Photos from the ’50s see the light

Photograph by Gerald Ratto

When Gerald Ratto was a student at the California School of Fine Arts in the 1950s, he would hang out in the Fillmore with his camera and a bottle of brandy, which sometimes made it easier to make friends.

“I wasn’t documenting anything,” he says. “I was just photographing the people who lived there.”

Ratto went on to become an admired architectural photographer and hadn’t thought much about those Fillmore photos since 1952, when he made them, until a few months ago when he stopped by Tadich Grill for dinner. He struck up a conversation with two men sitting alongside him at the counter. It came up that he was a photographer.

“Ever take any pictures in the Fillmore?” one of them asked between bites of his sand dabs.

Ratto said he had, as a matter of fact. He was encouraged to show the photographs to Peter Fitzsimmons, head of the new Fillmore Heritage Center, who was organizing exhibitions exploring the neighborhood’s history.

“I figured maybe he’ll take two or three pictures,” Ratto recalls. “He took all 52!” Which meant Ratto had to get them all framed—a pricey proposition. But he did, and the entire Fillmore series hung, beautifully framed, in the center’s gallery for several weeks at the beginning of the year. It was the first time the images had been shown.

Along came B&W Magazine, which showcases photography, and spotlighted Ratto’s work. “Ratto’s Fillmore series captures a unique time and place in the history of San Francisco,” the magazine reported alongside a portfolio of his photographs in its August 2009 issue.

Gallerist Robert Tat, who specializes in photography, saw the work and invited Ratto to show the Fillmore series at his gallery. The exhibition opened downtown at the Robert Tat Gallery on November 5 and continues through January 30.

Into the gallery came a critic from The New York Times, who also visited the exhibition of Dan Dion’s rock photographs from the Fillmore Auditorium now hanging at the Fillmore Heritage Center. Her review on Sunday, December 6, was headlined “A Vanished San Francisco, Black, White and Colorful” and included two of Ratto’s Fillmore photographs, which, she wrote, “poignantly recall a vanished landscape.” But she dismissed the images as cliches and lambasted the program of the heritage center, sniffing: “Nostalgia for a bygone era ultimately isn’t very helpful to a neighborhood like the Fillmore.”

Ratto was mostly amused.

“They spelled my name right,” he says, “and published two nice pictures.”

But he was also annoyed.

“People didn’t have attitudes then,” he says. “The area was not dangerous. It was real. I don’t need some white liberal bitch to come in and explain it to me.”

All in all, it has been quite a year for Gerald Ratto, now 77, and his images of the Fillmore in 1952.

“It was that dinner at Tadich that started it all,” he says. “It just snowballed from there.”

PORTFOLIO: “Children of the Fillmore