Time / Frame
Abdullah Shakur gives a tour of the financial district.
Downtown San Francisco is, like any city center, a place where sectors of society overlap. It’s the financial hub, the “Wall Street of the West,” where banks and law firms first opened after gold was found in California. It’s the place to go to find chain stores and malls in a notoriously anti-franchise city. It’s also where billion-dollar tech company headquarters have become the norm, and where these tech workers, walking along Market and Mission, pass by social service agencies and the many people living in the city without housing.
These contrasts create condensed, visually complex scenes that a new generation of street photographers are capturing, trying to find those perfectly aligned moments that say something about the people who make this city what it is. One of them is Abdullah Shakur, who I spent a day with walking his usual route through the Financial District, Union Square, Chinatown, and SOMA.
We begin on the corner of Market and 3rd. We head up Kearny to Chinatown, one of the neighborhoods Shakur says he makes a point of shooting regularly. We walk quickly, Shakur scanning the crowd with his Leica 35mm camera poised as we talk.
He works as a freelance designer, but says he grew up admiring photographers like Gordon Parks and flipping through old copies of LIFE magazine. “Parks was a visual artist who showed how life was for black people at the time, showed the life they were actually living, but also showed what you as a black artist could be,” says Shakur. “He is definitely one of the inspirations for me as an artist and photographer. Also Mary Ellen Mark, Henri Cartier-Bresson—or, of course, Irving Penn. I look to their work for different reasons.”
Shakur began photographing almost four years ago, after his mother died. He says he needed to focus on something artistic to redirect his attention. He began shooting people outside on the streets and says he “got that photo bug they talk about” and hasn’t stopped.
As we walk up Kearny, he crosses directly in front of an older man walking toward us. He ducks slightly, takes a shot of the man’s face, bounces back and keeps talking, all before the man even registers what’s happening. I look back, sure he’ll turn around to yell at us, but he doesn’t even look up. We keep moving.
Shakur says he walks loops in downtown San Francisco about six days a week, usually from 11:30am-6pm, or whenever he feels he’s reached the limit of what can be done that day. Sometimes, he says, “you just feel slow, like you’re off by a half second on every shot,” and other days, “you’re on a roll, you shoot all six rolls of film you brought in a few hours, and then that’s it.”
He develops and scans all of his own film, which he says is worth the extra hours because of how it’s taught him to look at the streets. “I try to shoot one day and develop in batches as soon as I can,” he says. “If you wait you miss a lot of things, you forget what your settings were. But when I do it all, I can see that my focus is off here, my exposure is off on this street, you can see the way the light hits on a certain block at different times of day and you get to know how it works.”
He has favorite blocks where he knows the light bounces in a certain way. He knows on a certain street to always underexpose or the shots will be blown out. There’s one corner, he says, just outside of Old Navy, where around five or six pm the sun hits just the right way at the end of Market.
“If you go over there on some days you’ll see all of the guys shooting. Everyone knows that’s where the lighting is going to be good.”
Walking these streets every day, Shakur’s gotten to know a small group of other street photographers—Troy Holden, Jake Ricker, David Root, Angelo Partemi, Austin Leong, Jesse Donaviles—who like to shoot downtown. Sometimes they share work and critiques, sometimes they’ll shoot together, but mostly they just run into each other as they’re out walking.
“When you do this, you see the same people every day,” says Shakur. “We all see the cat lady, for example, and I have photos of the cat lady, and so do the other guys, and they’re all different shots, but you become used to it. When I’m shooting there are two kinds of photos: normal and abnormal. Normal is shots where it’s more about composition, color, or what the subject is saying. Abnormal is something like the cat lady. But abnormal can become normal when everyone shoots it.”
I ask him what he looks for in a ‘normal’ shot. “I’ve been focusing a lot on hands recently,” he says. “Hands held behind the back, or relaxed, defenseless. Hands in police handcuffs. I’ve recently been into the glasses that people wear after getting their eyes dilated, there’s something about those. Also the huge visors that women wear.”
“I used to be nervous to photograph women, but that’s changed,” he says. “I’m inspired by Garry Winogrand’s work, and I look for women who look interesting. Beauty is appreciating what you have and accentuating it. Women do it everyday. I also like to photograph kids, but that can be hard. You don’t want to upset the parents. I shoot elderly people a lot because they have interesting faces, you know, surfaces. And I’ve photographed a lot of couples. Like that woman cleaning something off of her boyfriend’s face.”
We’ve made it to Union Square. Shakur runs to the corner quickly toward a group of young men and takes a shot of one man’s yellow socks. The guy looks up, surprised, so Shakur says, “Hey, love your socks.”
“Right on—thanks, man,” he says. “Hey, are you a photographer?”
This happens a few other times throughout our walk—if the person looks shocked, Shakur will respond with a compliment that explains why he took the photograph. “This is the best way I’ve found to diffuse the situation,” he says. “If someone is mad about it, I say, ‘Look, no one takes a photo of something they don’t like.’ That usually works. A compliment completely changes someone’s interaction. And it’s true.”
“Most people don’t notice or they don’t care. The way I think of it is I fit into the craziness of this city. I’m just the weird guy taking photos. But it’s not about me, it’s about the art.”
He says his work is constantly walking the line between art and documentary, keeping tabs on what is changing—he’s seen a lot of change even in a few years—and the timelessness that a photo can capture.
“Street photography has completely changed my life though,” says Shakur. “You don’t do this unless you love it, it takes time, hours of walking, and you have to be get used to confrontation. Most people don’t take risks because they are afraid. Every photo is a risk. You can’t take great photos while hesitating. You need to get over the fear. You have to realize that that fear is only in your mind. Learning this has seeped into other parts of my life too, and it’s amazing what realizing that can do."