Profound Ambivalence


A flickr contact, davidteter, recently posted the above to his photo stream on that service.

It depicts a person sleeping, head on top of his backpack, in front of the large glass windows of a coffee shop. He is wearing one of his running shoes with bright blue laces and the other is off and sitting in front of his head. The window of the coffee shop is filled with people, apparently unconcerned that a person is passed out on the street, just below their field of vision.

I am profoundly ambivalent about capturing candid photos of the large population of persons who seem to be, temporarily or permanently, living on the streets of the city of San Francisco.

Historically, there is a precendent. Paul Strand had a special camera made, which allowed him to take a picture of something/someone, while appearing to photograph something else. Dorothea Lange’s portraits during the depression and dust bowl were rallying points for social justice.

I take BART and MUNI daily and walk around this city.

Just this morning I passed a homeless person’s “nest”, leaking urine, being cleaned up at the Civic Center MUNI platform AND witnessed a drunk, disorderly, and abusive person being removed from the N train.

Did I stop and take a picture of either? No.

First off, when on public transit, I am generally in non-communicative mode. I am afraid, by taking a picture, I will engage a person and risk an interaction. In my experience, the vast majority of interactions on public transit are pleasant, but the ones which are unpleasant are SO unpleasant, (risk of being beat up, robbed, threatened, yelled at, or worse,) that I try to avoid all interactions, unless someone is apparently lost or genuinely in need of help.

That either makes me a coward or a savvy city dweller.

I am uncertain of the protocol. Do I ask before taking a photo? What if they want money? If so, what’s an appropriate amount?

Also, really, I am not much of a people photographer.

I know people who are good at getting people to look their best, or in a certain way, for photos.

I don’t really enjoy that sort of interaction.

My whole photographer thing, what I enjoy, is capturing a moment as it happens, the way light is falling on a leaf or a face, not ME creating a moment for a photograph. I tend to be kind of stickler-ey about not even moving the subjects of my photography. Camera can move, but the thing is where it is.

Finally, I am not really comfortable exploiting others’ misfortune for my own gain, even if it is just internet kudos.

Both Lange and Strand were attempting to expose something that was not being seen by the larger public, idealistically you could say, for social justice, although, Lange for profit, Strand certainly not.

I am as ambivalent about the homeless situation in San Francisco as I am about taking pictures of it.

A person could spend all day, every day, taking pictures of the wasting expressions and faces of the youth in the upper haight and Golden Gate Park.

It is tragic and heartbreaking.

On the other hand, those people often REALLY annoy me with their intentionally comical requests for money and offers of “bud”.

So I look at davidtdeter’s photo and think: Is it staged? Did he give the guy money? Those are awfully nice shoes… Wow, it would really have been a better photo, if the cafe goers had been the squeaky clean en-tatooed young people in a trendy coffee spot on Valencia St, not anonymous Asian folks in a down town Starbucks…

..and on and on and on…

Serious Glass.

So you’ve probably noticed a bit of a change in the photos on the blog.

Lately, I’ve been shooting Black and White film and scanning the negatives.

First, I’ve never really liked my point and shoot digital cameras. It always feels like you are having to trick the camera to get the to photo you want.

I like SLR cameras, but Digital SLRs seem so complicated, not to mention heavy and expensive.

In general, I am the sort of person who enjoys having complete control over a few simple variables.

I got bit by the camera bug when I was a boy.

When I was in High School, I got my first SLR camera, an Olympus OM-10. However, as the photographer for our High School paper, I used an Olympus OM-1.

There was nothing automatic on the OM-1 camera. You controlled the focus, aperture, and shutter speed. That was all there was to taking photos, aside from picking a subject, lens, and film.

Even with film, I always shot Kodak Tri-X Black and White film, so not a lot of variation.

When I graduated from High School, I asked my parents to loan me the money to buy a similar camera. By that time, the OM-1 had been discontinued and there were still (barely) a few of the newer OM-1n models on the market. I managed to score one of the snazzy ones with a black body.

Serious Glass.

Lurking on eBay netted me these few styling vintage Zuiko Lenses.  On the camera is my current favorite, the G-Zuiko AUTO-S 55mm f/1.2.  It is a super fast lens, with a wonderful softness at the wider aperatures, especially with long exposures.  Amusingly, one of the reasons it was discontinued by Zuiko is that it contains “rare elements”.  I also picked up the wide angle Zuiko Auto-W MC 28mm f/2.8, a slower Zuiko MC MACRO 50mm f/3.5 lens, a very fast Zuiko MC MACRO 90mm f/2.0 lens, and a telephoto zoom lens, the Zuiko AUTO-Zoom 75-150mm f/4.0.

The thing that I most needed, with all the low light cocktail photography that I do, was a new tripod.  I had one I’d been toting along with me since my days in high school, but the legs were now malfunctioning badly making it nearly useless.  I really like this new Manfrotto tripod, but am not overly fond of the ball head.  Just doesn’t make sense to me that a single tension screw controls adjusting both the X and Y axis.


I actually also have most of the equipment for a Black and White darkroom, but setting one up is a hassle. I think in California they give you a hard time not just about the water use necessary, but the chemicals.

Instead of doing it myself, I’ve been having Photoworks develop (and scan) the negatives.  They are good people and it’s less of a hassle than developing and scanning myself.  They are far less likely to get dust on the negatives than I am.  Hm, though I am noticing they appear to be scanning my B&W negatives as color, giving them a slightly sepia tone.  Gonna have to mention that next time.

Let me know what you think of the new look for the photos.