Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Neighborhood people (and dogs)

Untitled, Oakland, July 2007.

This is my hood: my piece of sky and suburbia, 20 minutes away by rapid train from downtown San Francisco. It's a quiet neighborhood at the foot of Oakland Hills, lined with old trees and even older Arts & Crafts bungalows from the 1900s. Mine was built in 1908 and it creaks and groans like it's 100 years old. Behind us is a gorgeous Dominican seminary that is situated on manicured grounds. The week I moved into my house, Don Johnson and Cheech Marin were there filming Nash Bridges.

I enjoy taking pictures at the nearby train station because of the light, the rust-stained concrete walls, and the daily parade of commuters. Buskers perform here regularly for coins; some of them are better than others. Two Scottish bagpipers make music that is absolutely transporting, but a sax player who fancies himself avant-garde could use a lot more skill and a little less attitude. I was able to convince a very adept juggler to perform for my camera. I wanted to give him a copy of the print, but we kept missing each other.

College Avenue ("college" refers to University of California at Berkeley) is a vibrant strip of neighborhood stores, coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants. Three of the best patisseries in the Bay Area are on this strip, and at least four Michelin-starred restaurants, including "Trattoria La Siciliana," a family favorite run by two generations of regional chefs from Palermo. One of its chefs, Angelo, is also a camera enthusiast and our shared hobby has earned me bigger servings of ravioli with porcini mushrooms.

My neighborhood has a youthful bounce to it, courtesy of Berkeley students, newly married couples, and an inexplicably large number of gay women, even for the Bay Area. On weekends the sidewalks are gridlocked by baby strollers, bikes, same-sex couples hand-holding, and dogs, lots of them. The dogs are headed to Redhound, where one is welcomed by Hazel, a magnificent Rhodesian Ridgeback. On Halloween, dog owners dress up their dogs in costumes for Redhound's annual competition.

The San Francisco Chronicle published some of the pictures in this set two years ago, including the photo of the woman in the barber shop above and the Irish pub waitress on the left. The Chronicle called the set "Everyday Folks," a perfect way to describe these people that I see everyday.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Numbah one son

Vinyl Freak, Oakland, June 2009.

My son is Zoolander. To photograph him is to be subjected to an array of gestures and facial expressions, each one more inauthentic than the next. We have tried to work around this minor inconvenience: he makes his faces, and I go nope ... nope ... nope ... maybe ... nope. Then I say "we're done," his face returns to neutral, then I take my shot.

I have photographed my son, Miguel, throughout the many stages and ever-changing hairstyles of his young life. One of my favorite photos of all time was taken at his high school graduation (left), an important milestone for him, but meaningful to me for having captured him as a young adult among the company of friends who have remained close to him through the years.

They say boys are easy, girls are hard. Maybe, maybe not. Miguel has an easygoing charm about him that he uses like a "Get Out of Jail Free" card to get himself out of trouble. He may annoy or frustrate, but one can't stay angry with him for long. Underneath his cultivated sophistication and fancy jargon, he is a naif with a good heart; distracted, yes; all over the place, yes. A work-in-progress, most definitely. But I'm convinced that in time he will attack life like the creatures in his beloved Monster Hunter, and triumph.

The picture on the left was taken in Greece in the island of Spetses. The villa on the hill is reputed to be the Villa Bourani in John Fowles' novel, The Magus. This picture was taken during a quest, aided by cryptic clues, to find the villa; it is a proof document of their successful search. In Fowles' novel, the villa is inhabited by an eccentric recluse who opens up a world of mysticism and mystery to the protagonist, and transforms his life forever.

The road to adulthood for Miguel is akin to finding Villa Bourani and discovering what it has in store for him. Like Spetses, it will be hot as hell, prickly, and may require body rolls on the dunes. But finding the villa can be a sweet moment, indeed. Now all he needs to do is get back on the boat and begin his new adventure.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Parallel tracks

From Pictures from a moving van, Mendocino, September 2007.

I just finished reading a tender eulogy for Philippine environmentalist and cultural activist Odette Alcantara that was written by my friend, Anton Juan. Anton wrote his tribute to Odette while aboard a train, looking for signs of rain in the shapes of reeds and the ears of corn that he spied from his window.

"And even from this fast train," he wrote of Odette, "the shapes and colors of the field are vivid, just as how vividly the pictures of you run in parallel tracks in the distance."

Images taken from moving vehicles run on tracks that are parallel to the lens. They are akin to the cinema of motion, but are still and ghostly, vivid yet untrustworthy like memory itself. A man in a cap is frozen against a canvas of swirls that could have been painted by a delirious impressionist. The specter of a dog haunts the woods. Landscapes emerge mournful and unnatural.

These random images are meant to pass into ephemera. That they are captured and stilled give them weight they would not possess otherwise. Memory is a camera: it latches on to a moment from an infinite number of moments and preserves it like a picture.


Doppelganger, San Francisco, August 2007.

Mid-Century Modern

Eames Rocking Chair, 1946, April 2007.

Watching Mad Men made me recall the time I developed a fetish for mid-century chairs. Once, we couldn't get a fiberglass Eero Aarnio ball chair into my son's room so we had to cut a hole in the wall, reseal and reset the window pane. The chair is forever ensconced in the room, at least until we knock the walls down.

Like many chairs from the period, the ball chair is a relaxation machine, a cocoon for spacing out with the iPod and both feet over one's head. So are the rocker designed by Charles and Ray Eames from 1946 (main photo), made of molded fiberglass and maple runners, and the Barcelona daybed (right), designed in 1930 by German-American architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe.

My favorite designer from the period is French architect Jean Prouvé, whose simple wood and steel furniture reveal the grace of their lines only upon close contemplation. His economical and functional work outfitted hospitals, schools, government buildings, and prisons. Long out of production and coveted by collectors, a few of his chairs and tables were recently reproduced by Vitra, where I was able to get the Standard chairs (pictured on the left) which he developed in 1936.

Lighting fixtures from the period reflect the same sparseness and functionality. My all-time favorites are the works of Danish designer Poul Henningsen, whose glare-free PH-5 pendant (left) cuts such an enduringly modern form that it's almost impossible to date it by sight (it was designed in 1958). Henningsen's work continues to be produced by Louis Poulson, but vintage ones can still be obtained from Danish sellers.

The spirit of the Bauhaus Movement, whose 90th anniversary is currently being celebrated in Berlin, informed modernism and continues to inspire today. On the right is a table lamp whose lines are typical of the Bauhaus aesthetic; beside it, my daughter sita on a sofa that was originally designed by Le Corbusier.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Terrible beauty

Untitiled, San Francisco, May 2007.

Many photographers show the levity of daily life, but there are those who do not shy away from documenting the weight of its horrors. In San Francisco, a photographer is confronted everyday by human suffering and the misfortune of others. I refrain from taking pictures of the many homeless people who find sustenance in the street; as subjects, they are simply too vulnerable and exposed. But sometimes a picture can hold a light to illuminate their condition, and become instructive: Like when the backs of humanity scurrying past them punctuate their invisibility to the world. Or when a storefront sign that reads "HOUSE" is insult to the injury of their homelessness.

On Market Street, a traffic sign and an advertising copy for running shoes put on unintended irony when they are seen against the sprawled and huddled figures of men who have been "chewed out" by the city, the same men who have become part of the refuse that is periodically removed from the street.

A picture puts a face on the statistic, and sometimes that is reason enough to photograph the unseemly side of this postcard city. An ad for Austrian beer looms large behind a woman who is too inebriated at 5 pm to get up from the pavement. Smoke comes out of a hooded man's face while he rants and raves at pedestrians, his half-seen eyes obscuring the madness in them.

Perhaps no other person has documented human suffering on a more epic scale than Brazilian photographer and activist Sebastião Salgado. Salgado's photographs of workers around the world, famine in Africa, and the dislocated refugees across the globe are monumental calls to action that are as breathtaking for their scope as for their lyrical beauty. Salgado's subjects have been described as "figures of tragic grandeur," which has compelled his critics and detractors to ask: Can suffering be too beautiful? It is a valid debate that will not be resolved anytime soon. But this much is true of Salgado's work. As critic Eduardo Galeano said in the preface to An Uncertain Grace: "... it would be difficult to look at these figures and remain unaffected. I cannot imagine anyone shrugging his shoulder, turning away unseeing, and sauntering off, whistling."

Last three photographs:
Sebastião Salgado, from Workers and from Migrations.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My daughter's face

Zoe, San Francisco, April 2008.

I've been photographing my daughter, Zoe, since she was three or four. She has become accustomed to the intrusion of my camera when she awakes, walks, eats. She obliges me with her camera face and she has learned how to catch her light. In my company, she knows that a barren wall or a luminous shaft of light would mean having to stand against it, be blinded by the light, or appear silly to passers by; but she indulges me.

In the process of being model and muse, she has picked up the camera herself, learning to shoot with it manually before discovering that she didn't have to. She also learned about Iturbide and Balthus, Björk and Almodovar, the people we have made homages to; exposure, aperture priority, rule of thirds, diagonals. She likes her pictures dark and is a killer at Photoshop. When she photographs, as she did for her school yearbook, she is fearless and demanding.

I love my daughter's face. Her downward gaze telegraphs sadness unknowable for her age. Her grace and poise preceded her dance training: calm and stillness before the lens inhabit her naturally; hers is a face that changes its essence with the slightest movement of the eyes or the angle of the chin. She has maturity beyond her years that she projects for my benefit. As easily as she puts on "the look," she would remove it, like a mask, the moment I say "all done," and she is a child again.

She is fast approaching her teens, and as I contemplate the gift that she has given my work and the beauty she has lent to images that I shall treasure always, I give her my own: from William Butler Yeats' "A Prayer for My Daughter." I know she will read this and hope that she fathoms its meaning. It is my own wish for this beautiful child of mine.
"May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend."