South of Market
Janet Delaney met me on the corner of Folsom and First Street on a Saturday morning in the center of San Francisco’s South of Market (SOMA) district. Dressed sensibly in a black waterproof overcoat, jeans, and brown leather boots, Janet strode purposefully down First, as she took advantage of the silence pervading the city’s empty streets to search for the next image that would ask to be taken. “Weekend mornings are great because I can get all the space I need,” she says, “but it’s a tradeoff because the construction sites are closed so there is less to photograph.” She sets up a large tripod in a small alley at the intersection of a restaurant, a nightclub, and an office building under construction. The office complex, a beautiful building whose exterior is made of reflective glass, is the subject of the photo. In it, the glass reflects the giant red cranes in the neighboring lot that are being used to build the city’s new Transbay Transit Center, a modern transit hub containing more than one million square feet over six levels that will serve 11 transportation systems, have a 5.4-acre rooftop public park, and create a “Grand Central Station of the West,” or so the city hopes.
Once a gritty, working-class neighborhood of immigrant families and single men, the South of Market underwent a period of redevelopment in the 1980s when the district was torn up to make room for the now iconic 20-acre Moscone Convention Center and its surrounding high-end apartments and sleek retailers. Janet was a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute when she first started documenting the rapid change around her. “Cities are in constant transition and the issue of transition is what fascinates me,” she says. “The place between what was and what will be, that turning point when we let go and reach for something else. It’s that place in the middle that I situate my artwork. When I first started making pictures that’s where I was as a young woman -- letting go of the past and reaching for the future. That idea has really stayed with me in all my work.”
The images she captured with a large format camera, as well as the interviews she conducted with local community members who were being displaced, have come together two decades later in a new collection of work entitled “South of Market.” In it, Janet’s simple portraits and documentary-esque cityscapes became a vehicle for community members who had no other outlet to express their uncertainty over the changes that were being forced upon them. “My artwork is really grounded in experience and in the politics and economics that are going on around me,” she explains. “With respect to the South of Market project, I was thinking about the forces that build and destroy place, and who wins and who pays, for other people’s experiences.”
Though her resume is stacked with accomplishments including three National Endowment for the Arts grants, traveling to Nicaragua to document a family’s experience during the Sandinista Revolution, curating Delhi's first modern contemporary American photography exhibit, and teaching photography for over fifteen years, Janet is emotionally and intellectually proudest of the recent publication of South of Market. “Doing the book has been a lifelong dream,” she says. “My work is very quiet; I’ve never really sought out a high profile. But you get to a certain age and you have to realize it’s now or never. I’ve been lucky and I was ready for this opportunity when it happened. It takes luck, but luck doesn’t come to those who aren’t prepared.”
Janet sits comfortably in her studio where we’ve relocated after the morning shoot. Large prints from South of Market hang on the wall, and dozens of smaller prints from recent shoots in the city are spread across the working table. After 30 years, Janet has again brought her focus back onto this part of the city of San Francisco. Her new work bears the moniker SOMA.
“In the whole arc of my life I’m calmer now than I’ve ever been,” Janet says. “The sense of purpose and focus seems very clear. South of Market was a very emotional project for me in the 80’s and I was hesitant to go back into it. It took a long time for me to decide how I wanted to re-approach it. I had a history of how I did it before, but now I’m not the same person and it’s not the same place. When you photograph, you see something intimately so I am getting to know this place all over again”. More than just color or form, Janet’s images have a context and sequence that are additionally infused with the personal history she has with San Francisco. The narrative that emerges is both intimate and revealing, a snapshot of a city in continuous transition.
What brings you the most satisfaction?
JANET: There’s a split second when I’m falling in love with a picture. I just get this kind of feeling about a photograph that I’ve made that it’s going to be good one. The actual image itself can bring a lot of pleasure. On the days I print successfully, which are not that many with technical problems and distractions, I feel an incredible sense of satisfaction. On the days I photograph, I feel a high. People talk about the high you get when you’re in the zone. I get that from printing and photographing.
What equipment do you use?
JANET: When I’m traveling I use a Rolleiflex, a twin lens reflex camera from 1960. Right now I’m using a view camera for SOMA, mixing it up with a Mamiya 7 and looking at the different effects those cameras have on what I photograph. When I did landscape I used the square format with the Hasselblad. When I did Housebound I also used the Hasselblad because I wanted to work up close and I wanted minimum depth of field. I decide the camera based on the project. I haven’t used 35mm for fine art in a long time.
Why do some photographs elicit such emotional reactions?
JANET: Pictures usually don’t exist in a void, we’re predetermined in how we’re going to experience it. If you see it in an artist’s studio you probably think it’s art. If you see it on a cereal box you probably don’t think it is. Every picture has its own context and it gets read based on that. Part of [the experience] is people’s backgrounds and what they bring to the act of looking at photographs.
Recommendations for new artists?
I think everybody thinks they can take pictures. You have to practice photography like an instrument. The pictures tell you what it is that you’re seeing, it’s like a feedback loop. You look at the work and then you go out and photograph again. It’s important to be intentional and not just think that after taking a lot of photographs you’re going to get a good one. You have to be a driver as much as you can. You have to look at a lot of work that’s being made as well, not live in a vacuum. It’s also important to have something to say. it doesn’t have to be grand but you need to have some context in order to make a deeper, more complex photograph.
JANET: It’s an isolating experience to be a visual artist but you have to create a community of people you interact with. I spend most of my day alone. Printing and photographing are very lonely. And then I drag people into my studio to look at photos to edit and find out which ones stick. There’s going to be a core group of photographs people resonate with. I’ve had had a few chances to collaborate and they've been fantastic. I’d like to have more opportunities to collaborate, I just have to figure out what those projects would look like.