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.
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.