Janet Delaney: South of Market

Review

Janet Delaney: South of Market

By Glen Helfand February 19, 2015

In San Francisco, in 2015, it’s impossible to avoid conversations about the city’s massive sense of remaking. Depending on your history with the place, these discussions might be nostalgic laments, activist rants about gentrification, visionary business plans, or some combination thereof. There are those who remember what once occupied a site, be it a single screen movie theater, legendary sex club, SRO, or social service agency. Others see opportunities for real estate development, artisanal restaurants, or, hopefully, some kind of visionary new urbanism.

This phenomenon of rapid change comes with rich social, emotional, and aesthetic implications, all of which are evident in Janet Delaney’s South of Market photographs, a series that documents a shift in the South of Market neighborhood during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  To show these photographs, which track architectural and demographic change, at the de Young Museum at this moment is a no-brainer.  Construction cranes are currently punctuating the same SoMa streets that Delaney shot decades ago, making this the perfect moment for looking at these now historic images of industrial spaces, gay bars, cheap apartments, and artist studios. SoMa, at that time, was the sister neighborhood to New York’s then seedy, artist filled East Village—both have become pricy enclaves in the subsequent decades.

Janet Delaney. Bulk Natural Foods, Russ at Howard Street, 1980; archival pigment print. Image courtesy of the Artist. © 2014 Janet Delaney

While we may experience the rapid escalation of San Francisco property values and the eroding effectiveness of rent control as unprecedented, the pictures reveal that processes of urban development are cyclical and usually involve questionable civic policy. Delaney’s project is framed conceptually by the construction of a fairly contained building, the Moscone Center, an undertaking that led to the displacement of many communities, razing a neighborhood that primarily housed the elderly and working class.

The project combines aspects of street photography, activist art, and social practice, and its integrity stems from Delaney’s autobiographical connection to her subject.  She lived in this neighborhood as a young artist for reasons of convenience and price, herself a participant in the history of the neighborhood’s use and its classic narrative of gentrification. During Delaney’s time in SoMa, the area shifted from industrial buildings and working class residences to live-work spaces, frame shops, and civic buildings. She photographed to understand her environment and her place within it.  The works might be aligned with Charles Marville’s mid 19th-century photos of Baron Haussmann’s modernization of Paris, merged with forms of late 20th-century vernacular landscape photography such as Stephen Shore’s contemporaneous Uncommon Places.

Janet Delaney. Mercantile Building, Mission at Third Street, 1980; archival pigment print. Image courtesy of the Artist. © 2014 Janet Delaney

Among the 45 images at the de Young are interiors of homes and workplaces, portraits, and street scenes; evidence of social tension is visible in details. Delaney photographed barber shops, schoolyards, the empty interior of the Ambush leather bar (where she first showed some of these photographs), a coffin factory (which later became a live-work space), and restaurants—housed in shacks and Airstream trailers—that catered to a range of bohemian and working class clientele. A handwritten sign posted on the side of a building on a gritty street with a funky VW Bug parked partially on the sidewalk reads: “Attention Vandals. If you don’t want to be shot, stay away from this street.” Pictures of the aftermath of a suspicious five-alarm fire that destroyed a residential building on Folsom Street in 1981 have an earnest, documentary quality but also a sense of the uncanny, perhaps because the prints are new, employing digital color adjustments, unavailable in the 1980s, that convey contemporary photography aesthetics. Seen in these prints, the evidence of 1980s fashion, car models, and period signage become both indicators of class and nostalgia triggers.

Delaney extended the project socially, recording interviews with her subjects, who were essentially her neighbors. Excerpts are included in the book of these works, but are only briefly represented in the exhibition’s wall labels. The process does seem to have a bearing on the work itself; the artist clearly engaged with her neighbors for a practical purpose—to feel safe—but also out of an impulse to connect with people. Images such as David, Father Leo Joseph’s Roommate, 60 Langton Street (1981) and Artist in Her Studio, Project One, 10th at Howard Street, (1980) express the demographics of Delaney’s neighborhood. Visually, the pictures also have a warm, muted sense of color. They cohere better as a group than as individual images—few stand out, but Delaney’s interest may be more focused on community representation than artistic statement.

Janet Delaney. Artist in Her Studio, Project One, 10th at Howard Street, 1980; archival pigment print. Image courtesy of the Artist. © 2014 Janet Delaney

The photographer was an activist with clear intentions. The aforementioned extensive book version of the series includes references to a collaborative project with artist Connie Hatch, in which they explicitly aimed for legislative approaches to rent control and low-income housing. The exhibition also includes a vitrine containing flyers for political demonstrations and a letter inviting then mayor Dianne Feinstein to view the photographs as a means of understanding changes to the city, attesting to the artist’s aim to use these images pragmatically.

The show, then, sits in a slightly awkward place between activism and art. The installation is basic, and the prints modest in scale, which allows for a large number. However, variance in enlargement size, another contemporary intervention akin to color correction, would give the show a more complex aesthetic texture.  The project’s presentation here fits with the de Young’s recent record of showing lesser known bodies of work that are more interesting for their historical context than their aesthetic merit (see Anthony Friedkin’s The Gay Essay). These photography series are difficult to address outside their subject matter.

Janet Delaney. David, Father Leo Joseph’s Roommate, 60 Langton Street, 1981; archival pigment print. Image courtesy of the Artist. © 2014 Janet Delaney
Delaney’s Moscone Center under construction (1981) and Man with wheelbarrow, Moscone Center might be productively compared to similar images by Catherine Wagner, a friend and colleague of Delaney’s at the time. Wagner’s black and white images depict something formal and monumental in the sprouting architecture, seen devoid of human figures, an approach that addresses a sense of monumentality and a relation to typological approaches to landscape photography, such as those by Bernd and Hilla Becher, whereas Delaney’s color photographs include single workers dwarfed by rebar matrices and poured concrete, focal points that are more aligned with community than art dialogues.

The texts in the book affirm this intention through Delaney’s own memories of her experience of the neighborhood, along with the interview excerpts, which often express eviction fears and describe flights to Oakland that seem shockingly contemporary. Curator Erin O’Toole’s engaging essay is primarily a history of the location and its various waves of development rather than an attempt to situate the work art historically.

The experience of the works in the gallery similarly finds viewers comparing anecdotal notes, and trying to locate the specific shots to describe what is there now. This impulse generates a welcome conviviality, a sense of shared experience. Delaney’s exhibition becomes a social space for the exchange of memory and the erratic flow of time in the city, and a means of marking its effects. 

Janet Delaney: South of Market is on view at de Young Museum, in San Francisco, through July 19, 2015.

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