A while back I wrote about what to photograph and where to go during the winter months when much is wet, muddy and often impassable. As photographers we strive to capture that perfect moment in time, that not so often seen and the unexpected. I have always enjoyed taking my camera down the urban streets of America in search of those special moments when people feel their most comfortable. What better place to photograph urban life but in some of the oldest districts in San Francisco. The Mission District is like stepping back in time, a time before the big department stores with their multi-acre parking lots, long lines with self checkout and the only personal touch being the security guard searching your bags as you leave. The Mission District remains the scene of mostly family stores that have been passed down from generation to generation, bakeries, sidewalk cafe’s and markets where you can walk up to a conversation with the owner. We decided the best way to begin our adventure was a walk down Balmy Alley which also dead ended onto 24th street, the main street through the Mission District. Balmy Alley is the best way to indoctrinate yourself into the history surrounding the mission district. This block long alley began in the mid-80’s by an unappreciated group of rogue artists’ being dissatisfied with human rights and the political and civil abuse being thrust upon Central America. During your walk down the alley you may have an opportunity to meet one of the artists’ touching up their original mural painted over twenty-five years ago. This first mural I’ve included is one that is easy to see and really spoke of the culture, the people, and the community of the mission district. The artist has encompassed so many different elements inside this mural that we stood in front of it for what seemed like hours as we interpreted the stories and the people portrayed. The artist responsible for this creative masterpiece has included the residents and animals of the Mission District. The bus driver as he takes great pride in chauffeuring the the pride of the Mission District. The policemen keeping the streets safe, but still ready to reach out sharing a cup of coffee with a young lady and here companion. It’s so apparent in this mural that the artist has strong feelings and emotional ties to the Mission District.
When I approached this second mural I had to chuckle at the artists’ philosophy of life, or maybe where he or she interpreted there position in life. Many of the murals carry compositional elements reflecting social and political interaction, ethnicity, community and people. As you walk the alley you will notice that the artists’ canvas could be the garage door or even the entire side of the building. Nearing the half way point a local woman approached with her four pugs in leash. In my usual way I always take time to greet mans best friend and exchange greetings with the person holding the leash. To our surprise she was a local resident returning from her noonday walk and was happy to share the affection of her pugs. To really immerse yourself in the cultural experience of the Mission District, and we do this wherever we go, is to eat where the locals eat. She was most eager to offer several of the popular local hangouts including directions and best time of day to go.
At the end of Balmy Alley you will find yourself on 24th Street, the main street of the Mission District. This is where the excitement and fun begins. For most of my street photography I shoot with a Canon 5D MkII, which is a full frame and a 14mm lens. I like to shoot close and wide, including as much of the moment as I can. I usually shoot three exposures at either 1 stop or at times 1 1/2 stops in order to capture as much tonality as possible. On the streets you can be totally in the shade, all sun, or 50-50 so bracketing multiple shots will give you the assurance you will have what you need when it comes time for production of your images. Most if not all my street scenes will include people. Why, because for me people make the moment, people are telling the story without me having to. I usually try to keep myself in the background as I casually cruse the sidewalk, although at times it is hard to do when you and your wheelchair standout like a neon sign. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself as a tourist just checking things out and taking pictures of the wonderful elements of their town. We have met more interesting people in our travels after engaging in conversation. People are willing to have their picture taken and felt comfortable that we were not trying to invade their privacy.
When shooting wide I get as close as I can and try to include a strong foreground element that will play into the scene. In this shot I was able to rest my camera on a wooden planter and wait for the opportunity to shoot three exposures that would capture the feeling of friends enjoying an afternoon coffee on a sidewalk bench. When shooting close and wide make sure you have plenty of depth-of-field to encompass the entire scene. There’s nothing worse than finding out your focus point caused the foreground element to be soft or the main character in the scene is be too soft to contribute to the composition.
As we approached this sidewalk market I really felt the sense of community. I positioned myself at the best point of view I could and we sat there for the longest time watching as people came and went. The interestingness of the people as they shopped the market became my focus. I waited, I shot and I feel this image represents the mood in the air at this sidewalk market.
A fun aspect of street photography for me is the flexibility the digital darkroom provides. Often times as I begin processing my street scenes I tend to let my wild side peek out and influence my results, but that’s the fun part of the digital darkroom. Everything is open to impression and nothing is permanent. My hope is that you enjoyed reading my experiences and that you will expand your personal visions beyond your present boundaries.