Posted on September 21, 2010

By Matthew Skala

Photographic roots in San Francisco

1000 Shotwell street sign in the Mission District of San Francisco

My career as an image maker began in San Francisco. I grew up in Fremont–a fast trip across the bay from the windy city. But for the last twenty years, I’ve been living in different places. And on a recent visit to San Francisco’s Mission District, I couldn’t help but ponder my roots.

Early in life I explored curiosities and expressed myself through drawing and poetry. My dad was the one into photography–a hobby that stemmed from his father and grandfather. During family vacations and trips to the Reno Air Races, I worked as his camera assistant–toting around his camera bag and handing him lenses. But for me this was not a hobby, it was a chore.

Every day in high school I would walk by a mysterious room without windows. The only way inside was through a black revolving door with a sticker on it that read “The Twilight Zone.” It looked like a place where magic happened but only upperclassmen and women were allowed to enter. 
Approaching my junior year in high school I was finally able to choose two electives. I chose an art class for drawing and painting and a photography class–just to see what was through that door.

My dad was excited about the photography class, he took me to a pawn shop and bought me a camera. And when we went to the Reno Air Races that summer we took turns carrying the bag and we both took pictures.

In the fall–when school started back up–I stood outside that revolving door. It felt appropriate to take a minute. A few people rushed by me. As they entered, the revolving door made a long woosh sound followed by a soft cathunk-cathunk. Finally, I entered. And the room was almost pitch black! I could make out some school desks–pushed in toward the middle–as my eyes adjusted to the dim red light. To my left against the wall was a row of enlargers, to my right against the wall were large sinks with trays of chemicals in them and when I turned around, there was the teacher. Today we were going to learn all about this room–the darkroom.

It wasn’t long before I hand processed my first roll of film and something began to light up inside of me. And when I printed my first photograph, that light ignited sparks in my brain. There really was magic in here.

Come senior year I had been out shooting a lot and my instructors began to take notice. One day I carried in a large drawing I had been working on in art class and they took notice again. One of them–Jim Payette–took me aside and started encouraging me to apply for art colleges. And the next day he brought me catalogs from different art schools around the country. I still remember the feel and smell of the San Francisco Academy of Art University book. It intrigued me most because the school was close and had a reputable photography program.

I spent my first week in college lugging chemicals, paper, and other darkroom supplies one mile up-hill from the photo supply store to the photography building at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. My bag carrying days were far from over!

Fifteen years later–on this pondering stroll through the Mission District–I fully engage in the nostalgia, hang my camera around my neck and capture the street scenes that catch my eye.

Photograph of San Francisco's Mission District
Manson for Mayor poster in the Mission District of San Francisco

Pop's and York Street in the Mission District in San Francisco

People on the streets in the Mission District of San Francisco
Man in a wheelchair on the mission district streets in San Francisco

The Lucky Pork Store Signage in the Mission District of San Francisco

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