LS: You have a long-time relationship with San Francisco. What drew you to the city? What keeps you there today?
JD: I grew up in a track home in a suburb of Los Angeles. Perhaps because of this rather monotonous landscape I dreamt of living in a real city like the ones I saw on European postcards. Europe was too far away and frankly the culture of San Francisco in 1970 was exactly what I wanted. I now live in Berkeley, very near the subway and the freeway off ramp so I that I can get back to the city as often as possible. This is a progressive city. Issues of cultural and economic inequality are always at the forefront of political discourse.
LS: In your new publication, South of Market, you revisit images you shot in San Francisco from 1978-1986. What prompted you to return to this work? And what have you learned about yourself, your practice and your city from doing so?
JD: When I finished shooting in South of Market it felt like the end of a complicated relationship. The project wound down and I went on to do other work, but I kept an eye on this part of town through the next thirty years, always thinking that I would return to these images and perhaps photograph here again. In the 1980s I was trying to make images of the sort of changes that in fact did not actually appear until recently. With the arrival of Whole Foods on 4th Street at Harrison, it was clear that South of Market was officially gentrified. These earlier photographs provide an important reference to the past now that this area has been almost fully transformed. We can see what we are loosing and as well as what we have gained. There are many things that have improved in this area; change is not all bad!
I am still passionate about photographing not just San Francisco but cities everywhere. I love the unexpected interactions with strangers that happen when I am out with my camera. I love the hunt. Looking back at the early work I am amazed that I had so much courage. Perhaps I am more tentative now and that is something I need to work through. Interactions on the street and in businesses are more guarded now than they were in the 1980s. I still shoot with film because it seems less invasive than digital, people seem to trust me when they see I use traditional gear.
LS: You witnessed communities that once made up a vital area of San Francisco vanish. This work feels just as relevant to any urban area today as it was to San Francisco in the late seventies and early eighties. In New York City, blue-collar families, artists, and queer culture are pushed farther and farther. What insight or action on our part do you hope for in publishing this work now?
JD: When I first showed this work the word gentrification was still relatively new to the lexicon of urban studies, but everywhere I showed the project, from San Diego to Nova Scotia, people immediately recognized the issue. So yes, the photographs have had relevance across city limits and now across decades. I really came to understand what happens to cities with unchecked development when I photographed in Beijing and New Delhi. San Francisco has been more intentional and has more controls on the spread of chain stores and high-rises, but there is a persistent erosion of independent business as big box corporations drive the economy of all cities. This homogenization is certainly present in New York City.
The purpose of the project has always been to heighten awareness of the way we live in cities. The word “witness” is spot on. It is something photography does very well. This work should spark conversation about how cities evolve. It is not a natural ecosystem but rather a political and economic system that affects all of us. Who is in charge?
LS: This work includes gorgeous large format color photographs. How do you feel about the relationship between formal beauty and activist politics in this project?
JD: Using a view camera and color film was a very deliberate choice on my part. Up until that moment most documentary work was done with 35mm black and white film. I wanted to bring positive attention to a quiet, overlooked neighborhood. One that seemed expendable. The large format camera rendered the alleys and businesses with the importance I thought they deserved. I wanted to seduce the audience into looking at the photographs for their beauty. I always included text to insure the work remained true to my initial intentions of making a political statement about our relationship to home.
LS: With all the platforms available to photographers, what makes the photobook the perfect home for this project?
JD: When I did this work there were not very many ways to get photographs to an audience. I showed the work in various venues and made a two-projector slide show with an audiotape of interviews I’d done with my neighbors. We had events at community centers and at fine art galleries. Printing books in the 1980s was a very elite activity, one that was not even an option for me. But I was not focused on that because it was not the quickest way to get the images seen.
Ultimately books may be the only way to make a truly archival record. I feel that this group of images is now a part of the cultural history of San Francisco, sort of like a family photo album. The book form suits that purpose perfectly.