Hurricane Katrina drenched, decimated and maybe resuscitated New Orleans. The Big Three abandoned Detroit, leaving a place struggling for structure and street lights. A room in San Francisco will buy a house in another urban center. The dynamics of cities is measurable and personal, and Janet Delaney’s South of Market, currently on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, documents her firsthand experience as a resident and keen-eyed photographer during the 1970s and ’80s

Originally published in the March, 2015 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, available here.

. —Gwynned Vitello

Gwynned Vitello: What was your intention in embarking on what turned out to be a photographic essay?
Janet Delaney: My early work was all about finding formal elements in abandoned buildings and construction sites. I think I was developing my visual vocabulary; I was training my eye on inanimate objects as I looked for metaphors for my own personal transitions. After my travels to Central America, I was much more aware of the social issues that people were facing in San Francisco. I began photographing the Moscone Center under construction, but ultimately I took on the task of creating a document that showed the full scope of the people whose lives would be most altered as the conventioneers and their new money arrived.

Before I started the MFA program at San Francisco Art Institute, I seriously considered getting a degree in city planning. When I decided to embark on an MFA, I made a specific choice to focus my artwork on the issues of city life. Making artwork that had a political base was being done by many of my contemporaries. I worked closely with Connie Hatch who now teaches at Cal Arts. Together, we received a National Endowment for the Arts survey grant to seed this project. In the early 1980s, the premise of documentary photography was being challenged. The idea of the outside observer was questioned. I definitely did not want to make photographs of bums in slums as I could have easily done on 6th Street. Rather, I wanted to draw attention to what was a vital, if overlooked, neighborhood whose voice was not being heard. The idea of making photographs that could function outside the arts arena was very important to me, so I showed the work in bars, at community meetings and anywhere people wanted to see it. I always included a great deal of text and did not seek out galleries or other commercial venues for the work.

I should add that South of Market was the only place in San Francisco where I felt like I belonged. As an artist, I had a stake in the neighborhood. It was where the photo labs and galleries were, it was where my friends lived. I am not wealthy, I had no family then, so I was not at home in Chinatown, the Mission, Pacific Heights or Noe Valley. I was not objective about it, I never approached the telling of this story as a journalist. It was my own story.

By exhibiting South of Market now, 35 years after the photographs were made, at the de Young, a major San Francisco museum, I finally have a marvelous platform for the story. With this exhibition and book, I want to create a dialogue about how cities change. Who wins and at what cost to the character of the city? Is there a way to have economic development that is inclusive of those whose work does not generate high income? Can we maintain the economic and cultural diversity that drew us to San Francisco in the first place? And can art have a seat at the table for these kinds of conversations?

I think there is a perception that city portraits are black and white. Can you describe your decision to shoot in color?
I shot in color because I wanted to seduce people into looking at and caring about a part of town that nobody paid any attention to. South of Market, now called SoMa, was the backroom, the service entrance to the city. By using a large format camera and shooting 4 x 5 color negatives, my photographs had a certain weight to them. Using this form of photography helped to express how strongly I felt about the importance of the people who lived and worked here. I also shot many rolls of Kodachrome film and made hours of audio interviews with my neighbors. Initially these slides were used as part of a two projector slide show with audio. The focus of this project was to give a voice to the people in my photographs, to hear, in their own words, how gentrification was affecting them. These tapes were edited and included in the book South of Market.

Is photography always a social statement?
In the big picture, I would have to say everything is a social statement. We rarely act outside of our social relationships. But, to be more specific, no. Photographers can write in many different forms. I have used photography poetically with my project, Housebound, about my family, figuratively with the work I did of trees in Between Chaos and Grace, and perhaps most literally, with South of Market or the Nicaraguan photographs, two projects that would today be called social practice work.

Janet Delaney: South of Market
de Young Museum
San Francisco, CA

On view: January 17, 2015 – July 19, 2015