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Seth Curcio on Janet Delaney: South of Market

Second at Market Street, 1986.

Janet Delaney: South of Market gives a glimpse of a bygone San Francisco, before Silicon Valley and soaring rents defined the small metropolis, and now-chic neighborhoods such as South of Market were made up of working-class families, the city’s gay community, and young artists such as Janet Delaney herself. At the de Young Museum in San Francisco, a group of forty-five photographs by the Bay Area–based photographer depict scenes from the late 1970s and early 1980s, documenting her friends and neighbors, city life, and the changes taking place on the SOMA streets. Seth Curcio,  associate director of Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco, looks at how such urban renewal began to change the diverse community around Delaney before her eyes.

Russ Street Apartments, 1981.

For a city that has grown alongside the development of the camera, San Francisco’s lineage of change is widely documented. Photography has played a pivotal role in capturing the city’s evolution, recording the influx of pioneers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, the building of its bridges and port, and the rise of various counterculture movements.

View of the Financial District from South of Market Street, 1980.

As San Francisco is amid yet another period of rapid physical, cultural, and economic transformation, the photographs in Janet Delaney: South of Market, an exhibition on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, provide a unique opportunity to revisit the city’s transitional past. The selection of forty-five works, all made between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, focus on an area of slightly less than one square mile just south of Market Street, San Francisco’s main dividing thoroughfare.

Hamburger Mary’s, 1582 Folsom at 12th Street, 1980.

When Delaney was a resident of South of Market (SOMA), thirty-something years ago, the area featured countless warehouses alongside hotels and old Victorian houses. The neighborhood was home to blue-collar workers and immigrant families, as well as the city’s burgeoning gay community. It was also a period of drastic renewal: the city was in the process of constructing a large convention center, which resulted in the displacement of nearly five thousand residents and seven hundred businesses. Bearing witness to the rapid cultural shift caused by this redevelopment, Delaney took to the streets, nearby apartments, and local businesses with her large-format camera and color film, engaging in a process of documentation that was slow and deliberate, an act that afforded her the opportunity to further connect with her community.

Artist in Her Studio, Project One, 10th at Howard Street, 1980.

While traces of the past that Delaney captured can still be found throughout the area, new high-rise condos, office buildings, and restaurants have replaced many of the district’s former structures and residents. Delaney’s photograph Saturday Afternoon, Howard Street between 3rd and 4th (1981), serves as a stark reminder of this transformation, depicting a portion of the city that completely changed. The photograph shows a single figure walking down the middle of the road in a desolate streetscape. A crane in the distance, on the right side of the frame, echoes the loneliness of the silhouette on the street, and serves as evidence of change on the horizon.

Bulk Natural Foods, Russ at Howard Street, 1980.

The leading image in the exhibition, 10th at Folsom (1982), bears a different tone. It presents a view down a dense street, with only the tops of the buildings visible and a succession of auto body repair signs dominating the façades. A large billboard in the foreground pictures an eager young couple in business attire alongside the slogan “We’re changing.” While the message is direct, this large photograph foreshadows the irreversible transformation of the neighborhood, setting a disquieting mood for the additional works in the show.

Mercantile Building, Mission at Third Street, 1980.

Installed rather traditionally on warm gray walls, the arrangement of the pictures highlights the range of Delaney’s subjects. Oscillating seamlessly between street scenes, interiors, and environmental portraits, the viewer is confronted with images of a community on the brink of change, and reminded of the consequences and complexities of gentrification. Photographs like Mercantile Building, Mission and 3rd Streets (1980) provide an eagle-eye view of the neighborhood, showing what appears to be the last remaining housing structure amidst a sea of freshly bulldozed lots. Meanwhile, Helen and her husband at the Helen Café, 480 6th Street (1980) offers a sense of intimacy, placing the viewer directly at the restaurant’s counter. The warm expressions of Helen and her husband are open and honest and the location inviting, creating a sense of closeness with the subjects and the place. Delaney’s choice to photograph in color––a process that was rarely employed by fine art photographers of the time––creates a profound and celebratory connection to the time, place, and people.

Helen and her Husband at the Helen Café, 486 Sixth Street, 1980. All images courtesy the artist. © 2014 Janet Delaney

Delaney is no stranger to photographing in urban areas; over the past several decades the artist has made bodies of work in Delhi, Beijing, Zhengzhou, and New York City. However, for this Bay Area–based photographer and educator, the images created in San Francisco are full of intimacy and careful consideration that make evident her deeply personal engagement with this place. The exhibition generates lingering questions about the pursuit of progress and its effect on community. The photographs on view, along with a large vitrine full of activist ephemera relating to the series and neighborhood, remind us that while the gentrification plaguing so many American cities is often cyclical in nature, an active engagement with community is key if we are to maintain a rich sense of diversity and culture as our cities progress. While nearly forty years have passed since Delaney first photographed South of Market, the pictures continue to be a powerful reminder of the social responsibility that we all maintain in creating the history, and future, of our neighborhoods.

The exhibition Janet Delaney: South of Market is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through July 19.

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