Pondering my photographic roots in San Francisco’s Mission District

Photograph of San Francisco's Mission DistrictMy 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.  

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

Signage and Street Art in the Mission District of San Francisco

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

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

Cheap Ass Drinks in the Mission District of San FranciscoManson for Mayor poster in the Mission District of San FranciscoDSC_71941000 Shotwell street sign in the Mission District of San Francisco

Anti-Aesthetics

When I attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, one of my photography instructors was James B. Wood. The first thing he said was his job is to un-teach us. It was a concept that he touched on in every class. He was trying to break down any ideas we had about what makes a good photo or the conventions of what art is supposed to be. Most of us students where straight out of high school where we were taught to approach life a certain way. He wanted to undo all of that and teach us how to have our own individual look at the world. I learned a lot from this but can’t say it has stayed with me. Maybe it would have if I stayed more focused on creative outlets over the years. But as many of you know its very difficult to pay the bills and be creative at the same time.

Working on films, one would think creativity is an everyday occurrence. Unfortunately its not. There are a lot of steps to climb before one can get close to creative satisfaction, and if you struggle for it at the bottom, or even close to the top, you might end up getting fired. It gets to a point where for every day one can’t be creative, a part of your soul is gobbled up. Sometimes its one person stifling you, but more often its an institution. When this happens to me, which it does often, the enriching concepts taught to me by James B. Wood start to bury themselves deep within abandoned recesses in my brain. But thankfully Mr. Wood was not alone and every now and than I get a reminder that helps me free my mind a little bit:

Here is an excerpt from an article in Cinema Scope Magazine. “Ai” is Ai Weiwei, a famous Chinese artist and activist whom works in multiple mediums including sculpture and documentary film.

Scope: You mean you are against a formulaic or trained aesthetics?

Ai: Right, that is the worst, totally clichéd. A unique aesthetic must be anti-aesthetic. If it doesn’t achieve anti-aesthetics, then it is not unique. Whether or not the content and shooting style of my films are flawless, or if the quality of each image is good or not, I don’t see these as real questions. It’s like if you were to give me a fabric: I could create clothing out of it. Even if it is an old and tattered hemp sack that was gleaned from the trash, I could still design an article of clothing from it. It is only the material. But if you don’t have that material, that piece of fabric, there is no possible way I can produce clothing for you. So, with the films, all I ask is that you bring back materials.

Editing is very important, especially documentary editing. When editing these films, I talk with the editor and explain my intention, and we make cuts, changes, and editing decisions, again and again. And after that we use music to supplement the image. When we are close to finishing, we discuss things extensively, and most of the time ask the musician-artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou to contribute the music. His music is pretty rough and raw, just like my films. I don’t want something light or exquisite.

Here is a link to a great article in Surfer magazine touching on the same concept but in relation to the art and approach to surfing:

Surfer Magazine Article.

The file is in my public drop box folder, let me know if you have any trouble downloading it.