the san francisco diaries: in black and white, part I

“We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad. We made vague plans to meet in Frisco.”
– Jack Kerouac in On The Road

San Francisco – the place where I run to as often as I can to get away from everything.

I’ve always said that I like the anonymity of big cities – it allows me to get lost and to lose track of time, to wander unrecognized, to not fear running into anyone just around the corner. San Francisco can hardly be considered a big city in the American scheme of things – “just” (hah!) 6 or 7 hours south lies Los Angeles, the second most populated city in the United States and one of the largest in the country, that vast landscape of American dream and promise. But when one comes from a tiny country in its own little corner of Europe, and regardless of how much one travels and tries to see the world, American metropoles still impose themselves on my tiny self whenever I wander through them – and I love it. And though I haven’t traveled much in America (…yet), I don’t think I will ever get over this feeling.

The photos I’m sharing with you here, though there aren’t many to begin with, are but the first in a series of black and white (and maybe colour) film photos that I will be taking while living in the US for the next two years: a catalog of experiences in this land, a series of notes on my own experience of living (in) America. And this is just one particular section that I had to separate from all others, one that is wholly devoted to San Francisco – one of the most incredible cities I have ever been in.

So, I won’t attempt to sugarcoat it – life away from your own place can be tough, sometimes. And I am still in the process of getting used to it – mostly, I’m just learning how to be by myself and depending only on myself in a place that is far from everything I have ever experienced. It’s about learning how to embrace lonesomeness, as well as company whenever it is the time for it. This isn’t always painful – in fact, it can be pretty rewarding, especially when you successfully challenge yourself to break out of your shell – but there is an omnipresent and looming kind of loneliness that creeps up on you when you least expect it (mostly late at night, when at home, and when the silence takes over what otherwise are very hectic, intense and noisy days.

So San Francisco is my every-other-weekend getaway (not as often as I would like it to be) – from Stanford, from work, from people, from my life. And as I try to get away from it all, and as I try to learn how to enjoy my own company (regardless of how annoying and irritating I can be), inevitably life happens around me – and I’m learning how to capture it better and better each time.

I know, street photography has never been my forte – I photograph landscapes and emptiness much better than I photograph people or movement -, but practice makes perfect. Hopefully.

A sunny Saturday afternoon nap in the Mission District

I came across film photography about three years ago, when I purchased a Lomo just on a whim, a silly extravagance that did not go as well as I had planned it to. When I went to get the first roll of film revealed, most of them just came out either badly exposed, blurry or they just weren’t working the way I wanted them to: my first time photographing film wasn’t what I had expect it to. So, disappointed with the camera – and even more with myself and my lack of photographic skills -, I set it aside for a while and forgot about it, prompted back to digital and did not even give film photography the time of the day.

Later on, and encouraged by a friend of mine – a man who is himself a very talented photographer, both in analog and in digital, both in colour and in black and white -, I decided to give film another try. I fell in love with his photos – he photographs mostly landscapes and not portraits -, and the colours that it seemed only film . He lent me his favourite camera – a Balda Baldessa R-LK, a German rangefinder camera from the 60s or 70s – and it was during my trip to The Netherlands earlier this year (in late March, to be more precise) that I really got to test it out.

In October, I started photographing in black and white 35mm film more regularly. This coincided with a class I decided to take at Stanford on black and white film photography, where I would have to shoot in film, as well as do the developing, processing and printing of the final photos – I have been doing this somewhat regularly for the past two months, going into the darkroom at least once as week.

I guess what truly made me fall in love with film photography this time was the opportunity to have full control over everything that comes into the actual making of the photograph in all of its dimensions. And this is what made me fall in love with photography all over again.

All-time clichés in black and white (and my all-time love affair with signs, posters, flags and neons): the Castro theatre on Castro St

We all know that there’s more to San Francisco than what meets the eye.

The picture-perfect postcard pictures that we all know (and surely love; after all, who doesn’t appreciate a good cliché from time to time?) do not do the city much of a favour. There is something about seeing the city in black and white that changes my own perception of it – it emphasizes its rawness, its strange, morphing landscape. Homelessness, abandonment, empty spaces being occupied – all of these traits of San Francisco are well known and easily recognizable. And if black and white film does add more to the photos than it subtracts (a meaning? an interpretation?), then removing colour from the city allows us to look at SF in a new light which, perhaps, is not the most flattering one… But it is strangely more authentic to its soul than any other kind of photography.

At Decatur and Bryant, under the Dwight D. Eisenhower Hwy

– Inês

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