San Francisco – The Holocaust Memorial

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 (Please click images to view large)

When I was in Washington, DC, I went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which describes the WW2 Holocaust in detail.   It is hard to put into words the feeling of walking through that museum:  Emotional.  Educational.  Unsettling.  Sad.  Disturbing.  In a way though it is also inspirational to see how much effort has been put into honouring those who lost their lives, and to help us remember those horrific events in the hope that history never repeats itself.

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In San Francisco there is a much smaller Holocaust Memorial near the Legion of Honor.  This memorial was created by sculptor George Segal, and installed in 1984.  The memorial sits on the well manicured grounds of the Legion of Honor, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean.    There is a stark contrast between the grey and white memorial and the beautiful and colourful grounds it sits on, almost forcing you to stop and spend time in thought reflecting on the evil that killed over 6 million people.

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Segal’s memorial is small, perhaps 20′ in size.  It shows one prisoner looking out through the barbed wire of a fence, and the bodies of 10 people who have just been removed from the gas chambers and thrown in a heap on the ground.  There is no discrimination in the victims:  There are 7 men, 2 women, and a child.

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In an interview with the New York Times Segal said:

”I must have looked at 1,000 photographs,” Mr. Segal said, ”and I was struck by the obscenity of the disorder, the heaping of the bodies. In most countries, there is a ritual order at funerals. The corpses are carefully composed, and there is a ritual of grieving. Here was a decision by a modern state to perform official murder of an entire race. The indignity of the heaping, the total disregard for death, spoke of the insanity.”

The disorder could not be captured, however, by mirroring it. ”If I were to recreate the chaos,” he said, ”I’d have to use the Nazi brutality and contempt to arrive at a solution. I don’t think it is the function of the artist to repeat that kind of bankrupt frame of mind. It is much more important to make room for the private tendrils of response everywhere.”

Therefore, the work had to be carefully ordered and composed; which could easily neutralize the disorder, or make it too consciously esthetic. ”It means walking a desperate tightrope,” Mr. Segal said. ”The awfulness can’t disintegrate into prettiness.” ‘It Has to Do With Survival’

The geometry and the series of correspondences within the work tie everything together and also create themes, motifs, pockets of interest. There are a number of religious and allegorical references. The heap on the ground forms a cross, or a star. One of the two women, lying on the stomach of a man, with her legs outstretched toward the upper left of the work, is holding a partly eaten apple. She is a large, earthy figure. ”I became as interested in Eve’s sensuality as anything else,” Mr. Segal said. ”It has to do with survival.”

If there is one indispensable figure in the work, one figure who pulls the composition taut and gives the work a larger dimension, it is the standing figure in the foreground. Unlike the corpses, he is dressed. He is wearing ”those famous striped prison pajamas,” Mr. Segal said.

As with Mr. Segal’s previous works, the plaster figures were made by taking molds from people the artist knows and by making plaster casts, which he subsequently worked. ”He is a real survivor,” Mr. Segal said of the man who modeled for the standing figure. ”He’s an Israeli friend of mine who survived the camps. I felt that certain things had to be authentic.”

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I think I was moved most by these two victims displayed in one last embrace:

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As you walk away from the memorial you see two plaques that end with a statement of hope:

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And that is what I felt as I  prepared to walk away, taking one last image:

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Viewed from behind it feels like the lone man standing is still looking out with hope, despite the horror behind him.  It feels like a metaphor and tribute to the indomitable spirit of the people who survived these horrific events.

Some have said that a camera is a passport to the world.  My passion for photography brought me to San Francisco on this trip, and my Fuji X100s let me quietly capture these images, giving me something to remember the feeling I had when I stood in front of this memorial.

I hope you like them.

San Francisco Chinatown Street Photography

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My latest photographic journey took me from Vancouver, Canada to San Francisco where I spent five days shooting.  Each day I got up early to shoot the sunset, and stayed out late to shoot through blue hour.  When the light was not great mid day, however, I focused on street photography and constantly found myself drawn to San Francisco’s Chinatown.

All images in this post were shot with my constant travel companion, the Fuji X100s.

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San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America, established in 1848.  Spend any significant amount of time there and you will realize that there are actually two Chinatowns:  the tourist one and the “real” one.   I highly recommend getting off the main drag……wander the alleys, go to the parks, go at night, etc.  It is truly an amazing place.

The main drag of Chinatown is full of tourist shops, street performers, people selling their wares and protesters:

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If  you can’t see that clearly it says that the Chinese Communist Party is Satan.  She was very vocal about that.

Getting off the beaten path reveals a very different Chinatown.  The Tin How Temple is a perfect example.  You can walk by the door a dozen times and not see it if you aren’t looking for it.  The temple is small but beautiful… amazingly peaceful.  Photography is not allowed inside the temple (sadly), but you are allowed to go out onto the balcony and shoot this view across the Chinatown rooftops:

DSCF4340-2 Ross Alley is a popular tourist spot, perhaps because of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where you can watch the ladies who work there make the cookies.   It is one of the oldest parts of San Francisco’s Chinatown, originally known for its brothels and gambling houses.

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I loved this doorway in the alley.  It seemed like every time I returned I captured a different person in it.

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My favourite place to visit was definitely Portsmouth Square.  Every day, no matter what time I went, there were dozens of people (if not hundreds) playing games, gambling, talking, reading….. it was an amazing place to people watch and shoot.

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And, as always with street photography, it was all about the random encounters with people:

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I once read a comment from a photographer that talked about how an amazing photograph captures the right subject, at the right moment, in the right light, with the right background.  You always hope for that, but street photography is more like going fishing and not knowing what you are going to get. Do you find the great light and background and then hope that somebody walks through it? Do you find the great subject and hope they move into the right area? Do you stop them and ask to make a formal portrait?

It’s always exciting and fun, and I can’t think of a much better place to do it.

Alcatraz – A Photo Essay

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When I was in San Francisco last month for five days of photography I spent an afternoon touring Alcatraz, something I like to do whenever I am there.  Being familiar with the island and history of the prison I didn’t do the usual tour this time, but rather went with the goal of creating a photo essay.

All photos in this essay were shot on the Fuji X100s, which I carried in my Fuji Travel Kit.

Please click each image to view larger!

Alcatraz has a long history.  It was first fortified in 1853 for coastal defence, with construction taking approximately 5 years.  During the American Civil War the island housed 85 cannons, and was also used as a storage arsenal.  As early as 1861 Alcatraz was being used as a prison (starting with housing Civil War prisoners), and in 1868 it was officially designated as a long term detention facility for military prisoners.  It was de-activated as a military prison in 1933, and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons at that time.

From 1934 when the first batch of federal prisoners arrived on the island, until 1963 when it was closed by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the island remained a Federal Penetentiary.  This is perhaps how we know it best.

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Transport to the island is done by boat, and I can only imagine what it was like to be on that short ride over, watching the island get bigger as you got closer, and knowing that the only way you would be leaving the island is when you died.

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Arriving at the island you are greeted by Building 64.  From 1964 to 1971 Alcatraz was occupied on several occasions by First Nations as a form of protest.  During this time graffiti was left like noted in the picture above.  One occupation lasted 19 months.

Harkening back to the days when it was a functional prison, you quickly see this guard tower as you step off the boat:

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New prisoners to the island were first prepared for their cells.  They were inspected, showered, and then provided their prison garb:

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Most of an inmate’s time was spent in the main cellblock:

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The cell block is divided into 4 main sections (A block, B block, C block, and D block).  Alcatraz has 336 main cells, and 42 solitary confinement cells.  At it’s height, however, the prison only housed 302 inmates and usually averaged 260 inmates or so.

Each cell averaged 5′ by 9′ in size.

On weekends and on holidays many inmates were permitted to be outside in “The Yard” for up to 5 hours a day.  As the inmates left the cell block to enter the yard they must have realized just how near, and yet how far away, freedom was.  This pano, stitched together from 7 images taken with the Fuji X100s, is taken from the top of the stairs leading down into the yard.  You can clearly see the Golden Gate Bridge through the fence, and they must have heard the sounds of the city each day.

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Time in the yard was spent conversing, playing sports, and exercising.  Outside of the main cell block this was “the world” for the prisoners.

Here is a 5 stitch pano looking back at the main building:

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Inmates lived in their cells and dined in a communal dining hall, but if they misbehaved they would often find themselves in solitary confinement:

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Prisoners placed in “the hole” were often left in the pitch dark for extended periods of time.

Many prisoners were allowed visitation rights.  Visits were allowed once per month, for roughly 90 minutes per visit.  The rules allowed for immediate family and other approved guests, but put strict restrictions on what discussions were permitted.  Visitation was done through a small window and over the phone:

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Health care (medical and dental) was provided on the island for the inmates, guards, and civilians who lived on the island.  The hospital wing, located above the dining hall, had 3 five bed wards, 2 isolation rooms, treatment and surgical rooms, offices, it’s own kitchen, supply rooms and bathrooms.

The hospital has a creepy feel to it when you view it, and adds to the overall atmosphere when visiting the island:

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Alcatraz even had it’s own morgue, complete with 3 vaults and an examination table:

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The vaults are visible at the back of the photograph.  The morgue was rarely used as dead were usually transported by boat back to the city.

Privileged inmates were allowed to work on the island, providing for the military by performing tasks such as sewing, woodworking, laundry, etc.  Most of this work was done in the New Industries Building, and the Model Industries building.

The Model Industries Building (3 image pano):

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Even when working in these buildings, however, the inmates were always under direct supervision.  Elevated Gun Galleries were commonplace in the prison buildings, ensuring guards always had the upper hand on the inmates.  Here is the gallery in the New Industries Building:

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And, looking down into the building where the inmates would be working:

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Perhaps the most famous piece of Alcatraz history is the escape made by inmates Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin.

Much has been written about this escape attempt, in which the three chiseled out of their cells (it took almost a year of digging using spoons to create the holes under their sinks), used paper mache heads to disguise the fact that they were missing, escaped to the roof by climbing a ventilation shaft, climbed down to the water, and used life jackets and rafts improvised from raincoats and rubber cement to swim off the island.  The escape was not detected until the following morning.  Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the rafts and life jackets were found on nearby Angel Island, but the three were never heard from again.

The paper mache head and escape route carved out under the sink:

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The shaft they crawled into from their cells:

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It takes about four hours to visit the island properly.  There is a free audio tour you can take, narrated by former guards and inmates, that is very good.

I highly recommend you visit this site if you are in the Bay area.  If you are a photographer, take your time while you are here – the photographic opportunities abound.

Until next time!