The Haight-Ashbury Edition
Foreword and Introduction Commentary by Ben Fong-Torres
Not the usual angles"
This comment by photographer Dick Evans serves as a theme for exploring his book, San Francisco and the Bay Area-The Haight-Ashbury Edition, because his focus is not on the expected and typical presentations of this gorgeous city by the bay. San Francisco has an image in pop culture that focuses on the Golden Gate Bridge, the hippie scene from the 60s in the Haight, and occasionally the Victorian “Painted Ladies” that often serve as a backdrop for commercials and movies. How accurate is that image versus the reality?
The beauty is undeniable in either case, and Evans does have a few shots of those iconic places. But more than that, he explores the lesser-known images that ultimately have a deeper connection to the viewer simply because they are more unusual. Instead of distancing himself and shooting those cityscape skylines (where you could move a few buildings and have virtually any city), he is up close and partaking in the action instead of simply observing. He gets street-level, with shots of everyone from tourists to bums, and shows them in a variety of lights: sometimes ironic, sometimes silly, but always magnetic. It’s less clinical, and more personal, like discovering an old box of photos you suddenly find of distant family.
Ben Fong-Torres writes in the Foreword, “What you get is a strong sense of the neighborhood’s roots; its unending interest in artistic expression as part of the streetscape.” This is another factor that makes the photographs unique: they serve to document the artistic interaction that the city itself has with the art community, priding itself on promoting street art rather than eradicating it. Thus, Banksy can be found over Broadway, and nearly every surface has an element of art included. It makes for a strange juxtaposition: one trendy mom pushes a designer stroller up a street while gothic and frightening faces peer out from Howl. What does that baby see, while mom is chatting about the grocery list for Whole Foods? Images from nightmares? Or simply images of the neighborhood? Because over and over it seems that these shots reveal how multi-dimensional the city as a whole is, as well as each neighborhood, such as the Haight. It’s sort of a circle back to the individuals who participate in the daily life here.
Some photographs feature the same neighborhood at differing times of day, which is a simple trick to give a place a greater sense of depth. Yet, Evans use of light and shadow seems to reveal more than just a different image, but almost a different mood. They show variations between quiet and melancholic to blustery and loud, with moments of panic and goofiness thrown in as well. That one place can have all those feelings gives it an organic feel with an almost discernible pulse.
My favorite is CAL SURPLUS, a chalky storefront that is boarded up with bright cyan paint. The mind immediately registers surplus as excess, yet the closed store doesn’t follow through—there is nothing to purchase or see. What is the surplus here? Or is Evans gently hinting at California in general, with vast attributes but often operating at a bare minimum? The irony of the street scene is implicit.
Another great shot is EVOLUTION AND THE KHARMANN GHIA, featuring the iconic car in pale yellow, classic and curvy, parked in front of a large wall mural featuring abstract art in the colors of jewels. They don’t fit together—the car looks almost bashful while the art intimidates it from up above, yet it tells a story of time and change. The scene simply wouldn’t work with any other car or any other mural.
The biggest surprise is the picture entitled WHERE BEAT WAS BORN, showing the Beat Museum on Broadway. It looks implausibly banal and institutional compared to the street art that surrounds it, more like a Planet Hollywood than the location of a historical literary site. Evans seems to capture a point where a viewer has to ask, whose art? How does one decide which artistic vision gets exposure in the Haight? Is it enough to make the attempt at some sort of intriguing image, or is there a standard somehow required? Because as the photos show, you just sort of know, intuitively, what fits and what doesn’t. How does that work in real-time? How much involvement does the city and neighborhood have in keeping the Haight-Ashbury from descending into theme-park placidity?
Enjoyable as an art book, I can’t help but think it would also be useful to those involved with city planning to see, demonstrated and documented herein, what goes right when art is freed from traditional venues and is allowed to interact with the community. The only disappointment was the cover, which is of a mural featuring musicians Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrex, and Jim Morrison. The likeness of each isn't so great, and something about it initially put me off. Yet, the key is remembering that the point of the photograph is the mural's placement, showing neighborhood history right on the street, with the iconic faces likely an everyday view for residents. Getting past that, one can appreciate that these are no ordinary streets.
Side note: I also found a new neighborhood for my dream home, Belvedere Cove, which is clearly out of my budget but still tops my current wish list! I could seriously drink some coffee watching that view! Stunning.
Special thanks to Rare Bird Lit for the Review Copy.