Stark light on an old building on Colin P. Kelly Street, San Francisco
Most often when I go out to make photographs I do not have extremely specific ideas about my subject or even about how I will photograph the subjects I encounter. Usually, and especially with street photography, it is more a matter of tuning in to my surroundings and essentially hunting, conspiring to be in places where I think I might find interesting things, paying attention, and being ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities arise. On the other hand, I often do have some general ideas about the sorts of things that might interest me, and on my way to this morning on San Francisco streets I had specifically thought about a sort of image that might be black and white and which might use rather stark light a bit later in the morning — so when I saw this building on a corner near the train station I didn’t hesitate to photograph it.
What about the name of this photograph? It was simply a practical matter. I usually do not like to name photographs in ways that tell the viewer how to think of the photograph — most often I feel that if the photograph has anything to say to the viewer, the viewer should be allowed to figure that out from the visual content. (Yes, there are some exceptions.) So in this case the choice to use the words on the street sign near the right side of the frame was simply a practical decision… especially since I forgot to look for any other name on the building! However, I did wonder who Colin P. Kelley is/was. Most likely the street is named after a man known for being “one of the first American heroes of the war [who sacrificed] his own life to save his crew” in World War II. (There are lots of interesting little San Francisco streets with unusual and surprising naming histories like this.)
Warning sign on a doorway to an interior space, Chinatown, San Francisco
When doing street photography I tend to “switch modes” as I photograph — one moment I might focus on people as individuals or in groups, and then my attention may shift to the “urban landscape,” the shapes and angles of the buildings and roads and sidewalks and more. At night there is always one more element, the unusual effects of artificial light on the scene. The light can be wildly diverse: Greenish from fluorescent lamps, yellow from sodium vapor, warm and saturated from tungsten, almost like daylight though perhaps cooler from LEDs, and occasionally the colors of dusk or the moon.
LED lighting, while wonderfully efficient, is not so wonderful for night photography. Since it mirrors the color balance of daylight so closely it takes away all of those color shadings. Some times it almost makes a night photograph look like day! I made this photograph shortly after I met up with a group of other photographers to walk through this section of San Francisco. At first I was focused in small things — windows, doorways, colorful business signs. As we descended one side street we passed this somewhat nondescript building, but in the nighttime light the interior glowed with an oddly colored light.
A man with a flag organizes a group of tourists on a San Francisco street
I think this is another “there’s more going on here than you might first realize” photographs. Yes, there is a man marching out of this store carrying a small flag, but why? The answer to that question is pretty easy — he is apparently leading a group of tourists through this part of San Francisco, and the flag is his way of letting them know who to follow. (You’ll see this phenomenon in almost any city or other area that is popular with tourists.) But there is something else interesting — at last to me — about this photograph. Many of the people in the scene have apparently just become aware of me and are looking my direction, apparently not quite certain how to respond just yet. (I’m discreet, so I probably didn’t have the camera to my face, and it isn’t a large camera.)
Pools of light like this one are prime spots for me when shooting urban areas at night. I love the way the light spills out onto the sidewalk, creating shadows leading away from the people. I can also play with this light. I might shoot straight into it and make shadow the main subject. Or I can sometimes get just a bit between the subjects and the light, and then it can light them quite beautifully, especially when there are multiple light sources. If I recall correctly, it was the light and then the bricks that first caught my eyes here, and then when the people appeared in the doorway the photograph was complete.
Recently I have been revisiting some urban photography from nearly a year ago, when we spent time in Chicago and then in New York City. Expect a few more of these photographs over the next few days, a number of which may focus on small details of the urban landscape.
I have had this little photograph open in my image editing program for some time now, waiting to post it online. It is a simple photograph, but I connect it to several things that have some meaning to me. The scene is in the tiny yard at the home of relatives in Heidelberg, Germany, whose hospitality we enjoyed over a two-week period a couple of summers ago. On this evening we had gone outside, if I recall correctly, to eat and have some wine when I noticed this diagonal beam of light passing over the surface of the white wall and forming a shadow. As someone once wrote, “There is always something to see,” and photographs are potentially anywhere.
Worn and frequently painted front walls of urban San Francisco buildings
I have a few more in this urban/street photography set from a recent day spent photographing in San Francisco. I took the train to The City, headed north along the waterfront, then cut inland at Market Street before wandering up past Chinatown (avoiding Grant) and through North Beach before heading back to where I started. There is a lot to see on such a walk on a weekday in San Francisco!
Usually when I pass through the Chinatown area I forego the walk up touristy Grant Street, and instead cut across (and uphill!) to take smaller streets and to miss a lot of the usual stuff. There are lots of little nooks and crannies here, and the buildings offer diverse and sometimes wild visual treats. These buildings, which certainly look run down from the outside, present an incredible surface of textures and colors, much of which probably evolved by accident as people painted out the ubiquitous graffiti.
In some ways there is not much to say about this photograph and in some ways there should be much to say about it. But that’s never stopped me before… While I could say more about the subject and the circumstances of the photograph, I don’t think it is that important to do so. I’ll limit myself to saying that I made the photograph while walking through part of San Francisco and that it lies somewhere between being a “quick snap” (which it isn’t) and an image I completely understood at the moment I made it (it isn’t quite that either).
I’ve recently read some (occasionally odd) online discussions of minimalism in photography — what it is and what it isn’t. My ideas about minimalism are only partially based on visual concepts of the “ism,” and more based on my experience with musical minimalism, which I’ve known about for quite a long time. In a sense there are two threads that may ultimately arrive at a similar place. One simply tries to create an image (or other sound/visual object) from as little content as possible. Another may include denser content but rather the representing real things in an objective way it presents patterns or processes to the viewer/listener. (Composer Steve Reich’s concept comes to mind: “Music as a gradual process.”) In both cases I think the object encourages the viewer listener to look past the (often minimal) surface content of the work and into the material and structure of the thing. How it works might be more important than what it is.