I cheat, we are not in San Francisco, but in Berkeley. The Claremont Hotel is an imposing block of still existing past. Difficult to photograph this huge building in the heights of Berkeley, dominating the whole Bay of San Francisco. Have a drink on the terrasse in the evening and you will see the sun set almost behind the Golden Gate Bridge… In fact, this place reminds me of the Kubrick movie Shining, because the hotel is in the same style. I would like to test the roof top room with a large window. But my problem was how to compose something out of this white massive construction. At least I have the shadow of a palm tree at the intersection of the two diagonals and a kind of alignment along those lines. The dark spots of tree shadows seem like dots and may be the only elements giving a rhythm in the surface of the picture. Well. It was a challenge and I did not really succeed in making a balanced photograph, but the ambiance is here and would not like to meet the twin sisters in the endless corridors of this place.
I think they are trying to protect their precious cars from the leaves of the trees. On the far right, there is a proof that I am not cheating. This street is really steep. But what amazes me is the trees are also bending. Normally, the grow straight and vertically. You can see it in the mountains. Here, they are not even perpendicular from the street, they are even more bending. I would like an explanation. Is it gravity ? Is it the wind ? Or is it a human intervention ? These white hoods also give me an uneasy feeling. They remind me of the sort of protection you put on your hair to avoid contamination… or worse hoods to hide the faces of people about to be hanged so that the public does not see what they have agreed to accept.
I like it here. It's old, traditional and solid. Solid I don't know, there is a wheel missing on the tube table on the left, the legs of the table next to it are not the same length, or worse, the floor is not flat. And the small ornate table on the right looks very fragile. But the machines seem sturdy. They are at least half a century old. What about the mess on the top of this row of turning cylinders ? Some plants, one light bulb, and a few frames. A whole private life… As for the fan on the left top, I wonder if it is efficient enough when all the machines are operating. What I like most is what is outside the frame : A very expensive neighborhood. And this is typical of the city and what makes its charm. Expensive living spaces where people still go to the laundry weekly with a bunch of underwear and T shirts. They might have a coffee in a close by shop waiting for their washed clothes discussing politics or literature.
Far from the famous Street Cars, here is a car in the street. Lonely, white colored, alone in front of a closed auto body shop, it is almost frightening. Is it about to explode ? Or is it just out of the paint shop, waiting for its owner just coming from the right ? A collision repair center that offers custom paint. Maybe this is a special pearl effect job ? The two video cameras may guarantee that nobody is going to touch this jewel of a car. The question here is, like many other times, why did I take this picture ? I should have been more careful to eliminate or to fully include the name of the shop on the top. But looking at it as it is, it seams at the same time mysterious but nevertheless readable. The fact that some parts of the doors have been recently repainted in a shiny black contrasting with the overall matt façade should induce to not trust this paint shop. After all, the car being parked here might have no relation to the collision repair center in the background. A tiny human being and a white car in front of a black background and a blue sign appeared to me harmonious with a potential story telling relationship. That's all.
The only reason why I framed the street corner, which is perfectly straight, is to emphasize that everything is not square in this picture. The one way street sign is definitely bent, the curb is lopsided and so are the crossing yellow stripes. Even the shadow piercing the man's head seems to make a 45 degree angle with the frame line. The texture of the wall does not follow a logical perspective and looks like the workers in charge of the coating were getting more and more tired as they went to the right. Probably only "one way" to go. And then there is the man in shorts wearing a cap. This seems almost the only normal element in the whole picture, and it is tiny. Was I using such an extreme wide angle lens that he appears so small an the perspective so weird ? At last there is the dog and the animal probably has no idea that he is the center of attention in such a distorted atmosphere.
Bay lighting is the right thing to say here. The shadows on the concrete wall could almost give you the hour. It is either early or late. There are two horizontal bars sticking out of the building for no apparent reason. There is a road sign in front of the small side door. Which means the other doors are indeed big. I am certainly standing under a tree, the shadow of which delineates the bottom of the frame. This is nothing but shadows, therefore, nothing but light. The word "bay" is the only evidence that we are probably in San Francisco, in the Bay Area. I was lucky to have such a strong, clear sun, since most of the time the city sky is clouded and grey. Maybe that is why I took my camera. And yes, since all these doors are closed, it was probably a Sunday, appropriate for such a great light.
I thought it was a taxi-cab but it was not. The "transparency" of this garage is amazing. All in the open. You actually see the tools, everything looks clean, and the mechanics are even wearing bow-ties. The spiraled hoses coming from the ceiling make the place look like an emergency room in a hospital, the blue painted wall enhances the yellow of the car and the floor is so perfect that it reflects everything. This scene looks as if it had been staged for the camera. Of course, once again, it doesn't characterize San Francisco. The yellow stain on the right reminds the car. Maybe it has just been repainted and given a new registration plate. But I doubt it, this set up does not look like a painting cabin. In fact, there is another identical place on the right, for another car. Everything is perfectly duplicated, sheet holder next to the computer screen, stack of forms under it. One wonders what color is the car in the next booth. Purple, maybe ?
After a long walk through more and more boring areas of the town, I took a bus to get back to my hotel. The reflection of the light on the plastic seats showing the curved shape of the back rests arrested my eye but it was only a moment later that I noticed what was behind the windows. Nature versus industrial man designed machine. And the look of machines in America is much cruder than in Europe where engineers most often try to conceal the machine by some decoration coatings. Here, nothing of the sort, just function. From the seats to the windows no effort is made to transform the machine into a visually pleasant space. And in fact, that is precisely what makes it pleasing. I like these aluminium framed windows designed to be strong and last long. The string running along the top of the windows to be pulled in order to signal the driver you want to stop is another practical feature. No need to move to where the stop button is. You can do it from anywhere along the cabin. The advice signs are also no frill, everything seems to have a purpose.
The North Beach area is where the famous City Lights Bookstore is situated. The banned books are certainly more interesting than the not yet illuminated "Roaring 20's" sign. "Gods without men" by Hari Kunzru, "Ulysses". Is Ulysses a banned book ? Poor James Joyce. I wonder what is so dangerous in these books. And could we find a banned books zone in a French bookshop ? Never saw one. And what are banned books anyway ? Here this row of forbidden literature seems to be just a frame for the view on the dreary "fun places" outside, on the other side of the road. In the day time, the sex clubs are more discreet. The pole dancers are still asleep and the future clients are not yet ready to go beyond decency. On the shop window, there is the back of a photograph showing by transparency the ghost of one of the many towered mansions typical of the city. The effect given by this white bordered grey rectangle with the tiny wheels of the parked cars is that of a truck so huge that its wheels are dwarfed by the charge. Strange world indeed.
It is bound to be crushed between the neighboring buildings. The weather is not too good, as it often changes quickly in this town. I wonder what the owners of this place did to manage to keep this tiny place in the heart of this very highly priced street. Realtors converted to a beauty salon ? You can have your nails polished here but be aware that they also mend your shoes, cut new keys and repair watches. All very profitable businesses. I wonder whether this building was constructed before the great fire of 1906. Perhaps at the time it first opened it was the biggest building in the street ? It has all the elements of a prestigious, grand shop… in a smaller town that may have been San Francisco at the times. It might be a historical landmark that no one dares to tear down, or maybe the surface is not large enough to construct some other more yielding office building. It does remind me of an obscure Ansel Adams picture of a very different style showing a very animated street taken from the entrance of a shop. The complete opposite, but it has this "small town main street " look that this lonely house conveys, I don't know why.
It could be anywhere in the U.S. but it is San Francisco… It doesn't make much difference except for me with my nine hours of jet lag still bothering me. I usually never get up so early. No traffic in the street. Not one car in the huge parking lot on the other side of the street. In the left building, a kind of empty class room. What could they teach in a department store building ? Salesmanship ? How to identify a shoplifter ? Basic security awareness ? Anyway, it has not started yet since it is about five in the morning. I wonder what the upper floor is hiding. The funny feeling is the Bloomingdale's sign. It is associated to New York, not California, so it is kind of destabilizing, especially when you just woke up. This is once again a perfect framing for a thriller movie. All sorts of things could happen in the parking floors. I can almost hear the creaking tires, the acceleration of a car going down a ramp that I can't even see in the picture. There could also be somebody pushing his opponent through the glass windows of the left building. Since the whole scenery is empty of human beings, you can imagine anything.
It was really getting late and I decided to get something to pick me up from the depressed state I was in. From far away I saw signs of a liquor store that was about to save me. By the time I arrived there, it had just closed. It looked like an unreachable temple of beer behind the grills that would keep believers from fetching the Graal. I could see the faint vision of the counter where a few minutes earlier customers had bought their cans and bottles wrapped up in a brown paper bag. The evocative power of the neon signs can lure anybody in the dark. Coors, Beck, Michelob, and even Heineken, the only foreign brand, could make people thirsty just by the vision of these colored fluorescent tubes. But the front grills become even stronger visually as you look closely to the sleeping refrigerated distributors lined up behind the window. A good lesson…
It seems that you can find the same sort of bent lamp shades everywhere or was I just lucky ? At least some people are enjoying the menu list. A good omen in such a remote place. The forged iron grill behind the fading red curtains and the disparate tables are somehow reassuring. At last a place that reflects some humanity. Far from the branded restaurants that plague every city in the U.S. and even the world, looking the same everywhere, serving exactly the same industrial disgusting food, I was taken here by some friends who shared the same feeling about the unified world that we are now offered to live in. The tiny part of the ceiling visible in the picture shows those old molded tin ornaments that are still left in some traditional places. Let us hope these precious locations will not disappear too quickly, or be restored into flashy, trendy, cold restaurants for the dot.com well paid workers.
Hotel rooms can make you feel uncomfortable. The bent lampshade of an unused lighting device and its shadow are quite disturbing. They give the impression something nasty is bound to happen. Behind the curtains, you can discern the windows of the opposite building, meaning that a voyeur might be posted there waiting for any weird event. The color arrangement of the room is probably designed to mask the many layers of stains that have occurred on the seats and carpet. The curved screen of an old television set seems to date the place from almost a Cold War area. There is even a white fan suggesting the air conditioning is defective. It looks like a crime scene after they removed the bodies. Have the scientific experts forgotten the two beer cans in front of the TV set ? Maybe that would give the ADN of the suspect ? We are in the North Beach area where some seedy night clubs illuminate Broadway. Am I in a 70's spy movie ? Well, it would be better to escape from this coming nightmare.
People work at night here. These two guys are bending on their computer screen right in the middle of a crossroad. I don't know what their job is, but it seems high tech. No more cars, no more people asking them what they are doing. It is late and seems an ideal quiet environment for an efficient intervention. This looks like a routine thing, not an emergency. Never seen something like this in France, where people work only 35 hours a week, night and week-end time being ruled out ! The only comment I will make is : it makes a nice photograph. It almost looks staged, as if I had asked these guys to install their colored cones there and the yellow protection grid before taking a seat and illuminate themselves with a specific lighting gear.
Traffic light and no cars on the Embarcadero. The Bay Bridge bending towards Oakland through Yerba Buena Island. It all seems quiet. I don't remember what time it is. I am probably walking back from a dinner in Delancey street with an old friend. Actually the lights appear white when they should be red. Digital can't cope with such a contrast yet and the lights are overexposed beyond fixing on post. That's too bad. I could have tried a trick to color the white in red, but it would have lost authenticity. What I like here is that the lights seem more important than the bridge, but would have lost any interest without this huge metallic structure in the background. Now I am asking myself if I wanted the bridge or the lights, knowing perfectly well that it wouldn't have been worth a shot without them both.
Ellis street with a stormy sky reminds me of any downtown area in an american city. It probably changed since I took this picture, just a few years ago. So it is another distorsion of time, when you think this is yesterday and it is in fact five years ago. But here, there is no addition of an imaginative memory coming from other sources than my own eyes. Which makes it less dizzying. I remember the only thing that pushed me to press the shutter button at the time was the dark cloud at the end of the street. Rain was coming and I had better be ready for it or run back to my hotel on Bush street. I checked the place on Google Street and the big building reflecting the light on the right is a Hilton hotel, with a swimming pool on the roof. I couldn't have guessed that from the street. This ability to check places on this world map has totally changed the way you discover an unknown city. It kind of takes out surprise.
Real memory or blurred souvenirs … I thoroughly looked for this place on Lombard street. Everybody I was with wondered why I wasted time walking around the area to find this particular doorstep. They probably had forgotten Hitchcock's film, Vertigo. This is where Scotty-James Stewart brings back Madeleine-Kim Novak after she tried to drown herself at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The place is real ! No set in one of Hollywood's movie lots ! The trees have grown since the shooting of the scene but you can almost see the lean figure of Stewart and the white coat of Novak when she drops a note in the mail box. Amazing ! Of course it looks different from what I had in my mind and the reason is the hors-champ, what was eliminated by the camera in the original scene. The hors-champ then became more important than what was originally filmed for the new impression I had at discovering the place. And it sort of dissipated the charm the movie had. Maybe one shouldn't try to lift the mystery of our memories. Now there is a permanent camera filming the intruders trying to drop a note in the mailbox…and there is a note lying on the pavement !
It looks more like a 19th century etching than a photograph. HDR ? Not even. That's how it was. No real whites, no full blacks. So it doesn't have that amazing Ansel Adams look. But at least I am in the same city he was brought up. Actually, I am in the perfect position for spying. But spying on what ? Maybe count the cars on the lower level of the Bay Bridge with a powerful enough looking glass. Here I feel far away in the past, the past that I built in my mind from reading and watching old movies. A past that probably has not existed. Travelling in some parts of the world is always an expectation of things we imagined. The only time you don't loose your illusions is when you land somewhere you never thought you would ever visit, a place you never saw any pictures of, never heard anything about. A small town in the center of the Massif Central in France, for exemple. I wish I could have had a clean vision of San Francisco when I first visited. Unfortunately, it was full of mental photographs of a totally false, imaginary place.
Now I am safe. The situation is reversed. I am the one who can scan around and be aware of what is happening… from the inside. And I am a few thousand miles away, quietly eating some indian food at the corner of Fillmore and Clay in San Francisco. Thirty five years have elapsed. I skipped film. Digital has changed the look of the photographs, but not the content. I probably would have taken the same picture in 1981, had I been here. But I wonder if the food had the same taste. Although this city was the set to many Film Noir, it seems less threatening, the pace is slower. I wonder how it was in the 50's… For a French person, California is a must go place. It seems to be full of expectations and I wonder if this is all justified. Not that I am trying to deconstruct a myth… I am just curious, and it appears that I got rid of my escort of threatening agents.