Beyond the Image

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

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.