Beyond the Image

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Sentinel Building, San Francisco, CA © 2014 Michael Maurer Smith

It was a moist grey San Francisco morning and the Sentinel Building, also known as the Columbus Tower, beckoned. The light was perfect and I had to make a photograph of this Victorian, green, copper clad flat-iron structure, with its red awning surrounding the Cafe Zoetrope on the ground level.

I sought a vantage point and soon discovered that by moving a bit along Kearny Street, I could align in my camera viewfinder part of the Transamerica Pyramid, until 2017 the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, with the edge of the seven story Sentinel building.

Because the upper section of the Transamerica building was enveloped in fog the cupola atop the Sentinel appeared as a crown owning the sky. The effect was a composition showing the new and old standing as one on a quintessential San Francisco morning. And there was a bonus—a chunk of yellow in the lower left— the top of a billboard, with the only words visible reading, “parking sucks.”

All this made for a visually satisfying picture, but it told nothing of the Sentinel Building’s story. A photograph can arrest our attention, assert beauty and meaning. It can hint, point and arouse our curiosity. It can encourage us to find out more, to get, as the broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “…the rest of the story.” But the photograph alone cannot tell us why it was made or what was happening outside the frame the instant the shutter was released. It cannot tell the inner thoughts of the people pictured or those of the photographer. The photograph can show but it cannot tell.

But this very limitation makes photographs and photography valuable and fascinating. Photographs capture moments to bridge time and serve as evidence and reminders.
Looking at photographs I have made, weeks, months or years before compels me to see them in a new context and in light of newly acquired knowledge and information. Looking at them anew I may recognize, biases, beliefs and values I once held—aesthetic, social, political and personal.

So, in brief, what is the Sentinel Building’s story?

The construction of the building began in 1906, just before the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. Only its steel frame survived the flames. But, in 1907 construction was resumed, the building was completed and the notorious Abe Ruef—political boss, lawyer and crook—saw his dream realized. In the years following the building served various purposes and owners. For a time it was owned by the Kingston Trio and it was also the original location of the fabled “Hungry i,” nightclub. Today it houses Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios Headquarters and the Zoetrope Cafe.

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