We often see people walking, riding, even driving, with their earbuds in and their heads down, staring into the glowing screen embedded in their palm while relying upon their peripheral vision to avoid the obstacles in their path. We see them thumb-tapping messages, checking and sending emails, setting appointments, swiping for dates, and ordering products as they go. But seldom do we see them look to the sky. If they did they might notice the intestines of our electronic age criss crossing and entangled above their heads and perhaps that might give them pause to think about the overhead costs. They might ask themselves why we humans so readily waste and scar the environment and accept the ugly in exchange for comfort, entertainment and convenience; why with all of our technological advances do we still rely upon poles and strung wires as we did in the earliest days of the telegraph? They might wonder, do I spend so much of my life engaged with glowing screens because it is too depressing to look at the reality that surrounds me?
It was a quintessential San Francisco morning, moist and grey. The perfect light in which to photograph the Sentinel Building, also known as the Columbus Tower.
I sought a vantage point and soon discovered a position on Kearny Street from where I could align in the viewfinder part of the Transamerica Pyramid, which until 2017 had been the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, with the Sentinel.
The result was a composition bringing the new and old together. 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 satisfying picture, but it told little of the Sentinel Building’s story. A photograph can arrest our attention and assert beauty. It can hint and arouse our curiosity. It can encourage us 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 when the shutter was released. It cannot tell the inner thoughts and feelings of the people pictured or those of the photographer. The photograph can only show what was before the lens.
But this very limitation makes photographs and photography valuable and fascinating. They capture moments that bridge time and serve as evidence and aids to memory.
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 and question, biases, beliefs and values I once held—aesthetic, social, political and personal.
So, in brief, here is some of what my photograph of the Sentinel Building does not tell.
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 subsequent years the building was owned by the Kingston Trio and it was also the original location of the fabled “Hungry i,” nightclub. Today it is owned by Francis Ford Coppola and houses his Zoetrope Studios Headquarters and the Zoetrope Cafe.
This past year I was in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. There I stood rapt before Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Primavera, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation and Brunelleschi’s dome crowning Santa Maria del Fiore. I was surrounded by much of the greatest art and architecture ever conceived by the human mind and made by human hands—most of it done at the behest of rich, ruthless and proud patrons seeking to aggrandize themselves and extend their power.
The Florentine ruling families of the Renaissance, the Medici and Strozzi along with the Cardinals and Popes of the Roman church, used the greatest artists and architects of their time to enhance their image and assert their authority. This art and architecture, however, was not the free expression of its makers. It was not done to further artistic ideals and exploration. It was done as a service to those who could demand and pay for it. It was commercial art.
Nonetheless, what I saw in Florence filled me with an awe albeit tinged with sadness. So much skill, sweat and talent had been expended on furthering the aims of the wealthy and powerful.
Today, we as tourists come to admire these frescos, paintings, sculptures and buildings that were commissioned by rapacious, amoral patrons some 500 to 800 hundred years ago—works depicting scenes of battle, beheadings, poisonings, rape, and murder—works done to adorn the halls of power and walls of churches—churches ostensibly dedicated to Christ’s teachings of love and compassion.
Five centuries from now will people travel the world to admire the art and architecture commissioned by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Mussolini? Can something done to further the regime of a tyrant or to glorify the pain and suffering of war truly be a beautiful thing—genuine Art? If so we must concede that certain machine guns are exquisite in their function and form and deserve to be appreciated as art and their creators as artists. If so Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK47, would then be the artistic equal of Leonardo Da Vinci. Surely his invention has had as large an effect.
Not long ago I read the French author Patrick Modiano’s novella, After Image. It tells the story of a photographer in Paris who wanted to disappear. He kept his photos, in no particular order, in three suitcases, as he moved about constantly, disappearing for long periods of time—a mystery to all who knew him and perhaps himself. Was he his photographs? Was he carrying himself, wherever he went, in those suitcases?
Modiano is known for writing about memories and how they intrude upon and influence our lives. I too am a photographer, so After Image stirred my feelings and thoughts concerning photography—how it is always an act of creating memento mori—how it is always a conversation between record, perception and memory.
After Image evoked my memories of Paris and the French and caused me to reflect upon who I have become, who I think I was, where I am now and how I got here. What did and do my photographs say? Really? Who do they say that I am? What do they tell me I should pay attention to?
PhotoMart was not a place Architectural Digest would have featured. It was dilapidated, dingy and stunk of chemicals. Its paneled walls were unadorned except for a wall clock and a couple of photographs. A rack of sundry photo supplies and accessories stood against one wall and just inside the front door and below the big plate glass windows there was a long, wall-mounted light box and two chairs that once belonged to a cheap dining room set. Between the chairs sat a single wastebasket, invariably overflowing with discarded transparencies, film canisters, and pickup envelopes.
By the late 1980s I had become serious about my photography and would no longer entrust the processing of my film to a drugstore. I began searching for alternatives. PhotoMart became my favorite.
Whenever I came to claim my images I was eager to tear open the sealed envelopes knowing that each held a plastic box with 24 or 36 fresh 35 mm transparencies—Kodachrome or Fujichrome testaments to my vision or the lack of it. I hoped I’d be surprised but always I worried that I’d have nothing in the batch worth saving. And if I had done the shoot for a client I was doubly concerned. So I’d take a seat at the light box and before leaving I’d contribute my share of discards to the basket. For the serious photographer the rule of thumb was that only 2 to 4 images out of every 36 would be worth keeping. Shooting film was an expensive process.
Sometimes, Marty Kies, the owner, or his son, would greet me at the counter saying, “you got some nice ones this time.” That was always a pleasure. Even more satisfying was talking with them and the other photographers who happened to be there holding forth on techniques, film characteristics, composition, lighting, and working with various photography subjects and clients. There was in this a sense of community.
PhotoMart is now long gone. Today I photograph with digital cameras and do most of my own printing. It is an isolated process. I go from shooting the subject matter to immediately seeing the results on the camera back and I can archive a file or delete it with the push of a button—no mess. The final sorting process is done at a computer monitor. And because I shoot raw files I can adjust them in Photoshop and save images that would never have been salvageable on film. I appreciate all of this and I would not want to go back to the costs and waste of film. But, I greatly miss the community I found at the PhotoMart, and I miss the anticipation, waiting to discover what would appear in those transparencies and negatives.