Man with guitar walks past a Chinatown souvenir shop at night.
When photographing in the “street” you never quite know what will show up, when it will happen, or how quickly it will appear and disappear. And you have very, very little control over the elements that might make a photograph — you can sometimes pick your point of view, perhaps create a composition out of the static elements, watch a person approaching who might put a point of focus in the scene… but they you simply have to work with whatever happens. I think this can be even a bit trickier at night, since not all of the interesting things take place in light that can easily be photographed.
Here the first focus for me was the gaudy, colorful, and well-lit interior of this open front store in San Francisco’s Chinatown district. There is some interest in that subject alone, but frankly it can be a pretty static thing when not populated by people. As I looked at this storefront and pondered how to make a photograph out of it I noticed a man wandering up the sidewalk with a guitar, a literal strolling minstrel. At that point, he became the important element, and as he passed I attempted to time several exposures that placed him in interesting places in the composition.
Night photograph of a closed Chinatown shop, San Francisco
In early September I again joined a group of folks who like to photograph San Francisco urban and street subjects after dark. Most of the group met before sunset, did a bit of street photography, joined for dinner at a place along the edge of Chinatown, and then headed out for a couple of hours of photographing in the urban nightscape. Once again we passed through Chinatown — hard to resist when we were already there! — and on down into areas closer to Market Street.
Late in the evening it was time for me to head back to my car, so I said good-bye to the rest of the group and headed back the way I had come, walking alone this time. It was now much later, and this area pretty much shuts down — surprisingly so for a Saturday night in The City. But this meant that the earlier crowds were gone and the scene was a lot quieter and slower. When I passed this corner earlier the shop was open and there were quite a few people around, but now the shutters were closed and the green light washed over the urban landscape of sidewalks and steps leading up toward a dark alley. After years of doing night photography the “old way” — tripod and long exposures — I’m still amazed that I can wander out and shoot stuff like this using a small handheld camera these days.
Partially closed security shutters in front of a San Francisco business
There are many things I enjoy about doing street photograph, and several of them have to do with the fast-moving and spontaneous nature of the pursuit. The urban environment, at least once you start seeing its possibilities, can be an almost overwhelmingly rich source of potential subjects, to that point that I often have to make a subconscious choice to deal with only a subset of them at any given moment. For a while I may focus on color, then I may engage with human subjects, then it might be effects of light, or balances of shapes and mass, or tiny details, or…
As we turned down this block between Stockton and Grant during an evening of night street photography in San Francisco, for some reason I made one of these gear changes. Moments before I had been photographing people and the fronts of shops that were closing up for the day — but as I walked down this street I forgot about all of that and instead photographed mostly small details such as the accordion pattern of this security panel over a window.
A couple passes a man with a dog on a San Francisco sidewalk
There are stories behind all of my photographs, but the stories of street photographs can be a bit more involved — they often include not only my own story but also the stories of the events and even the people who may appear. There is a bit of both in this photograph of some people along a sidewalk in the Chinatown area of San Francisco, a photograph made in the early evening at the beginning of a night of street photography. I can’t try to describe everything that might be here, but I’ll share a few hints.
The first subject I see in this photograph is the woman, whose gaze is somewhat averted and whose demeanor does not express complete ease. The young man she accompanies is, obviously, facing away from the camera as she clutches his arm. Look to the left and notice the figure near the lamppost — a man clothed in a tie-dye “robe” (for lack of a better description of his improvised attire), carrying a backpack, and walking a very large and hairy dog. That man was the first subject to catch my attention, and when I first saw him he was behind my camera position and walking towards me. Believe me, he was quite a subject himself, but I am not fond of grabbing photographs of people who seem to perhaps be down and out — that sometimes feels like a bit of cliché. So I let him pass without a photograph, but then instinctively turned to see the scene unfold in the wake of his passage.
The view through the open door of a San Francisco corner bar
I felt like a bit of a voyeur making this and a few other San Francisco night photographs — but that is part of street photography, isn’t it? After starting in a very different area at sunset — a less touristy area of Chinatown — then working my way slowly down past the gaudy lights and bright shops of Grant Street — I ended up in the popular area of shops and restaurants and hotels near Union Square.
This place is, quite literally, a “corner bar.” It was quiet inside, and I imagined that at least some of the folks at tables or sitting on stools having a drink might be regulars. A few sat alone and a few were in groups of two or more. The most interesting man (in the world) appeared on the television screen. The door was open and I considered that enough of an invitation to make a few photographs.
A group of people waits for a table at the Bow Hon Seafood Restaurant.
This photograph comes from an evening of night photography in San Francisco, mostly in and around the Chinatown district. This is, of course, a popular tourist area, but somehow the night changes things and makes it perhaps a bit less tacky — or maybe just tacky in more interesting ways! Many of the shops seem to close down early here, even though this was a weekend evening in the height of the San Francisco summer tourist season.
This is almost one of those “photographs of nothing special,” though I think that many of us can identify with the feeling of standing outside small restaurant in an urban area, talking and perhaps waiting for a table as the street life passes by. When shooting handheld photography at night I seek out this little pools of light beneath commercial signs or in the light spilling our from well-lit businesses.
Front of a Chinatown tourist shop at night, San Francisco
Like any big city popular with tourists, San Francisco has its share — and then some! — of these little shops whose sole purpose seems to be to sell cheap proof that “I was there!” to folks visiting the city. This one happens to be in the densely packed Chinatown district of the City, right on Grant, but you can find the same thing alone the areas of the waterfront that are on the tourist circuit and in a number of other places.
The items included in the stock of such shops, while often sharing the same level of kitsch and cheap manufacture, are often a sort of study in the ways that cities portray themselves and in the ways they are viewed. Exhibit #1: How about those American flag tights! Wow! It was getting late when we passed through here, and many shops had already closed or were in the process of closing.