Photos

'A Race Against Time' to Capture a Rapidly Changing San Francisco

After 18 years in the city, a photographer tries to preserve its disappearing faces and places. 

Image
Troy Holden

Troy Holden didn't carry around a camera when he first moved to San Francisco in 1996. Now, he wishes he had. Since then, his adopted city has changed quite a bit.

After he got a simple point-and-shoot in 2009, Holden started documenting what he came across on his walks up and down the city's hilly landscape. He eventually developed a signature style that offers a simple yet dramatic look into lives all over the city.

Earlier this year, Holden had his first solo show, "Neighbors," a collection of portraits of residents in the first San Francisco neighborhood he lived in, the Tenderloin. Holden now lives in Bernal Heights, but he still ends up around downtown and the Mission District on his walks, posting his best shots on a Tumblr page called Snapshots as well as on his Flickr account.

Holden spoke to CityLab about how he goes about photographing his city.

How long have you been living in San Francisco?

I moved to San Francisco in 1996 from Michigan. I rode the Greyhound bus across the country with only a duffel bag and $400 to my name.

My first apartment was above a strip club on Market Street between 6th and 7th. Rent was cheap ($550 a month), which made it a good location for transplants with no money or job. It's the heart of the city where anything goes. Lots of interesting people on the street. I wish I had thought to carry a camera in those days.

Market Street, San Francisco, April 22nd, 2014.

What inspired you to start photographing the city?

I've always taken long walks through the city streets as a way to pass time and clear my head. In 2009, I ordered a Dell desktop computer that came with a free Canon Powershot point-and-click camera. I started bringing the camera out on my walks, snapping pics of the people and places I saw along the way. 

I didn't really understand the potential of a camera back then. It was mostly boring photos of what something looked like as a way of taking notes or collecting images. Occasionally I would make what I thought to be a good picture. I started going on more and more walks while trying to focus on taking better pictures. I was hooked! Around 2011, I decided to take things more seriously and have since dedicated most of my free time to the pursuit of the next good photo.

What areas do you tend to do most of your work in? 

I carry a camera with me wherever I go. San Francisco is small in physical size, so you can move through three or four neighborhoods in a short amount of time. My favorite areas to shoot are downtown (Market Street, Tenderloin, South of Market) and the Mission District. These are dense neighborhoods with lots of foot traffic. There's always something going on and it's easy to blend into the crowd.

Market Street, San Francisco, August 22nd, 2013.

For the past two years. I've been focusing on the mid-Market corridor stretching from 4th to 9th streets. I take a 30-45 minute walk in the early morning, noon, and evening five or six days a week. The area is currently undergoing major changes in both foot traffic on the street and the skyline above. Familiar faces and places are quickly disappearing. Photos I took just two or three months ago show people and buildings that are already gone. It feels like I'm in a race against time. 

Of all the photos on Snapshots, which one is your favorite? 

I don't know that I have any favorites. The photos I consider "keepers" tend to change over time. Once I have 25 or 30 years of photos under my belt, I'll start to seriously consider which images came together best.  

South of Market, San Francisco, May 7th, 2014.

A recent photo I really worked for is of a man carrying a mattress on his back down 6th Street. I was out walking and noticed this fellow from across the street carrying a large object on his back. I tried telling myself it wasn't worth running across the street through traffic, but after wavering a few seconds I knew I had to go for it. I dashed across the street and continued running until I was able to get in front of the guy. I framed and shot him from about 20 feet away and he gave me a grin. At this point, I knew he wouldn't object at another shot, so I turned on the fill flash, recomposed the photo and took a second shot. 

Has Snapshots had any effect on the way you see or understand San Francisco?

What's helped me better understand San Francisco (and myself) is all the walking. For example, on an hour walk I may take two photos or I may take 15. It usually depends on my state of mind and the weather. During the buildup to the photo, or the photos I waver on and don't take—that is what I really learn from. Walking the same streets over and over is an exercise in intense observation. The photos are just a byproduct of all that walking and looking and seeing.

What do you hope viewers get out of looking at these images?

Nothing too obvious. I don't give much context in my photographs. Make up your own story and let your mind wander a bit.

SFO, San Francisco, April 16th, 2013.
South of Market,San Francisco, January 14th, 2013.
Union Square, San Francisco, December 14th, 2012.
South of Market, San Francisco, October 21st, 2013.
Market Street, San Francisco, July 28th, 2014.
Potrero Hill, San Francisco, October 15th, 2012.
Market Street, San Francisco, April 7th, 2014.
Market Street, San Francisco, December 16th, 2013.
Market Street, San Francisco, May 7th, 2014.

 

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