Bay Bridge being swallowed at dusk by fog — moments earlier a Russian coworker quotes Twain to me ominously over the rim of a dark-and-stormy: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” (photo by author)

Half the time I spend dumbfounded and in love with it has me asking myself whether or not it’s real, but San Francisco is still the easiest city in the world to have a crush on.

Waste your time falling in love in Venice or in Paris but fall in love with San Francisco. Do it for the Pacific sea breezes, the endless supply of succulent California-fat produce and dizzyingly good wine, the accidental panoramas scattered throughout the city, and, of course, the slow and sinuous afternoons where fog snakes over hills and swallows it to make you question whether it was all just a dream.

A view of one’s own – an otherwise unremarkable street corner looking towards fog-swallowed downtown San Francisco from Potrero Hill. (photo by author)

Three years ago my brother moved to San Francisco for work, into an apartment near the summit of the southeast Potrero Hill neighborhood, where he lived with two Berkeley grads and an Argentine scientist with a name like a flower. And sure, the first time I found myself a voyeur of Bay Area life there was a certain ambient intoxication factor, but it faded after a few pinches when my brother walked me outside to show me that every street corner in Potrero Hill was a variation on the theme of “sweeping vista.” Now, every time I step off the plane and make my way from SFO or OAK into the city, I can feel that Bay air that generations of rogue Americans have drunk to the brim like it was aqua vitae. It’s a city with a pretty face that’s always good for a one week stand that leaves me dumbstruck.

The experiences that I have collected in San Francisco are jagged, like pieces from a puzzle with no master key. Vignettes of broken and discontinuous California. To list a few: a date at Cafe Gratitude where all the raw food — yes, that’s the its-so-crunchy-its-uncooked kind of raw — items on the menu were affirmative statements (“I’ll have the ‘I am Grateful,’ the ‘I am Adored,’ and a side of ‘I am Delicious,’ please. Thanks.”); where I learned which edge it was that Thompson was talking about, and why they called it a sports car while driving on a makeshift motocross track setup in the Oakland A’s parking lot; and, finally, turning a corner to be confronted by the twin architectural behemoth’s of the California Academy of Sciences (Renzo Piano) and the new de Young Museum (Herzog and de Meuron).

Big Museum in a Garden

Herzog & de Meuron designed the de Young’s Copper-clad structure, which feels vaguely Mesoamerican – it’s like some Swiss people got it in their heads to turn a pyramid upside-down and cover it in Copper – which is, in fact, exactly what they did.

The de Young is, without question, beautiful. Taking the distinctly Big Museum in a Garden approach to the museum, it combines jagged and monolithic exterior geometry with a lustre bronze exterior and a torqued nine-story observation tower into a building that puts the skyline of the emerald city to shame. It splits the goods of its collection with the Legion of Honor Museum (their powers combined as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are something akin to the Met or the Chicago Art Institute split in two). The interior is vast, distinctive — able to disperse crowds after a single entrance and boost intimacy.

The de Young is located midway along the west-running Golden Gate Park (San Francisco’s sideways tilted version of Central Park) and being inside the de Young is as pleasurable as looking at it from the outside — but trying to make sense of how all the rooms fit into that odd exterior shape is a task that proves mentally exhaustive. It’s more wonderful than MoMA’s midtown home by virtue of its location — like walking out of the woods and crashing into an extraterrestrial gem of a structure, that might also be an upsidedown Mesoamerican pyramid. If the clothes make the museum, the de Young is as well tailored as they come, which is why I am always thrilled to revisit (something I feel obligated to whenever I’m in San Francisco).

David Hockney, “Luncheon at the British Embassy, Tokyo, Feb. 16, 1983” (1983). Photocollage. (photo via


This time, though, I was particularly excited due to a small show titled Photo/Synthesis that focused on composite and collage-based photographic work. Why? Photo composites, like the large Hockney included in the show, have obsessed me for more than a year now.

Hockney hit a dry-spell in his painting and like any good artist turned to Polaroids for inspiration. In the years that followed, Hockney became a madman, assembling thousands of photographs into collages which, he thought, reproduced a cubist (i.e. anti-photographic) approach to picture-making using a photographic process. He was making photographs behave like paints.

The process requires the use of individual photographs as fragments rather than coherent wholes or windows onto the world being demonstrated in a show, and there are variations on a theme: Ed Ruscha’s pictures of parking lots are like Benjamin Moore paint swatches, revealing the subtle differences between “Baseball Stadium Asphalt” and “Drive In Movie Asphalt.” It makes a camera more like a pencil; the act of photography more like drawing. Putting together a photo composite feels like working on a puzzle that has no solution, a feeling that, to the right personality, is revelatory, emphatic, addictive.

A composite I made of an old frame shop that I passed everyday walking to work in Chicago.

The de Young show, though, misses a point when it takes only a single composition from a few big shot artists working in a medium based on multiples. It felt constricted and incomplete, more of a suggestion or a teaser than an exhibition.

“WANT” from Harry Bowers’s series “Dance of Life” (1979), 40 x 51 inches. (photo via

The show did yield one real discovery for me: a series of prints by Harry Bowers from a series entitled Dance of Life, for which he foraged at a thrift shop in search of discarded garments that he could arrange or tease into dancing behind a plane of glass. Then bowers takes photographs of the arrangements with a camera so huge that it nullifies the signifiers (“poor resolution, imprecise color, graininess”) that otherwise signify that this is, in fact, a photograph. The process is so convoluted that the photographs become somehow foreign. They don’t read as photographs anymore. The effect? It actually feels like looking at clothes framed under glass — a statement that, if told, I wouldn’t doubt for a second.

Taking the clothes from a thrift store toys a viewer’s preconceptions about the uses of photography to document history: am I looking at a picture of old clothes, or are these old clothes framed and displayed like a photograph (something you might very well find elsewhere in the de Young)?

The misunderstanding poignantly illustrates the contemporary confusion with reality — a poignancy that Bowers rips into when he empties out his ex-wife’s closet to document them this way — as confused reality — in “skirts I’ve known.”

As to the rest of the one room show? Perhaps it’s fractured presentation is a consequence of the technique. More likely, it has to do with the fact that the de Young, for everything it does so right and so well, has only inaugurated a Photography Department this year and probably long before this show was planned. Let’s hope that founding curator Julian Cox (who arrived from Atlanta’s High Museum) makes everything to come as relevant and as rich as Bowers work.

Photo/Synthesis is on display at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco) until October 3, 2010.

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Ian Epstein

Ian Epstein is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has worked for The...

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