, walked through the Martin Luther King memorial with quotes from the man. It's tucked behind an artificial waterfall, so not everyone knows about it. It looks like I have mis-attributed the picture I took there, the quotation does NOT appear in the "I have a dream" speech, but in a 1967 interview. Well, I didn't know that.

Anyways. For obvious reasons, one of the quotations stood out to me, so I shot it, and then quoted it to everyone who would hold still for several days.

Salesforce Tower, which takes the penis metaphor of the skyscraper to newly literal levels with its curved tip, um, I mean top, was an obvious target, so I took a few pictures of it for reasons I could not put my finger on. Usually I avoid tedious record shots of nothing, but it felt important.

Whether I was subconsciously planning this all along, as I was assembling the final photos it suddenly made sense to put it next to the MLK quote, with a notation of distance, 750 meters as the crow flies. 750 meters from the giant cock-idol to the god of money, computers, software, and power to the MLK quotation.

And then, as I was departing, I saw salesforce tower one more time, in the far distance, from Oakland Airport, and shot it one more time over the wing of a plane, and then I burned and dodged like a maniac (pace Mario Giacomelli) to make... I don't know. Some sort of point. You get to decide, I guess. But it felt important to show off this view.

In the end, I liked the blurry people a lot, even though not all commenters do. I have some notion of these men blurring together into a mass of identical instances of the archetype. Dark clothes, backpacks worn with both straps (would have gotten you quite literally beaten up in my high school), wired earbuds and phones. So there's a fade from sharp to blurry.

The pictures, not being really illustrations, are intended (WARNING: ARTY BOLLCKS. GIRD YOURSELF.) as a parallel stream of criticism or discourse, supporting and, I supopose, contradicting the text, as suits the viewer.

Without the pictures, I would not have written the essay the way I did. Without some notion of the essay finding itself in bits and pieces in my mind as I shot, I would not have shot the pictures I did. The two were born together, in a sort of fuzzy spinning mass of ideas, visuals and phrases, which was only partially formed as I left the city. It would take a couple of weeks to settle into the form I published here, ideas banging in to one another like tiny irritating icebergs, until it all settled more or less in to place.

I'm not convinced I did much of anything good with the visual archetypes I saw in the people. Everything else, I am pretty happy with.


  1. I love wandering in cities, I create many web series and a few Blurb books that document my responses to my wandering. I try, as much as possible, to not think conceptually. I try to respond at some pre-conscious emotional way to what I am experiencing, anxiety, humor, disgust, joy, whatever! I try to sense and respond to the inclination to press the shutter button. I am really sharing how I experience.

    What I experience is a summation of me! I am 71 and have been doing this for years. What I wanted to share is how different our process is. I do have an echo of a concept in noticing what is lost and remainders or what used to be, but that is still an emotional response. Because of your location these photographs might reflect on the similarity and difference of how we wander.


    One thing that caused a twinge of criticism is the quote about "who needs more photographs of San Francisco". What difference does that make if you are authentically responding to what you are experiencing? Who are your photographs for?

    1. I think we may be closer together than it seems. What I meant was that I didn't want to simply recreate the obvious pictures of SF. I am perhaps more allergic to repeating what others have done than you are, but I agree that what matters is the authentic experience of the place, whatever that might be.

      Well, at least when you are doing this sort of thing. Photography's a big tent, etc and so forth.

    2. As for recreating the obvious, I feel like I did a masterful job of avoiding it!

      My pictures, upon review, contain absolutely nothing that is identifiable as San Francisco to anyone who is not pretty observant and familiar with the landscape of that city as it exists right now.

      So, hurrah for me?