Photo London: Janet Delaney’s radical San Francisco

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She stands on a San Francisco rooftop looking out over the South of Market neighbourhood – the area that was the subject and title of her sumptuous 2013 book, published by MACK Books, which led to her solo show at the city’s prestigious De Young Museum. Thousands have now seen the series, but Janet Delaney shot it in the early 1980s, just as the district was being primed for redevelopment and gentrification.

Now middle-aged, as a young woman Delaney was fiercely committed to the idea that photography could and should change the world. Thinking of herself as a “cultural worker”, she hoped her project would advocate for the working class people and businesses who had helped make the area so vibrant, and help stop them from being displaced.

Shooting on a bulky view camera strapped to a tripod, she showed the work in unconventional locations such as a local gay bar, where she had also shot some of the portraits, but it didn’t move City Hall as she had hoped. The neighbourhood was landed with a huge convention centre that pushed much of the long-standing community out to the suburbs and today, as we look out over it, we see HQs for high-tech titans such as Twitter and Uber muscling their way into the skyline, and cookie- cutter loft units springing up in place of gas stations and autobody shops.

Pawnshop, Mission St, 1984. From the series Public Matters © Janet Delaney

In retrospect she believes much larger political forces were at work in San Francisco and in the US in general, which made the changes almost inevitable. “Reagan had a huge impact,” she says. “His government was clamping down on artistic conversations that were happening here, the National Endowment for the Arts was unplugged and there was a social conservatism backlash that happened.

“For those of us who came of age during the 1970s, it felt like the party was over and, of course, AIDS became a huge problem. The right wing suggested we were being punished for having been out in the world and thinking we could make things happen.”

Interestingly, though, Delaney’s work has now become powerfully relevant again, as a new wave of gentrification has swept San Francisco. The De Young Museum has staged Friday night discussion events over her exhibition, at which activists and community leaders have used her images as a jumping-off point for contemporary debate over ‘developers’.

“Delaney’s project is an important and significant body of work politically,” says her publisher, Michael Mack. “It chimes with what is happening in San Francisco now, never mind in the era when she was making it. It’s great to see work that crosses that divide of over 30 years.

“[But] I had one curator come in when we were working on the book and they were sitting there enthralled, not because of the political message but because the work is so great. It clearly has a strong edge and a significant story, but it’s also really fine photography as well, and it’s rare to find that combination.”

Young Couple at Carnival, 1984. From the series Public Matters © Janet Delaney

Although she now lives across the Bay in Berkeley, Delaney is still committed to San Francisco and takes her camera back to her old haunts to see how the high-tech boom is affecting the streets, alleyways and corners she knows so well. Her new work retains the same high-impact, content-rich compositions, but this time there are fewer men in overalls and more tech superstars in the making.

“What has become very interesting to me are the young people in technology, who are seeing the project and having epiphanies of knowledge about the area they now inhabit,” says Delaney. “They’ve been so burrowed-in, trying to succeed, and now that they are having some success they are putting their heads up and seeing things they should have noticed about the neighbourhood.

“Suddenly they are seeing the history of what came before them and they are placing themselves in it. So that’s where I am trying to move towards with my contemporary work, which is a bridge between past and present, between the super-wealthy and the poor, and trying to make an image.”

And Delaney, who received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has been an adjunct lecturer in visual studies at the University of California, Berkley for the past 14 years, also has other projects she’s hoping to bring out from the archive. One close to her heart was taken on a long-term excursion to Nicaragua during its civil war in the 1980s, which produced a harrowing but passionate tale about a family who had loved ones executed by the Somoza dictatorship.

Now that she has a grown-up family and is teaching less, Delaney is keen to remind us of the political struggles she and her friends were attempting to navigate through photography, and why they are still relevant today. Janet Delaney is showing work from the series Public Matters at Photo London, with her gallery Euqinom Projects; MACK Books is publishing a book of this project later in the year This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BJP

Three Young Women, 1985. From the series Public Matters © Janet Delaney
Two School Girls, Mission St, 1985. From the series Public Matters © Janet Delaney
Transbay Terminal Newsstand,1982. From the series South of Market, 1978-86 © Janet Delaney
Saturday Afternoon, Howard between 3rd and 4th Streets, 1981. From the series South of Market, 1978-86 © Janet Delaney