The San Francisco Fall Season: A Series

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I used to have a friend named Adam. He’s kind of a dick, so we no longer speak. Such a shame. Despite, or perhaps because of his cranky narcissism, he had a huge impact upon the course of my life.

We met when I was 20, and were roommates in Albuquerque for a year. I followed him to UNM, where I studied photography, and to Pratt, where I got my MFA. (No, I’m not a stalker. Yes, I know what you’re thinking.)

Adam’s last great contribution to my education came during a visit to Brooklyn, back in 2000. Along with some friends, we were smoking cigarettes outside a historic pizza joint in Dumbo, and the guys were busting my balls. (That all-time NYC ├╝ber-skill.) Jessie and I were living in San Francisco at the time, and very happy.

“San Francisco?” Adam yelled. “San Francisco’s not a city. New York is a city. It’s like living in Rome at the height of the Empire. San Francisco? It’s not a city, JB. It’s a country club. A f-cking country club.”

“Screw you, dude,” I drawled. (Proud of my Now-West-Coast-Style chillness.) “It is too a city. I live there. I should know.”

“No. You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s a country club. You’ll see.”

Prophetic words. Jessie and I moved to Brooklyn soon after. New York bitch-slapped us upside the head so swiftly, ferociously, and consistently that I wince even now. They were, fortunately, the most helpful, life-affirming, educational bitch-slaps I’ve received before or since. (Belatedly, I thank you, New York. It’s easy to see why you inspire genius on a daily basis.)

San Francisco, while clearly a city, elicits derogatory daggers from NYC-based writers all the time. Seriously, could they use the word “earnest” more often, while describing the famous San Francisco niceness? (Or chillness. Groundedness. Down-to-Earthness. Take your pick.)

What’s the secret? San Franciscans know they’re living in the prettiest city in the world. Yes, Amsterdam, Rome, London, Paris; are all exquisite. (And no, I haven’t been to Istanbul.) But SF has the architecture to match; thousands and thousands of Victorian and Edwardian gems.

No, the difference is the Nature. The peninsula boasts miles of extraordinary beaches along the Pacific Ocean, with rocky cliffs that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge. There are the views of Alcatraz in the middle of the bay, with sailboats glinting, and the golden/green landscape of Marin County and Oakland looming behind the shining Bay Bridge. (Gold in summer, green in winter.) Plus, the absurdist giant hills, crawling with cable cars, and the Eucalyptus-laden mini-mountains in the city’s heart. It might as well be a fantasy camp for Outward-bound junkies.

Always somewhere on the boom and bust continuum, boom-times are back in 2012. Twitter, LinkedIn,, all have major presences downtown now. Oracle was hosting a 50,000 person geek-fest-convention while I was there too. (Why didn’t Larry Ellison just rent the city, like he bought that Hawaiian Island?)

The Mission still has a Latino population, and Chinatown and the Outer neighborhoods contain a sizable Chinese contingent, but I was shocked at how white and wealthy the downtown section of the city had become. Safe and clean are attributes that draw a certain demographic.

The Bay Area also has access to a bottomless vat of cash-money that practically rivals the Chinese government for liquidity. (Apple and Google are just up the road.) The lifestyle is the big draw. Living in such a beautiful place, where it never snows, is good for your brain chemistry. As is the obvious access to healthy, locally-grown produce, the amazing restaurants and cafes, wine country across the red bridge, and all those nice, chilled out, progressive people as your neighbors.

Open-mindedness blossoms. So much tolerance is addictive. And many folks stay forever, given rent controls, another side-affect of progressive politics. Not surprisingly, co-operative spirit prevails in a place like this.

When I got to town in early October, I found an excited, successful, productive, collaborative, energized photography community. (Whether people were based in the City, or elsewhere around the Bay.) Everyone I spoke to seemed to be connected to one another and supportive of each other’s success. Artists, gallerists, curators, and publishers were working together in different combinations and permutations. (At Gallery Carte Blanche, in the Mission, there was even a mashup exhibition of books from the Indie Photobook Library and framed prints shown together.)

My local contacts, whom I’d met at Review Santa Fe, were so generous with their time. Pointing me in the direction of places to see photos. Sharing the principles that have engendered their success. Inspiring me to break my karaoke cherry. (Yes, I serenaded someone, by request, with Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Does video evidence exist? I don’t know. Would I be ashamed? I suppose we’ll find out.)

The photographers I spoke with, Kevin, Pacarrik, McNair and Sarah were all involved in different critiquing groups. Each was also shooting multiple personal projects at once. They were affiliated with similar publishers, (Owl and Tiger, Daylight) and either worked, printed or hung around Rayko, the gallery/everything space just up the street from SFMOMA, under a highway overpass. When I visited Rayko, Lydia Panas’ “The Mark of Abel” was on view, looking gorgeous, and Kevin’s show, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” was due to open the following week.

Ann Jastrab, the gallery director, gave me the guided tour. Rayko offers full, wraparound services for every possible photographer’s need. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) I saw a shooting studio with lights, gang and private black & white darkrooms, a color processor and darkroom facility, plus a full digital setup with computers, a rental Imacon, a drum scanner, and large format printers.

In addition, they have the aforementioned gallery, a full slate of classes, a glass case selling used cameras, a working vintage 1940’s photo booth, and an artist residency program too. Amazing. It’s like Rayko decided that the 21st Century Hustle was here to stay, and built a business model to satisfy its cravings.

Believe it or not, I told Rob that this San Francisco Series would be more condensed than normal. Not the Introduction, apparently. Henceforth, I’ll do a few specific exhibition reviews, as I saw so many stellar shows. (And one klunker I might just write about.)

Before I go, though, I’d like to deliver a message to my San Francisco peeps, meant with love. It is so gratifying to see your scene thriving. Especially as it’s obviously built upon mutual respect and communal positivity. Kudos.

It can be a challenge, when you’re all connected, to always share your truest thoughts in a critique. When people need to stay on good terms, in order to succeed, there can be a disincentive to probe and offend, which is often necessary to reach that next level of creative excellence. So stay vigilant while you stay classy, San Francisco. It’s a small concern, relative to all the things you seem to have figured out at the moment.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 15 Comments On This Article.

  1. Not sure I agree about SF being the prettiest city in the world. I’ve just been there only as a tourist but I really didn’t like it at all. Not in a “it’s not a city” kind of way, but more in a “this city is getting on my nerve” kind of way. I guess it’s not for everyone. On the same trip I visited LA and actually much preferred it to SF.

    As for NYC, it’s a great city to live in if you have a lot of money.

  2. Donnor Party

    I lived in NYC for 20 years. It was truly inspiring until 2003 or so. It is now awash in money and “white” people. The edge that I always enjoyed is dull. Manhattan and Gold Coast Brooklyn are STUFFED full of well off suburban transplants. They aren’t making a culture, they are enjoying a pre-made lifestyle. It used to be that people from far off burbs came to NYC to be themselves, the place transforming them, a shitty apartment a chrysilis. Now the transplants don’t change, they change New York.

  3. I concur that SF isn’t for everyone, including me, and I’ve lived here for over a decade. As a native Chicagoan I can relate completely with the New Yawker’s view of SF as a country club and not a “real” city. That was my initial impression, and as the years go by that view has only been reinforced on a daily basis. It’s a pretty part of the country, no doubt, but for a town this size (particular one that’s broken down into such clearly defined neighborhoods), it’s shockingly homogeneous and lacking in so many of the basic elements that make you feel like you’re in an actual city. A friend of mine likened SF to a children’s play called “The City” where the residents are performers acting as though they live in an actual grown-up city.

    And prettiest city? Entirely subjective, but my vote is for New Orleans in the mid-to-late ’90s.

  4. Wow… interesting story…. these location-specific community stories are always fun to read…. especially as they are often very personal and not what you’ve already seen everywhere else….

    …and I’m so glad to see that you’ve found a mutually supportive community in San Francisco…. I found a bit of the opposite when I visited SF in the early 90’s while applying to SFAI, but maybe I got up on the wrong side of the bed, or somehow took a few wrong turns…. or the pre dot-com SF was just different…..

    I’ll take a pass on the prettiest architecture, as I live in Chicago and… uh….

  5. All New Yorkers think any other city in the world is not a city. Sadly It’s true. I live in San Francisco now and lived in New York for 7 years. I loved it and hated it – which is the same feeling I have about San Francisco. Still 50/50 on moving back or staying. The thing about San Francisco is not the “City” – but the Bay Area – from the north, east and south – It can’t be beat. You will not find that in any other place in this country.

    I highly recommend (tourists) leaving the “City” when you visit.

  6. Interesting article. I lived in Boston for 6 years, NYC for 7 and now live in Los Angeles. If there’s any city that’s a “non-city” it’s LA but I enjoy it for the most part. I toyed with the idea of living in San Francisco until I started visiting the area. Found the food, cycling and scenery amazing, but found the people a bit snobbish. Maybe it’s because I told them I lived in LA – there’s definitely a sense of rivalry between NorCal and SoCal.

    My vote for prettiest city in the US goes to Beantown!

  7. Born, raised and lived in NYC for 40 yrs before moving to San Francisco round the turn of the century. Basically just needed a change of pace- wanted to see the occasional horizon line. The two most expensive places in the USA, one 7 million plus, the other less than one. I miss my pizza, bagels and egg creams.

    Every time I go back home it seems they’ve somehow squeezed in another million people. One could actually walk for blocks on lower Broadway during the weekend up until the early ’80s- and count the number of people on one hand. Now you get crushed underfoot for just glancing downwards. It’s way too homogeneous now, I even saw faux French bistros in an area of Loisaida where few Whites ever dared tread (one of the few places one could still afford rent- back in the days of CBGB, Mudd Club and subway cars with no AC).

    I’ve “enjoyed” my stay here in SF (esp when renting a car to explore the desert SW next door), this place where “style” consists of wearing various portions of the SF Giants uniform. Someday I’ll return to live in my hometown, but it will never again be my NY- I am more separated from it in time, than by any distance in miles.

    • Donnor Party

      All the little places in Alphabet City are being crushed by businesses catering to NYU students and Jr. Traders. I used to hang out at CBs and Mars Bar, Lakeside. All gone now. There are places like Blackbird and Rabbit Club opened by CB’s alumni, but the whole desperate vibe is gone. The new people moving into the Village are not being molded by the culture. They are changing Manhattan, and Brooklyn too, into their fantasy playland.

      As for SF, its pretty, food is good, as someone wrote, the Bay Area is fantastic. It certainly is a City, just not one forged from iron. It doesn’t have enough edge for me to justify the cost of living. Neither does New York.

  8. Lived in SF for 6 yrs and have now been in NYC for 4. Spent a year in LA too. I don’t miss SF at all for a few reasons. Never super cold there but you always need a jacket at night and there is no real summer weather in the city. The ocean is always cold too. SF people are annoying with their thinking they are on par with New York and always hating on LA. Yes, LA sucks in some ways such as having to drive all the time but come on it’s Los Angeles. Way bigger market there for everything including photography. What is the market in San Francisco? It’s a better place for techies but not photographers. Def don’t miss the Victorian architecture and it’s just small. After living in NYC and SF, I would gravitate way more toward LA than SF if going back to the west coast. There you can actually get the warm sunny Cali lifestyle and still have a lot of culture. And the desert around Palm Springs being nearby is great too by the way.

  9. Regardless of any personal opinions about the city it’s nice to hear a report about what Jonathan cites as a ‘thriving photo community’. I think that is highly unique these days and that should be recognized.

  10. Thanks, Jonathan, beautiful piece… I lived in NYC for more than 20 years. Moved to the Bay Area 6 years ago. Great photo community… Supportive and stimulating, as you describe. All true. New York can push you to achieve things you never thought possible, but it can also burn you out as a human being, and as an artist…. My work life is far better here in SF. And I no longer shovel snow in winter… From the end of my block, I can walk all the way to the top of a mountain, where I can see the ocean. I hear fog horns and sea lions at night. Friends invite me to their homes for dinner, rather than meeting in restaurants… Good bye New York! Keep your sirens, noise and terrible weather. I am so grateful to be part of San Francisco now!

  11. Beth McManus

    As we can all see, to each his own! I loved the article, Jonathan. Upbeat, informative, tactful, and congenial. As a Boston transplant to NorCal, I have yet to get to know the city, but to all who left, I hope you the door didn’t hit you on the way out. When kids grow, I will connect with that community…looking forward to it now! Thanks for good read—