Tag Archives: San Francisco

Fort Point, Lost in the Familiar


A long time ago, when I first studied photography, I wandered the parks and other public spaces of San Francisco carrying a camera loaded with film looking for light and shape. I never made any memorable images, but I enjoyed the capture of the moment and solitude of the experience – and still do.

PhotoStoryOne of my favorite locations – and that of many other would-be art photographers — was Fort Point. It was a wondrous, messy collage of brick walls, stone stairways and long hallways that bisected barracks whose wooden floors and plaster walls were in lovely decay. Light burst into the building through long, tall windows and slithered along the steps of the stairwells. The Fort was thinly staffed and the deep, dark cul-de-sacs of the gun mounts provided ample private space to photograph the texture of the weathered brick or, quite often, the alabaster curves of a girlfriend’s body.

Today, Fort Point is cleaned up. The barracks are refreshed and repaired and host orderly exhibits of past military life. Families hike the stairs and shoot selfies on the roof beneath the yawning maw of the Golden Gate Bridge. Everyone is fully dressed.

Nonetheless, I return when I can, as I did yesterday. After several days of sickness, which overlapped the chaos of Thanksgiving and the return from a difficult trip to Mexico, I sought shelter in the Fort while returning to Marin from SFO, where I had dropped off KT.

I put the new little camera in the bag and walked the along breakwater that connects Chrissy Field to the Fort. As I entered, I dropped a couple of bucks in donation box in the entryway – what a deal, I thought.

Out of the chill wind, I daubed the moisture that these days forms in my eyes from the cold, and saw, to my relief and pleasure, that nothing had changed since I was there about a year ago. The Park Service has managed to upgrade the interior and preserve the exterior. Nicely done. What persists is a sturdy physical link between my ever-lengthening past and my increasingly tenuous present.

Fort Point, like those other photographic haunts of my Kodak-fueled youth – Golden Gate Park, Telegraph Hill, Powell & Market – always ignites a complex set of feelings. With remembrance of innocence comes wistfulness. With recognition of the physical space comes comfort. With the arithmetic of time comes anxiety over the diminishing sum that remains. With the touch of the camera comes anticipation.

It is the latter, above all else, that brings me back to this space beneath the bridge – the physicality of the camera and the instantaneous sense of intimacy it engenders in me. As my right thumb finds its resting spot on the back of the camera, as I feel the weight of the German metal in my hand, as I adjust the lens with the fingers of my left hand and as I point the glass toward a wall or a stairs I’ve photographed many times before, I become lost in the viewfinder. The moment engulfs me and I yield, at last, to its comfort.

Odd, isn’t it, that such a feeling could persist with such strength for all of these years? It draws me back again and again, and I respond, knowing that in those times when I need to find myself I must go  where I can lose myself.


Mission, protestor, Ayotzinapa

43 students. 43 young people kidnapped in the night. 43 sons and daughters murdered by the hands of corruption. 43 bodies discarded and burned like household trash. 43 chances for a better future lost. 43 more reasons to mourn for Mexico.

The 43 slain university students of Ayotzinapa died because on Sept. 26 they commandeered several public buses and blocked a highway, a common form or political protest in Mexico, and by doing so interfered with the wife of the mayor of Iguala, one of the most violent and corrupt cities in the Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most violent and corrupt states. She was en route to give a speech, found the road blocked and called her husband to demand he do something about it. The mayor,  José Luis Abarca, ordered the local police to attack them. The cops handed them to a criminal gang associated with the narcos who control the region. And the students disappeared.

All this happened with the same impunity on the part of the mayor, the police and the narcos that infects all of Mexico and has quite literally allowed killers of all political and illegal persuasion to get away with murder for years.

Since the beginning of what has come to be called the Mexican Drug War, launched in 2006 by then-President Felipe Calderón again the web of cartels who generate between up to $50 billion in illegal drug sales annually and control 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United State, the official death toll of the violence between the cartels, between the government and the cartels and between both of them and the innocent citizens of Mexico – like the 43 students of Ayotzinapa – has reached 60,000. That’s the official number. Unofficially, human rights observers put the estimate at 120,000.

For some perspective, consider that 58,220 Americans died in the Vietnam War, a conflict that compelled my generation to fill the streets of the U.S. capital in protest and led to vast changes in American society.

Of course, Vietnam was an American war and a draft existed that pulled those who could not dodge the conflict directly into it, but still one might imagine that a war of similar lethality occurring in a country visited annually by more than 6 million Americans would spark a modicum of outrage here at home.

Not so.

Thus far, the official U.S. response has been little more than a shrug. The Obama administration has described the fate of the 43 students and the insipid response of the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto as “worrisome.”

That may change. The street protests that began in Iguala after the fate of the students was learned have spread throughout the county and turned violent in Mexico City. Peña Nieto, who ignored the kidnapping for 33 days before speaking publicly about and then left the country for a trade conference in China, has returned to hear a growing number of cries for his resignation (fueled in part by the revelation that he and his wife, a soap-opera star, had a secret $7 million house in a wealth enclave above Mexico City).

American news media are increasingly covering the issue and Mexican-American communities in the United are organizing and marching in the hope of galvanizing more public attention. One of those marches happened Saturday in San Francisco, with 500 people walking from 24th and Mission, once of the heart of the city’s Latino community, to Powell and Market streets. More protests are planned, once in conjunction with general strike set to occur in Mexico on Nov. 20, the anniversary of the Mexican revolution, and another in 43 U.S. cities in December.

What can you do? Many things. From a little to a lot.

Write or tweet your congressional representatives. Tell them you’re outraged, that you’ve had enough, that you want the U.S. government to demand that is second-largest trade partner (U.S.-Mexico trade totaled $600 billion in 2013) clean house.

If you smoke dope or do coke (and why do you?), then stop. Nearly all the coke and much of the weed comes through Mexico. Your high supports the cartels, which in turn corrupt the government further, which engenders a state of impunity, which allows crimes of all sorts, from tax evasion to mass murder, to go unpunished.

March. Walk in the streets with the Mexicans who have come to our country, legally and illegally, in order to escape the very corruption that lead to the deaths of the 43 students. With more than 33 million people of Mexican origin living in the United States (and that’s not counting second-, third-, fourth-, etc. generations of Mexican Americans) this is as much our war at it is Mexico’s.

On the Job: Farm to Table

State Bird, corn pancakes

I had the opportunity recently to photograph two of my favorite things — farms and food. Writer Mimi Towle put together a feature on San Francisco restaurants that use the organic food of Marin County to create their menus, and I photographed both ends of the food chain. (Here’s the story).

The story featured four farms, four restaurants and four dishes. Today, I’m posting the shots from the restaurants. Later, I’ll follow up with those from the  farms.

The restaurants and their dishes are:

  • State Bird — Sweet corn and chive short stack (above), topped with melted Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam cheese. (I ate three of these after the shoot!)
  • Slanted Door — Manila clams with green garlic puree (garlic from Allstar Organics).
  • Michael Mina San Francisco — Early Girl tomatoes and grilled octupus (tomatoes from County Line Harvest).
  • Ristobar — Fresh summer salad (strawberries from Fresh Run Farm).

All the food was photographed on location.  I love shooting in restaurants because they — and their crews — remind me of my newspaper days. Both restaurants and newspapers operate under deadlines, are staffed with idiosyncratic people who are drawn to pressure and shut it all down at the end of day only to start fresh the next.

(Be sure to take a look at my cookbook, Organic Marin, Recipes from Farm to Table, which celebrates the organic growers of Marin.)




Venezuelan Face-off

Venezuelan election at the Venezuelan Consulate in San Francisco

On Sunday, Venezuela held a presidential election, choosing between Nicolás Maduro, the hand-picked heir to Hugo Chávez, the U.S.-taunting strongman who died of cancer in March after 14 years of rule, and Henrique Capriles, a state governor who, under the flag of an united opposition, ran against and lost to Chavez in October.

Maduro won, but not before hundreds of Venezuelans converged on the country’s consulate on Mission Street in San Francisco to vote and to loudly proclaim their allegiance to one side or the other.

Capriles supporters, most clad in some form of red, yellow and blue, the colors of the Venezuelan flag, far outnumbered the chávistas, who used bullhorns to compensate for their lack of mass.  The chávistas, wearing red, included an assortment of other left-leaning demonstrators, whose banners proclaimed support for socialism in Mexico, the Bolivarian revolution  in general and, of course, Che Guevara.

Until recently I would have not devoted part of a sunny, spring Sunday to standing on a San Francisco sidewalk amidst a crowd of vociferous Venezuelan expats, but the small Spanish school  in Marin where I engage in my own revolution against the demands of  the subjunctive is run by a couple from Caracas and the current state of their native country is a frequent topic of conversation.


On the Job: Covering the Waterfront

Sausalito waterfront

Sometimes a photo is like the last bus home — you know it’s coming, but you just don’t know when, and, if you’re late you miss it.

This dawn view of San Francisco from the Sausalito shore is one of those images. The picture is always there. The city doesn’t move, the old pilings remain stuck in the bay mud — all you have to do is show up at the right time, be patient and then put your trust in your eye and your technology.

Simple, eh? Yep, but still not so easy. I visited this popular vantage point on the Marin shore a half dozen times before I made this shot last year right about this time. The scene is best in fall and winter, when the chances of morning fog are lowest and the incoming rains clear the skies overnight.

A few lessons I learned during those outings:

  • Shaky piers, tripods, and passing runners don’t mix.
  • Gloves are better than coffee to warm the hands.
  • A $10 flashlight makes it easier to operate a $5,000 camera.
  • The sun never oversleeps. I often do.

One other thing (something from my journalism days):

  • Always take the picture. Even if you’re not sure what’s going to happen with it, someone else may have an idea about it some other day — in this case Marin Magazine for its November cover.

Want to have this photo on your wall? Of course you do. Visit my gallery on The Marin Store.

America’s National Pastime

Giants Baseball fans

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love overindulgence and have indulged overly and often throughout my life. I’ve always believed, though, that incessant feeding of the inner beast (corporal or emotional) also requires eventual self-correction. In other words, excess is a big “yes” and it comes with a bill that must be paid with the currency of “no.”

Sadly, many of us — and particularly Americans — just ain’t got no “no’s” when it comes to food and drink. Few places is that more on display than during a game of America’s favorite pastime, where what’s happening between the foul lines often seems secondary to what’s happening in the beer and pizza lines.

Last night, my wife and I saw a great game of baseball — Giants vs. Rockies with the Giants winning 2-0 — in arguably the country’s greatest ballpark. We took the boat from Marin, sat down low, saw the Little Panda homer and had a couple of beers and dogs. All good.

What was evident, though, from the moment we boarded the ferry in Larkspur until we returned hom five hours later was many people view a ballgame as simply an excuse to publicly drink and eat as much as possible.

Guys were buying beers and cocktails two or three at time on the ferry, enough for them to get well lit by the end of the hour-long bay-crossing. At the park, people around us ate non-stop for nearly three hours. I watched them inhale hot dogs and mounds of garlic fries, crunch down plates of cheesy nachos and bags of peanutes, then wash it all down with beer after beer after beer.

The result was not bad behavior — nothing more than the usual Bud and testosterone-fueled boisterousness at any Giants or Niners game — but bad bodies laden with fat, sugar and carbs.

The young couple in front of us (above) were in their 20s, but were already 40 to 50 pounds overweight apiece, poundage that surely increased during the game. Nearby seats will filled with “older” people — 40s and 50s — whose beer-bellied guts ballooned out like those of pregnant women, whose knees, aching from carrying the extra weight, wobbled on the stairs, and whose backs, pulled forward by years of too many pounds, were hunched and rounded. They looked and acted decades older than their age.

And, yet, young and old alike, they ate and ate and drank and drank throughout the game, saying “yes” to thousands of calories. Clearly, they had indulged their ravenous appetites for years outside of the ballpark, but just as clearly the game provided an opportunity — and an excuse wrapped in the bunting of the national pastime — to amp up that indulgence to a feverish pace.

Why should I care? For a couple of reasons.

First, the drinking among men in their 20s and 30s these days seems to outpace even that of my generation, and I always thought we had set a high benchmark for self-excess. Of course, I realize this observation is ridden with irony and smacks of inter-generational typicalness.

More importantly, though, I should care (and so should you) because Americans are eating themselves to death and costing our society billions in the health care needed to treat diseases cause by obesity.

During the whole contentious debate on U.S. health care reform, obesity has been called the elephant in the room — one most Americans don’t want to hear about because it would force an admission that a simple change in behavior would improve their own health (and their children’s) and lower the overall price all of us pay for medical care.

If America’s National Pastime was just saying “no” to overindulgence more often, we could start saying “yes” to health care reform. Yes, it is more complicated than that, but it’s a good place to start.

Advice in a Storm

I have, to paraphrase Blanche Dubois, always benefited from the kindness of strangers. By this I mean I have had many guides — good people who, through advice, action or simply mannerism, provided me with a way forward when I could not see one and anchored me against the storms to which I have always been unwisely drawn.

One of the most important of these people was Fran Ortiz, a photographer with the “old” San Francisco Examiner who taught me the principles of photojournalism at San Francisco State and, later, encouraged me to pursue a career in it. I took half of that advice — I kept the “journalism,” but dropped the “photo.” Now, I am trying to reunite them in some form.

Fran was a man of immense visual talent, but what made him such an accomplished photographer were his patience, gentility and humor, qualities that enabled him to insert himself (and his camera) into the lives of his subjects so seamlessly.

As a teacher, Fran was persistent in pushing us toward excellence. He taught me how to read a contact sheet to understand how I shot, how I moved through a scene or interacted with the person I was shooting. One frame, he would say, says little about the photographer. The entire shoot reveals his technique, personality, strengths and weaknesses. The same observations apply today on a screenful of images.

He told us to get closer, to move in, to be amid the action not apart from it, and to get in front of people — faces, not asses, he would say. These techniques were all part of Fran’s belief that, as Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kim Komenich said in this tribute: “Fran realized a photo should be made and not ‘taken.’ He based his entire way of seeing on the idea that the negative is the score and the print is the performance.”

Made not taken. I try to judge my own work by that standard and still fall far too short far too often.

One of the best times to make pictures, Fran said, was in the worst of weather. When the weather gets bad, grab the camera and head out, he would tell us in class. During these last few days of heavy (and welcome) Northern California rain, I’ve heard Fran’s voice in my head quite often.

The shot above — San Francisco under a storm — is my response. I like it, but I keep wondering how Fran would tell me to improve it. (Take a bigger look.)