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Mission and Third
(San Francisco, 2007. Image copyright Hamish Reid).
Early one Sunday morning years ago I set up my 4x5 view camera on Mission Street around Third in San Francisco to capture a beautiful exposed wall on a classic old semi-derelict building I used to see every week on my way down Mission. The original image still hangs in my studio as a black and white print from my darkroom days, and it's one of my favourite rushed get in / get out street view camera shots from those days (how do you do rushed street shots with a view camera? Slowly
It's obviously all about the textures, shapes, and lightplay on that wall, and the way it stands out sort of naked and unassuming, but it was also about documenting a rapidly-changing street view as SFMOMA opened around the corner and the whole SOMA thing gained momentum (click here
for a Google street view of the same scene a dozen or so years later — the building itself has been renovated almost beyond recognition, the wall's hidden again, and the vacant blocks aren't quite as vacant any more…).
Apart from printing it, I didn't really do much with the image for a long while afterwards — it got scanned in sometime down the line and just sort of sat there. And then I started the sessions with Lily
and got interested (obsessed, perhaps) with combining building facades and surfaces with those other, softer, better-known surfaces, and with a little editing and a composited Move
from my Flames series, I sort of couldn't see Mission and Third in the same way again. It's one of a pair of images that uses this building; the other one might surface here one day (or not).
(Berkeley, 2008. Image copyright Hamish Reid; click on the image for a larger version…).
Surrealism is in the mind of the beholder, I guess. Some people are going to see a rather normal American football band gathering in the photo above; others might see what I see every time I walk up through UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza on a game day, a subtle riot of unintended surrealism. I much prefer the accidental or unintended surrealisms to the laboured and often rather grim staged or didactic versions, and this is the real thing. State-sanctioned
surrealism, for that matter — all those cheery uniforms, the bright colors, the polished brass and silver instruments, the bizarre visual and physical rituals with call-and-response theatrics, the bustling clash of out-of-tune and out-of-time groups of instruments being warmed up and parts being practiced in little clumps here and there… (you can sample some of the sounds in MP3 form here
, a lightly-edited and only slightly mashed-up recording of a short walk around Sproul a few weekends ago).
What else do I see? You might need to click on the image above to see it all in the large version, but here's a few: the expression on the girl in the right foreground reacting to the central figure's exuberance; the way her face is reflected in the polished brass on the central figure's uniform; the retro Lennonesque sideburns and glasses — and that blue earplug — on the guy to the center-right looking right; the guy with the long hair in the left background; and, of course, the central figure — what is
she reacting to? I never saw what (or who) it was, but the delight was pretty evident.
In any case, I don't do a lot of candid shots of people I don't know; most of my people shots are done in the studio or on location, and they're of people I've at least met before or know well. This is an exception, one of a whole essay's worth of still images done that day, but I'm still searching for how best to capture the whole experience….
(Oakland, 2008. Image copyright Hamish Reid).
My studio's full of interesting stuff
, a legacy of living in a part of the world (Jingletown
, mostly) that is itself full of interesting machinery, buildings, domestic and commercial gear, and discarded junk.
A few months ago the entire hammer mechanism from an old upright piano appeared in the corridor of the large old building I live in, sitting propped up against the wall outside my neighbour's studio. I was immediately taken by the beauty of the thing: this complex mechanism with all sorts of subdued rich colours and textures (metal, wood, and felt, mostly), visually mysterious but also quite familiar once you crack the code. So I wandered into my neighbour's studio (they're a couple of arty acquaintances of mine) and asked if the piano thing outside was theirs, and if so, could I take it if they were throwing it out? Sure, they said — they'd much rather someone like me take it and do something interesting with it than throw it out. Apparently the original piano had been taken apart bit by bit on stage for a performance art piece, and this was basically the only major part left unscathed or unconverted into some other artwork.
So I took it back next door to my studio. I wasn't sure when I'd actually be able to do something with it, but I just knew exactly what I wanted with it: a series of shots contrasting human skin and structure with mechanical regularity, complexity, and texture. And so it lay there for a few months in the corner while I got on with other things.
Well, my studio's also occasionally full of interesting people
, usually here to do a photoshoot for themselves or me (or both). In this case a friend of mine has a small live extemporary performance group that needed some shots for websites, flyers, brochures, etc. — the usual. We spent a couple of hours in the studio with a bunch of props and costume changes, etc., and we basically got several dozen suitable shots they'll be able to use for whatever. But then it was my turn — I made them do what I
wanted to do for the last fifteen minutes or so of the shoot (not that the previous 90 minutes or so hadn't been what I wanted to do either, but it wasn't for me). Setting this shot up was a lot harder than it looks — hiding the rest of the live bodies was a hit-or-miss thing with each take, and holding the pose was often quite uncomfortable for both the people involved. I spent ten minutes on a series of similar shots, and the results were worth the wait and the struggle (to me, at least).
One of my fave pictures from this year, and almost exactly what I'd "seen" when I first saw the hammers propped up against the wall. No manipulation or editing involved at all beyond a bit of work on the tone curves in Photoshop. It's so unusual to have something pre-seen like this and have it work the way you hoped in real life….
The Business End
(Oakland, 2007. Image copyright Hamish Reid; click on the image above for larger version).
This is one of those images that could be (about) almost anything: a brochure-ready illustration for a business jet manufacturer or executive jetshare setup; an image for a lifestyle advertisement (oozing that thrusting expensive arrogance so essential to sucking in the insecure); a typical piece of "pilot porn" for the glossy flying mags (all those sleek shiny surfaces and hidden controls)
. Well, all that unless you notice the obvious: no one would let those orange intake covers (let alone those vulgar traffic cones on the ground) intrude on a serious staged photo or illustration, and for real
advertising / lifestyle images, a crew of helpers would have sprayed water all over the ramp for that shiny dark reflective effect. And it would probably have been taken early in a soft diffuse pre-dawn light, with a few reflectors and off-stage or interior lights for effect, rather than in the harsh light of a mid-September Northern Californian afternoon.
All of which is kind of the point for me: I saw this as I was refueling a light twin-engined airplane on the ramp at Oakland airport (KOAK) near where I live, and reflexively thought "how the other half live
" (something I think a lot when I see the shiny fleet of business jets parked in front of the Kaiser FBO
there). But I looked again and did a doubletake: the cartoonish orange ears, the little flecks of very similar orange around the feet of this and the other planes, the studied serious monochrome of the Kaiser fleet, the smooth geometries
a Photolalia image, for sure.
(The context here is that I'm actually — and rather improbably — a pilot
; I fly airplanes (not yet for a living, and certainly not planes like this) out of Oakland airport (KOAK), and I'm around airplanes a lot, both on the ground and in the air; they're a very familiar part of my life. I have a ramp pass at Oakland airport (it's a high security area, so you have to go through background checks, etc., just to be able to walk onto the tarmac unescorted), and I often get to see (and hear — the noise can be indescribable) close-up the sorts of aircraft ranging from large freighters and charter jets through smaller business jets and turboprops to small single-engine Cessnas (and so on) that most people only see from a distance or from tightly-controlled vantage points in terminals or inside the planes themselves).
The New California Barber Shop
(Oakland, 2002. Image copyright Hamish Reid).
The New California Barber Shop and The House Of God Spiritual Temple, Dogtown, Oakland. Two of my fave Oakland buildings, in what was once one of the rougher neighbourhoods (Dogtown) of a rough city (Oakland). I've always liked the colours, the window shapes, and the confusing geometry of this scene. Plus, of course, this is a part of town that's got a lot of associations for me going back nearly two decades.
The two buildings are still there, both completely derelict now, but since Dogtown's being increasingly overrun by redevelopment, it's not clear how much longer these two will be around, at least in this form. It's the old story, no? (And one of the reasons I'll probably soon have to leave my own neighbourhood, which has also been transformed from a low-rent industrial area to, gawd help me, an arts district with a growing rash of hipster cafes, lofts, and galleries insinuated into the poorer bits). But Dogtown's different from my neighbourhood: few people were displaced when the factories around my current studio closed down or the businesses moved to the Valley or overseas; we (mostly) moved into empty buildings and dead blocks. In sad contrast, Dogtown was always a small residential oasis. It's still got a lot of the original inhabitants, increasingly semi-homeless or on the street after being evicted or expelled from homes some of them have lived in for decades, mostly just to make way for nice middle class condos and lifestyle lofts
; the class-based version of ethnic cleansing, I guess ("class cleansing"?). The same as it ever was.
And it's a mistake to be nostalgic for some sort of urban authenticity or to overlook the reality of a place like this: yes, it's scenic; yes, it's picturesque; yes, the colours and shapes totter between the naive and the inspired; but yes, too, it was then, and still is, a site of extreme desperation for a few. One of the reasons it actually took me forever to get this shot literally weeks of on-and-off prowling is that there's a steady stream of homeless and derelict people who congregate in front of these two buildings on their way to or from the local recycling center (where they can unload their trolleys of stolen recycling for a few bucks) or to drink or drug themselves into a state of anesthesia on the street right here. Since I really don't enjoy
making art of real people's misfortune, I didn't want to include suffering and personal decrepitude, no matter how it would "improve" the shot for a lot of viewers.
Plus, of course, it's incredibly stupid
to just wander up and take photos of a bunch of armed kids and drugged-out guys in a place like Oakland, especially with an expensive camera (and when this was taken it was a rather rougher place than it is now). No, this wasn't a drive-by by me, but nor was it a carefully set-up thing: a starving artist friend of mine had a (literally) rat-infested studio in a big old tin shed around the corner from here back then, and we'd both walk past these buildings on the way up to the shops on Hollis every once in a while, and if the guys sitting on the front steps were in the right mood, they'd beg cigarettes from us or make fun of "mister artist". This time, though, for the first time in weeks, there wasn't anyone there, and even though the light was in the wrong place and just wrong
, I got the shot. Within weeks the place changed again; I have a series of the changes over the intervening years that I'll probably publish in a year or two when the place is finally redeveloped into a coffee shop or gallery. We shall see
East Of Oildale
(Kern River Oil Fields, Bakersfield, 2008; click on image for larger version. Image copyright Hamish Reid).
Bakersfield has been one of my bigger photo obsessions over the years a Central Valley town with a varied history that combines Okies, country music (Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, at least, and with a touch of Bob Wills), agriculture (on a vast industrial scale), industry, and ... oil
. The oil's hard to miss: there are refineries throughout the area (there's even a couple within the city limits), and there are those mesmerizing nodding-donkey pumpjack pumps everywhere
: vacant lots, the side of the road, agricultural fields, suburban side streets, even domestic backyards. The surrounding area has vast barren hillsides and lots just covered in pipes, pumps, tanks and wires. Oh, and the place is hot as hell in summer.
The first time I saw all this I was amazed and enthusiastic about the visual richness and steely complexity (but how could people live like this? Well, I spent some time a long time ago working in a refinery as a process control engineer, so the environment's kinda home to me, at least). But also, for years, I've struggled with how to show all this: the most difficult thing to depict, of course, is the constant slow up and down movement of the pumps; that's something more suited to video, and not something I've spent much time thinking about for still photography. I think it's the sheer scale and ubiquity of the industry, the way it's insinuated into almost every part of the area and everyday life, that's the real challenge. Over the years I've tried and failed: it's usually just too difficult to evoke or transmit the strangeness, and images of single pumpjacks don't really do it.
But the last time I was in the area I tried something different: rather than get up close and personal with the pumps (and use a wide angle lens, the sort of thing that seems natural for this sort of subject), I stood back a bit (a long way, really) and used the 70-200mm lens to get a series of hand-held long shots of the dry pipe- and pump-covered hills of the Kern River oilfields on the north bank of the Kern just outside town. I think it sort of succeeds (just looking at it, though, you miss the fact that almost every one of the dozens of pumps in the image is slowly moving up and down ), and if you look at the 17x22 inch print version, it's amazingly detailed. I'll keep trying and still failing but I think this does some sort of justice to some small part of what I see in Bakersfield whenever I'm there
(Oakland, 2008; click on image for larger version. Image copyright Hamish Reid).
For several years I commuted into San Francisco from my studio and home in East Oakland
; as you went over West Oakland on the elevated BART way, you could see this ramshackle old apartment building just off to the left at street level in a mostly commercial and industrial neighbourhood. Over the years it got progressively more decrepit until it looked like it must have been condemned; but these things are hard to tell from BART. I kept mentally making a note to go and photograph the place, and every now and then I'd actually ride or drive past it on my way through West Oakland, but the sun was always in the wrong place or the light was bad or (as always seems to happen in West Oakland) there'd be a huge container truck or something similar parked idling right in front of it.
Finally I went out on my bike one Sunday morning and managed to get it (more-or-less) right. I think the resulting image does a reasonable job of conveying the isolation of the building, the lack of people on the street (this isn't the sort of neighbourhood where most people take casual strolls), the bizarre angles and textures on the walls and roof; the dereliction. It's definitely one of my fave old Oakland buildings, and amazingly enough it's still there, but it won't last. It's officially condemned, it's boarded up, and it's got a furtive transient population of rats and crackheads that you sort of can't miss if you look in the right places at the right time. The neighbourhood's rough enough that it may still be there in a decade, but maybe not: the lifestyle lofters and richer artists are taking over large swathes of this place as they have a bit further down the Estuary in what's still laughably called the warehouse district. We shall see
Right Place, Right Time.
(Mt Shasta, Northern California, 2008. Image copyright Hamish Reid. Click image for larger version).
Right place, right time: I really wasn't looking for yet another damn Mt Shasta shot, but in a weekend of miserable weather when Shasta was usually shrouded in cloud, this was a shot that I just couldn't resist, for what I think are obvious reasons. I could see what was coming as I was driving north (away from the mountain) on Interstate 5 towards Yreka, and I guessed I had maybe ten or fifteen minutes to get it before the clouds rolled back in. I had to get off the freeway in a hurry at the next exit, double back to the south, and drive as quickly as I could along old two-lane blacktops to where I knew the shot would look great
(up towards Highway 97). I didn't have a tripod with me, so I did the shot hand-held with the Nikon 70-200mm VR lens on the D2X, in slowly-fading early-evening light and ferocious winds, standing on the side of the road just out of range of the occasional passing truck. All I'll say is the vibration reduction (VR) in this lens is a miracle this image has been printed to 17x22 inches on my Epson 4800, and it's sharp and evocative even at that size. And yes, a few minutes later the clouds came back and I didn't see the mountain again the entire weekend; a few hours later I was driving across snow-covered roads and fighting a blizzard.
You'll see this shot again in a very different context later
The Indecisive Moment
(Oakland, 2007. Image copyright Hamish Reid).
Fruitvale Rail Bridge from Park Street Bridge, Oakland Estuary, Summer 2007, during the fires. I can't believe I almost didn't bother taking this shot. I live and work (and have my studio) maybe half a mile from where it was taken, and I was walking across the Park Street bridge into Alameda to get some breakfast when I saw it. For several days the light had had an eerie copper tinge due to the brush fires running wild in some of the hills and mountains surrounding the Bay, and that morning everything
was reduced to this beautiful near-monochrome (and everything smelled of smoke).
The Fruitvale Rail Bridge just stands there semi-abandoned, always open, but still a workaday structure next to the smaller (and very much alive) Fruitvale road bridge (like the Park Street Bridge a drawbridge). The smooth morning water really made this view work that day, allowing for the bridge reflection as well as the the overall tone. A great sight.
But, unusually for me, I didn't have my camera with me, and I decided I just couldn't be bothered to go back and get it (translation: I'm not really much of a photographer a lot of the time). I was hungry and tired. But by the time I'd walked across the Park Street bridge into Alameda, I felt really guilty about just walking on by a sight like this. So I turned around and started back across the bridge to pick up my camera. About ten metres onto the bridge I had another change of heart, thought (again) that I really just didn't want to walk back to get the camera (I just wanted a bagel and some coffee, dammit), and headed back into Alameda. You know the rest: a few seconds later, once again, I turned back, trudged home, picked up the camera, and spent an hour or so taking photos all around my neighbourhood
in the strange alluring light. This was one of the best. It's entirely unmanipulated beyond flattening the contrast a little.
(Oakland, 2007. Image copyright Hamish Reid).
I can't leave images alone. The original
still inhabits my mental landscape, often enough while I inhabit those other landscapes around my studio, places like the old brick building on Ford Street in the image above. It's what Photoshop's for.
(California, 2007. Image copyright Hamish Reid. Click on image above for larger version).
I don't usually do serious landscapes in Death Valley I'm there a fair bit, but other photographers do a much better job than I do. And I don't really have an eye for the scenic that people like Mostly Landscape
's Tony and Pam Bamford do (yes, they're friends of mine, we've done a trip or two together, and I'm always bowled over by just how damn good their prints and images are in real life). But every now and then I can't help it, and somehow I see a scene that's both scenic and has at least some of the elements of my obsessions in it.
In this case it was after a stroll up Golden Canyon, late morning, not yet particularly hot, and as always, it wasn't so much the scenery that attracted me, as the geometry and textures. For me this view would be nothing without that road cutting through it; but for most people it's that road that spoils the real-life scene.
And, as always, for me there's evocation of the heat, the dryness, and the slight breeze (and the later desert wind in the afternoon) and the noise of the passing cars every now and then, and the sheer stillness of the approaching midday
(Oakland, 2007. Image copyright Hamish Reid; click on image above for larger version).
Sometimes the endless blue Californian skies can feel a little creepy or oppressive, and I just turn them grey in my mind, or more prosaically, with Photoshop. Dramatic, no? It's a pity it's not real
(whatever that means it's real enough to me, more real than the seamless skies of the California Dream some of the time. And that factory's real enough another looming icon in my neighbourhood
(Yes, only the sky was manipulated; everything else was untouched).
Stand And Deliver
(Central Nevada, 2007. Image copyright Hamish Reid. Click on image above for larger version).
U.S. Highway 6, Central Nevada: another
of those two-lane blacktops that passes almost casually through landscape after landscape, snowy mountain ranges and passes, high desert, irrigated nooks and plains, dead two-house villages, vacant lots next to abandoned casinos
. My kind of road, I guess; I've driven it from Ely, NV, to Bishop, CA several times in the last fifteen years, always in the winter, and always in no hurry at all.
And somewhere halfway between Ely and Tonopah, there they were, in the middle of nowhere, no signs of houses or properties visible near the highway, and just the sagebrush and dirt tracks leading off across the plains towards the mountains. It was a striking image in real life; it's not quite so striking here or when printed, mostly because you really can't see that there's just nothing around these boxes, just a long straight highway and what looks like thousands of square miles of sagebrush. But even so, it's still a pretty evocative sight, and has that American Mythic West feel to it, both physically and culturally. The clouds also make this image as well, of course it could have just been one of those gorgeously boring endless blue skies, but then there'd be no real texture there to contrast with the sagebrush and mountains, and no hint of past or future storms (and note that the sagebrush is deceptively green here due to recent rain it's desert in reality, though, something you don't forget if you drive through here in summer).
And I can't help wondering if the next time I drive past here, there'll be a whole cluster of boxes, and it'll be obvious where the associated houses and settlements are. It might be in the middle of nowhere for someone like me, but that's no impediment for developers, is it?
(Oakland, 2007. Image copyright Hamish Reid. Click on image above for larger version).
This is almost the view from my front window, a variation of a sight I see every day of my life across the road from my studio a bunch of concrete trucks in the Redy Mix concrete plant, in front of the omnipresent ConAgra silos in (or right next to) Jingletown
. This time, the concrete trucks seemed to be lurking like heavyset wild animals (hippopotamuses?) behind the wall of the Redy Mix yard, with the whole scene almost monochrome except for the tiny but very bright red light on the structure above the trucks and the subdued little splashes of colour on the trucks in the early-evening low overcast from the rainstorm moving in off the Pacific.
I like the way this image works, and not just because it's a characteristic slice of my current life and pretty typical of my neighbourhood. I think the geometry of the concrete plant, the trucks, and the silos all work together to make a nice image (the repeated cylinders, the diagonals, the rectangular windows and faces, the loping wires), and the subdued near-monochrome works to give an evocative atmosphere. But for me it's really that glimpse of the restless trucks lurking like animals in a pen that I wanted to capture: my days are full of the trucks, vans, shipping containers, barges, tugs, railway locomotives, bobcats, forklifts, roach coaches
, industrial machinery, etc., that move past my studio and across the neighbourhood in steady streams at all hours. These things are the true wildlife of my neighbourhood: yes, there's a few ducks and geese in the Estuary, the usual stray cats and dogs in amongst the concrete plants, factories, and workshops (and even, once, a snake slithering across my street), and surely a bunch of rats everywhere, but the real
wildlife, always scurrying or brooding or lumbering around the Jingletown, San Antonio, or Fruitvale districts is much more varied and interesting (at least to me). It's amazing how easy it is after many years of living here to be able to tell different types of trucks solely by the sound of their brakes, to be able to identify individual heavy barge types from miles up the Estuary by their wake, to see how the shipping containers are moved around constantly to graze on different lots over a month or two before being sent back to Japan or China or wherever, and to see the same familiar concrete trucks plying the same few hundred metres between the freeway and the (three) concrete plants around here every day.
So I've started to collect images like this for a putative "Jingletown Wildlife" series, not entirely facetiously frankly, after all my years here, it's not hard to anthropomorphise (animise?) the trucks, machinery, and containers, etc., when there are more of them by far on the streets than people or pets. I'm not sure where the effort will take me (it'll probably turn out to be too twee for my own tastes), but there's no shortage of suitable images out there. We shall see
(Note: this shot was done hand-held in rapidly fading light; I'm sort of amazed it turned out at all, let alone as sharp as it did (it prints well up to A2). Yes, there's a lot of chromatic aberration and fringing going on in the highlights, but that's a small price to pay for being able to get any shot at all).