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A man on a Mission



On the front cover of my new documentary photography book, The Mission, a young Latino mother and her daughter are pictured walking in front of a striking black and white mural of Carlos Santana.

Santana — born in Jalisco, Mexico, but raised in the city’s Mission District — also has a strong connection to the Fillmore neighborhood. He got his first big break from Bill Graham at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966. For a time his studio was on Fillmore next door to the Clay Theatre. Those early years in the Fillmore launched him to international fame and iconic status that merits his bigger-than-life portrait by muralist Mel Waters at 19th and Mission Streets, only four blocks from where Santana attended high school.

My own interest in San Francisco, and especially in photographing it, had a decidedly different history. I was born on a ranch in western Oregon. It did not take many winters of feeding cattle at 5 a.m. for me to decide to go to college. That led to engineering at Oregon State University and a 48-year career in the global aluminum industry, the final years as ceo of Alcan with 75,000 employees in 63 countries. Photography became an appealing medium to record my ceaseless travels.

When I semi-retired in 2009 and moved to the neighborhood, I discovered that taking City Guides walking tours, with a camera in hand, was a great way to learn about San Francisco. That was my first ground level exposure to the Mission District.

The initial idea for the book came from a friend in Pacific Heights, architect Lewis Butler, who suggested that the Mission District was the most dynamic, colorful and evolving neighborhood in a city known for diversity and change. Having just self-published a book on another local neighborhood, San Francisco and the Bay Area: The Haight-Ashbury Edition, I felt it essential to collaborate with both a respected partner in the Mission and a credible publisher. That led to wonderful partnerships with Susan Cervantes, founder of mural and arts education nonprofit Precita Eyes, and with Heyday Books and its founder Malcolm Margolin.

The concept was to respectfully document and celebrate the rich diversity and evolving culture of the modern Mission. While there was — and still is — a great deal of political turmoil about the changes taking place in the Mission neighborhood, the idea was to visually document past treasures and present trends, not to politicize them. We did not specifically seek out the “Google Go Home” sweatshirts or similar sentiments, but we did not edit them out, either. Since street art is such a vivid reflection of history and pride — but also fears and protests — the book attempts to let the images tell the story and allow readers to reach their own conclusions.

Early in the process, Heyday editor Gayle Wattawa suggested that we intersperse verbal “mood-setters” — quotes, poems and very short essays — among the images. Taking on the task, Carla Wojczuk contacted a number of leading voices in the Mission to provide their unique perspectives, which became an integral part of the book.

The photos included in its pages are the distillation of approximately 6,000 images taken over four years of both planned shoots and random walks around the Mission. Not unexpectedly, that much time spent walking around the neighborhood with a large DSLR and five-pound lens in hand led to many wonderful random encounters, as well as occasional bursts of drama. More than once I was asked if I worked for ICE, the FBI or the CIA.

Midway through the project, Mission resident Chris Carlson and I were hiking up adjacent Potrero Hill one afternoon to get a bird’s eye view of the entire Mission when we were robbed at gunpoint of our wallets, cash, phones and camera equipment. You will not find a bird’s eye image of the Mission in the book.

But the challenging incidents pale compared to the dozens of people who made helpful comments and suggestions about where to find visual treasures or helped us understand the context of iconic murals and local businesses. Residents of the Mission are proud — proud of their culture, proud of their traditions, proud of their schools and willing to tell you why. Some residents went out of their way to lead us to a particular mural, business or street corner.

One difficult part of producing a documentary photography book is selecting the few images that make it to print. There must be 100 additional images that I would have included if we had not hit a practical limit. My solace is that I have them safely stored and backed up on flash cards and hard drives that I can share on request with the artists who created them.

But perhaps the single most difficult part — once the final images were selected, edited and positioned — was identifying, locating and obtaining releases from artists and people who appear in the images. Marina resident Megan Lynch tackled this challenge unflinchingly, including locating the mother and daughter on the cover, whose contact information we had taken but lost for more than a year. We finally resorted to printing and posting copies of the cover up and down Mission Street. Remarkably, six weeks later, a five-year-old girl visiting the neighborhood with her father spotted the picture at Milagros de Mexico Pharmacy on Mission Street and recognized the daughter. The father called Megan and gave her the family’s telephone number.

The first printing of The Mission sold out in a few months, but a second printing has just been released. Carlos Santana purchased 20 copies for his family and requested a complimentary license — which we granted — to use the photos of his mural likeness and the little girl on his global organization to help children, the Milagro Foundation.

I am pleased the Jewish Community Center is presenting a three-month exhibition of photographs from my Mission project, opening October 17 and continuing through January.