Three men sitting on benches in a downtown San Francisco courtyard
This seemed like a rare quiet scene in this part of San Francisco, along busy Market Street, which is crowded with tourists, locals, buses and taxis at this time of year. While walking through this area with my camera I had taken a break to grab a coffee when I saw this scene right outside the window.
There are many things that strike me about the relationship between urban environments like this one and the natural world that is also a subject of my photography. Places like Market Street are so antithetical to almost the entirety of the rest of the world — they noise and bustle and crowds are truly an anomaly on this planet. In some places it is quite possible to see almost no evidence of that non-human world, except perhaps by looking straight up at the sky. Yet in places like this an image of that world, synthetic though it may be, is constructed — and it brings some quiet and stillness.
Billboards tower over a service station in morning light, San Francisco
There are many kinds of landscapes to photograph, and I like most of them. This one happens to be an urban landscape, a subject that I like a lot. I made the photograph on one of my periodic walks through parts of San Francisco. This one, as most of them do, started at the Caltrain station very early in the morning and headed straight up toward Market Street. This gas station is right near a freeway interchange, and probably ideally situated for people arriving in or departing from downtown San Francisco.
I know that a scene like this may simply baffle some viewers, especially those who are more drawn to nature and natural landscape photographs with their depictions of unspoiled beauty. I understand. But even in the city there is beauty, and the light was especially wonderful on this morning — blue sky with scattered fog breaking up created a soft but still directional quality to the muted light. My eyes first went to the billboards, whose backsides here tower above the surrounding buildings — urban mountains or cliffs, perhaps? But alone they did not seem to make a photograph. But then I saw the light on that wall with the “PRINTING” sign, and the contrast between the blues of the sky and wall and the hot reds and yellows of the corporate colors on the gas station.
Here is another San Francisco street photography image, this one from the “act quick and grab before it is gone” school of photography. When I’m lucky I may spot a scene like this and find that the human (and other transitory) element is unusually static, and I can take a bit of time to compose and wait for other elements to appear in the scene. On the other hand, often it is a matter of making that photograph almost instantaneously before the person moves, the street is again filled with cars, or any of many other elements change.
In this case I was initially thinking about the figures on the far side of the street and the interesting beam of light reflected down onto the street from the windows of tall buildings. As I walked I turned to my left and saw the person in black leaning against the structure and I had just enough time to make one exposure before he moved. As to what such a photograph might tell us or might mean, I prefer to leave that to your imagination. What is the person actually doing? Why is he leaning on the wall? What, if any, compositional relationships to you see between him and the trash receptacle and the angled light?
Reflected image of lights in San Francisco’s Chinatown
This photograph comes from a late-July evening spent doing night street photography in San Francisco, this time working the area between North Beach and Union Square… which of course means largely the Chinatown district. We began photography at dusk a few streets up from the touristy main drag, walking along Stockton street as the last shops closed up for the day. From here we wandered down narrow streets to the main drag, Grant, arriving there as darkness came on.
Even though it was a Friday night during the height of tourist season, there were not all that many people here, at least by the sometimes extraordinarily crowded standards of this area. Some shops were still open — catering to the out-of-town visitors — but many had closed or were closing. Nonetheless, the street held a wild variety of bright lights. At several points I forced myself to take a break from the “normal” street photography stuff and try to look at things in different ways. Here I had decided to look at light reflected in other objects, in this case a parked car.
Repainted and patched green door in the brick wall of an old San Francisco building
On this mid-August morning I got up early, took the bus to the train and the train to San Francisco, then walked right up into the downtown core of the City. The walk began with among train commuters heading up toward Market Street, past construction zones, freeway interchanges, and lots of traffic. Once at Market Street I turned toward the Bay and walked slowly, stopping frequently to watch and photograph. At the end of Market I turned south and began my walk back to the train station along the Embarcadero.
Eventually I decided to leave the Embarcadero and follow smaller streets to cross back to the Caltrain station. Like so many parts of San Francisco today, this is an area in transition. There are still some gritty old buildings, but things are rapidly evolving in a much more upscale and expensive direction — and for now the gritty and the modern live side by side. But not for long. Given the price of real estate in this area, funky old buildings like the one with this doorway do not have much of a future. I imagine that almost all of them will be knocked down for more condos and townhouses, and those that remain will be cleaned up and gentrified in ways that retain only the stylish chic quality. Two things (at least) caught my attention about this doorway, at least sufficiently to make me stop for a minute and make a few exposures. First is the stark contrast between the pinkish color of the painted bricks and greens of the doorway. Second is the sum effect of paint over graffiti and then painting it over again, which often produces interesting cubist patterns on San Francisco architecture in places like this.
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.)
Today I’ll interrupt the nature/landscape photographs in order to share another photograph of a San Francisco street scene, photographed in late July when I was there for a night street photography shoot with friends. Members of the small group began assembling early enough to start with dinner — though I arrived late and had to meet up with them post-dinner on the street. We figured that if they walked south and I walked north that we might find one another along Stockton Street in the City’s Chinatown district.
This is a favorite area of mine for photography. I love the complex and often quite worn and utilitarian architecture. Shops are jam-packed close together, and at the right times of day the streets are packed with locals. Color and texture combinations can be wild, with colorful signs, painted and repainted walls, and more. On this early evening, there were no crowds. This spot is a ways up the hill from the touristy Grant, and shops were closed or closing for the day. Shops were closed or in the process of closing, so I had more unobstructed views of the buildings.