[Hpn] Finding a new frame of reference: Ex-homeless learn art of photography;11/7/01
Morgan W. Brown
Thu, 08 Nov 2001 11:40:32 -0500
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 <email@example.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
"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."
SIXTH STREET PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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