SoMa, the Tenderloin, and Mid-Market (two of them real, the latter freshly conceived and coined) received heaps of ink over the last year. Some good, some bad, most of it controversial in one way or another. Each hood proved great for clicks and heated commentary on SFist and other publications. Why? Because each area is going through a major culture and economic shuffle with regard to food, tech, economy, and residential growth. Just to name a few. But after the brouhahas over NEMA, evictions, and rooftop gardens fade, we're left with the people that call these neighborhoods home. San Francisco-based photographer Troy Holden set about to capture the people that live in all three, and his results are astounding in their honesty and quiet beauty.
What could have turned into a photo collection that fetishized or demonized the residents of SoMa, the Tenderloin, and Mid-Market instead presents these people, your neighbors, as-is. In collaboration with the North of Market-Tenderloin Community Benefit District, Holden made 50 portraits of individuals and families in their homes or places of business. Each participant will receive a print of their portrait and digital copies of the files. He also allowed us to share with you some of the images set to appear in his upcoming gallery exhibit Neighbors: A Collection of 50 Portraits at the Lower Branch Gallery (opening Jan. 17 and running until Jan. 22).
We asked Holden to tell us more about his upcoming show, his subjects, his camera, and more.
SFist: What is the "Neighbors" portrait collection?
Troy Holden: "Neighbors" is a collection of 50 environmental portraits of people who live and work in San Francisco's Tenderloin, Mid-Market, and South of Market neighborhoods. Over a one year period from 2012-2013, I made portraits of individuals and families in their homes or places of business.
Each participant receives a matted and framed 8x10 print of the portrait and digital copies of the photo files. To commemorate the project, gallery will exhibit all 50 portraits for a one week period. The project participants will be invited to attend opening night reception.
SFist: How did you get involved with this project?
Holden: I was approached by the North of Market-Tenderloin CBD (Community Benefit District) asking if I was interested in making a community portrait. I was very interested! The central/downtown neighborhoods had been my home since moving to San Francisco in the mid-90's. The project offered an opportunity to deeply document and give back to an area of the City that I've had an ongoing relationship with and really care about.
When we first started talking, the CBD suggested I invite the neighborhood to a central location and take traditional portraits using a white backdrop and studio lighting. This sounded boring and I felt it would be reflected in the portraits. I offered an alternative: photograph people in the spaces where they live and work. No choreography or complicated lighting. Instead I would make an honest portrait of people and places as they looked on any average day.
SFist: How did you find people willing to be photographed?
Holden: This was most challenging part of completing the portrait collection. My first leads were provided by the CBD. Their organization has deep connections in the neighborhood. They used email and word of mouth to find the first people who were interested in participating.
When those leads lost momentum, I made flyers and hung them in neighborhood businesses and residential hotels/apartment buildings. The flyers listed my phone number/email address for people to contact me to setup a portrait session. Towards the middle of the project, a friend who has worked in the Mid-Market area for 25 years gave me another 10 leads, which in turn lead to 5 more leads. As the project reached 50 completed portraits, the Central City Extra newspaper ran an article with the project details and my contact information which resulted in the final leads.
SFist: What happens during a portrait session? How do you get them to relax in front of the camera?
Holden: When I arrive to a sitting, I have two main goals: break the ice and identify the best position and light source for the portrait.
The first part is the hardest. Making a portrait of a stranger in a private space like an apartment or office can be an intense experience for both the person being photographed and the photographer. So I quickly attempt to remove any awkwardness and establish trust. If the person is nervous/anxious/tense — those emotions will overwhelm the portrait.
Once the subject is comfortable, I begin to mentally plan the photograph: position, pose, posture, and facial expression. My only verbal instructions are to not rearrange anything in the background and to not give me a cheesy smile. I begin casually taking photographs while our conversation continues, and eventually my camera's presence fades into the background. At this point is usually when the best portraits are made.
SFist: What camera and lighting setup did you use? Some of our readers want to know the technical aspects.
Holden: The portraits were made using a natural light source (usually a window), a digital camera, and a wide angle lens. The wide angle lens allowed me to include as much of the background as possible, even in smaller spaces. On occasion, I used a small flash to illuminate facial shadows caused from overhead lights. I never knew what the lighting situation would be before I arrived, so I kept the setup simple and consistent.
SFist: Anything else you'd like to add?
Holden: I'm very thankful for everyone that helped me find people interested in making a portrait. The project would not have been possible without their generous referrals. Moreover, I'm overwhelmingly grateful to the people who participated and let me photograph them.
Neighbors: A Collection of 50 Portraits opens on Friday, January 17th at the Lower Branch Gallery (233 Eddy) in San Francisco. The photos will be printed in three different sizes, the largest being 40" wide. The exhibit will run for one week.