[Hpn] Finding a new frame of reference: Ex-homeless learn art of photography;11/7/01

Morgan W. Brown norsehorse@hotmail.com
Thu, 08 Nov 2001 11:40:32 -0500

-------Forwarded article-------

Wednesday, November 7, 2001
San Francisco Chronicle <http://www.sfgate.com/chronicle>
Arts & Entertainment section
Finding a new frame of reference
Ex-homeless learn art of photography

Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer <jhamlin@sfchronicle.com>

[To view photo, go to 
(photo caption) Billy Mitchell 'As long as I have my camera, I have my 
purpose.' Chronicle photo by Chris Hardy]

Billy Mitchell was living in a homeless shelter on Howard Street six years 
ago when he saw a flyer about free classes at the Sixth Street Photography 
Workshop. He showed up, in part just to get off the rainy streets for a 

Since then he's become a skilled photographer, one of several who have been 
nurtured by the San Francisco workshop that teaches the art of 
picture-making to people who live on the streets and in residential hotels 
in the Tenderloin and South of Market.

"I figured I could use the camera as a weapon instead of using a gun, 
because I was pissed off at the world. Maybe I could use the camera to 
express myself," says Mitchell, one of 10 workshop photographers whose art 
now adorns the hallways of the Hotel Isabel on Mission Street at Seventh. 
The public can see the exhibition, "Home and Dreams," on Saturday afternoons 
through Dec. 1.

The Isabel is home to many formerly homeless people. It was renovated and is 
run by the nonprofit Tenants & Owners Development Corp., which has spon 
sored the workshop since it was started on seedy Sixth Street 10 years ago.

The program is operating at two locations -- the 509 Cultural Center on 
Ellis, where another workshop exhibition, "Kind of Blue," is on display, and 
at the Harvey Milk Recreation Center in the Castro -- until it moves to new 
quarters at the South of Market Cultural Center in January.

Funded by the San Francisco Art Commission and the California Arts Council, 
the program gave the Isabel about 175 prints -- dreamy landscapes, 
portraits, gritty urban street scenes.

"The workshop is a teaching program, but that's not the only dimension," 
says founder and artistic director Tom Ferentz, who teaches photography at 
California State University, Hayward. "With this project, the idea was to 
enhance the lives of the people who live here, to decorate the hotel with 
creative photography and raise the quality of what they're interacting with 
on a day-to-day basis."

Mitchell, who lives in a Tenderloin hotel and does gardening and other odd 
jobs to supplement his disability check, had taken some photography classes 
at a technical school in Indiana before moving here in the 1970s. But he 
hadn't picked up a camera in 20 years before joining the workshop. Now he 
teaches there, as well as interning at Photo Metro magazine.

When he grew tired of photographing homeless people, Mitchell began shooting 
landscapes, like the moody scene of fog-shrouded cypress trees at Lincoln 
Park that hangs at the Isabel.

"I wouldn't be going out taking these walks if I didn't have a camera," he 
says. "As long as I have my camera, I have my purpose." The collaborative 
workshop "gave you a sense of worth."

S. Renee Jones is another accomplished photographer who has a dozen or so 
prints at the Isabel: pictures of pool halls, camels parading past the Town 
Motel (on their way to the Cow Palace) and a beautiful, misty vision of 
Ocean Beach.

"I kind of shoot images that redefine accepted reality," says Jones, a 43- 
year-old former baker and sous chef who has a neurological disorder. She 
receives disability payments and lives in a Sixth Street hotel.

"I wanted to go to the beach and take a photograph where you didn't see the 
water," says Jones, who'd taken college-level photography classes years 
before she joined the workshop in '94. "Maybe you thought of the desert 
sand. I wanted to put a different spin on what you find at Ocean Beach."

Barry Cunningham's street scene -- the blurry legs of pedestrians striding 
past a pack of pigeons on a steel grate -- brings Atget to mind. Then there 
are photographs by teenagers living in the Senator Hotel on Ellis Street. 
Fifteen-year-old Adam Russell's shot of a rust-red dog sitting on a field of 
green delights Jackie Franceschini, who lives at the Isabel.

"Something about the outdoors and the green grass and the dog," says 
Franceschini, who loves seeing these pictures. "They make the complex feel 
more like home."

Prints will be on display 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 1 at the Hotel 
Isabel, 1095 Mission St., San Francisco. For information, (415) 778-4007.

E-mail Jesse Hamlin at jhamlin@sfchronicle.com.


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Morgan <norsehorse@hotmail.com>
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA

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