We are pleased to feature the work of Ralph Wilson as he documents Pier 70 in San Francisco.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I live in San Francisco and work as a technical writer in a software company. Earlier in my career I was a librarian, and worked for a couple of years in a university arts library. That was a great opportunity to immerse myself in photographic history, and the visual arts in general.
My wife is a clinical social worker and a writer. We support each other in our creative work, and often provide each other’s first feedback.
We’re both approaching retirement from our jobs, and looking forward to the next phase of our lives, with more time to pursue our creative interests. It’s exciting and a little scary—no more excuses!.
How did you get started photography?
I started taking pictures as a kid, more than 50 years ago. My dad was a casual photographer, and I was fascinated by his 35mm Argus C3 camera. Sometimes I was allowed to use it, and my dad told me to either shake less or use a tripod (which I still need to remind myself).
In high school, I took photo classes, bought my own camera, and learned the basics of black and white darkroom work.
Though I loved photography, art, and design from an early age, I was pulled in other directions by the lure of “security” and the pressure put on many of us during the “Sputnik” era, when science and engineering were what bright kids were pushed into.
Over the years I’ve sometimes been more, sometimes less active as a photographer, but I keep coming back to it.
Please tell us about your work on Pier 70.
I live about a mile from the shipyard at Pier 70 in San Francisco, and have been aware of the place for a long time. (A close friend was the only female machinist there in the 70s.)
I started walking around in the area and taking photographs about 12 years ago. Later I learned how important the place was in the history of San Francisco and west coast industry. It’s still an active ship repair yard, but now most of the site is empty or unused. Time and the elements have really had a bad effect on many of the buildings.
I got involved in trying to save the old buildings and ensure that development would be respectful of the significance of the place and the people who worked there. I (along with a few other photographers) occasionally get access to buildings that are closed to the public, and I’ve felt an obligation to share what I found inside, and what I was learning about the place. I created a web site , pier70sf.org that tells the story of the site and uses a lot of archival images and recent photographs (my own and others’).
What about this space inspires you?
Ruins are always evocative, and though these buildings are not literally in ruins, the oldest is around 150 years old and there’s a sense of the past, of heroic achievement through hard, dangerous work, skill, and ingenuity. Also, the place reminds me of the loss of this kind of heavy industry in our country.
Many people in my family–men and women–worked in factories, on railroads, in mines and such. I worked in a couple myself during college. The shipyard with its old buildings and industrial artifacts feel familiar to me; they strike a sentimental chord and remind me where I came from. I love the old machinery, the rusted metal, the worn wood. It’s so tactile, so “real,” so unlike the digital world we mostly live in now.
Which photographers and other artists work do you admire?
Many, but in the context of the work I’ve done at the shipyard, I’d say Walker Evans first and foremost. I love Charles Sheeler, both the paintings and the photographs. Some others: Aaron Siskind, Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Alexander Rodchenko, Lewis Baltz, William Christenberry. Two non-photographic artists that I love and I think have influenced me: Edward Hopper and Joseph Cornell.
And what about their work inspires you?
Most of these artists take very “ordinary” subjects and enable us to see their beauty and poignancy, their iconic power, sometimes their strange and surreal aspects. They don’t start with pretty, glamorous, or glorious subjects but with the kind of stuff we see around us every day. There’s a kind of magic to that, or alchemy: making gold out of base metal. It’s something I aspire to.
When did you start to develop a personal style?
Not having had the experience of art school or other formal creative education, I haven’t had a lot of external feedback about my style, but a few comments over the years from others have helped me realize I may have one.
A photography teacher in high school said I had a “Bauhaus” style. I think he meant I made strong, simplified compositions that emphasized form and structure. I spent a lot of time reading graphic design magazines back then (like Graphis from Switzerland), so that makes sense. I have a few pictures from that time, and I think they are pretty similar to the way I make pictures now, forty-some years later.
At a workshop a few years ago someone said my pictures of Alcatraz were “sentimental”, (I think she meant it as a compliment.) It helped me see that although I make fairly rigorously structured pictures, I have a sentimental or romantic streak that seems to be fighting with the hard edges. Maybe that’s a tension that’s present in my best pictures.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
Until recently I haven’t put enough energy into getting my photographs out in the world. Whether I was insecure, shy, overly discouraged by the obstacles involved or the quality of the “competition,” or all of the above, most of my pictures didn’t get out of my house, or at best only onto my web sites.
I’ve been more active in seeking exposure for my work in the last few years: I’ve shown in local gallery spaces, had pictures published, and sold prints. The Pier 70 pictures, in particular, attracted attention because of new-found interest in San Francisco in the development of the site.
But building on these small successes is a big challenge. The world is awash in good photography, but under-supplied with good venues to show it.
How do you overcome a creative block ?
I tend to spread my energy around too much, to too many projects and miscellaneous subjects. I can be critical of artists who made endless variations on a theme, but I’m trying to develop more of that obsessiveness, to work a theme or subject tenaciously instead of giving up when I have doubts about it.
On the other hand, I’ve also found it liberating to shoot different kinds of subject matter than I’m used to, like nature or street photography, and to shoot more loosely and quickly. Nothing like a walk with a camera and no particular agenda to get me looking at things more intensely again.
I’ve started to post some of these images on Facebook or Flickr. Sometimes, a few “likes” can be very encouraging.
Please tell us about your workspace?
My workspace is a very tightly packed, converted bedroom in my house, about 9 x 12 feet. It contains a couple of computers, cameras and equipment, my printer (Epson 3800), my print and negative archives, lots of books, and lots of other stuff. The space has a serious shortage of work surfaces, so I have to spread out into other parts of the house or garage whenever I work on larger prints or frames.
How important is it to your art form to have “creative community”?
It’s really important, and I could use more. I have several close friends who are serious photographers. Some of them earn their living as photographers, so there are differences in our ways of approaching the medium, but all my photographer friends are generous with support, feedback, and technical knowledge.
There’s a lot of photographic activity in the bay area, and I go to lectures, shows, and events as often as I can. I’ve really enjoyed and learned from the workshops I’ve been involved with, especially the ones with field work and an opportunity to share work and get feedback. I could use more of those.
I could also use more opportunities to talk about my projects as I work on them. I’m thinking of trying to get a few photographers together to share that kind of thing.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
It’s almost beyond my ability to express. I think I appreciate and attend to the visual aspects of my environment more intensely because of photography. A downside is that I sometimes find myself mentally framing a scene instead of simply taking it in. Photography can be a way of abstracting oneself from the immediate experience, of course.
I know that I am very attentive to the visual aspects of various media because I’m a photographer: Films, TV shows, paintings, drawings, sculpture, graffiti, ads, and magazine layouts have many lessons for me. In a movie I can miss aspects of the story because I’m attending to the look of things; it’s a small price to pay for “overactive” visual attention.
Is there another type of photography or subject matter you would like tackle?
I’d like to get more humans into my photographs: As I said before, I’m doing more street photography. It’s not like I haven’t included people in my photos at all, but they haven’t been at the core of my more serious projects.
Any stories you would like to share?
I’m sort of the family archivist, and I recently came across a bunch of small photos my dad took in Europe at the end of World War II. There are fascinating images of destroyed cities, German prisoners, newly liberated allied P.O.W.s, and some poignant portraits of guys who he wrote were later killed in some of the last fighting of the war.
This little trove has reminded me again of how important this medium is to our collective memory, to our civilization. These pictures may not have been seen by anyone for 50 years, they may not be great works of art, but they were important for my dad to take and for us to see and preserve.
Thank you Ralph for shareing your work with us. To learn more about the work of Ralph Wilson please visit his site at,Ralph Wilson.