San Francisco is a photographer's dream: a dramatic skyline, crooked streets, the Golden Gate Bridge and little cable cars going, as the song says, "halfway to the stars." But this is not the focus of French photographer JR, whose work is on view until March 24 at Pace Gallery, Palo Alto. "JR, The Chronicles of San Francisco-Sketches" attempts, instead, to capture the essence of the city through its residents. The resulting photos, video installations and lightboxes reveal the rich diversity, quirky eccentricities and "anything goes" attitude of those who live in the City by the Bay.
JR, who prefers to use pseudonymous initials, was born in 1983 and began his artistic career as a graffiti tagger. A chance encounter with an old camera left on a subway changed his life as he began documenting his fellow taggers on the street. He garnered the attention of the gallery world and, in 2011, a TED prize allowed him to further extend his practice to creating large-scale murals of everyday people. In 2017 he joined forces with Agnes Varda, a noted documentary filmmaker, to create "Faces Places," a film about working class people in rural France. It won prizes at prestigious film festivals and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2018.
So what would bring JR, who now lives and works in New York City, to San Francisco? In an interview in France Today Magazine, the artist explained, "I want to work in depth on all the layers of the city because there are some very big problems with homeless people there and I want to visualize that by going to different neighborhoods."
In order to do this, JR and his assistants parked a 53- foot trailer truck, with a photo studio outfitted inside, around 22 locations in the city. Passersby were invited to participate by posing, in any way they chose. Nearly 1,200 people took part in the project, which yielded thousands of black-and-white images.
In a statement about the project the artist explained, "Every person is presented at the same size, captured with the same light. No one is more important than another. It is not a group photo, but rather a group of photos. I work with the individuals as they decide how they want to be represented. The mural aims to be a picture of society, not depicting good and bad, but rather showing that both sides are present in everyone."
Just how the images are presented at Pace is quite unique. Entering the gallery, one encounters two almost life-scale, laser-cut dioramas that consist of ink-jet prints of hundreds of individuals. There are some famous faces (former SF Supervisor Mark Leno, filmmaker and California First Lady Jennifer Siebel Newsom) but most are just ordinary people on the street. There are groupings with themes, like folks taking selfies, petting their dogs, dancing or singing. Their figures are compressed, packed together, yet each has a sense of singular identity.
Continue on into the inner gallery and the prints are now hanging on the wall and enclosed in frames. These works have thematic titles, like "Chinese New Year," "Theatre" and "Ballerina." They still consist of individual portraits, but are grouped and overlapped to create a sense of depth within the frame. In some cases, there is the barest inclusion of background -- the vertiginous hills or the famous "painted ladies." These references add to the recognition of a specific geographic place but it is clear that JR really had his lens trained on humanity.
Clusters of drag queens, protestors, the Gay Men's Chorus and the homeless take center stage in these dramatic tableaux. No one is looking directly at the camera and, because they are posing, there is an odd stillness in the overall effect. For some reason, the paintings of Norman Rockwell, who famously used his friends and neighbors as his models, come to mind. There is that same stoicism and feeling that the models reflect and represent a bigger, broader picture. They are the warp and weft of a complex metropolis where social ills abound but, more importantly, where a pervasive feeling of tolerance prevails. True to his aim, JR has created a democratic panorama filled with many ethnicities and diverse causes but where all his subjects are uniquely, proudly themselves.
There are two video works in which the characters, some of whom were used in the framed pieces, move like automatons. In one, a Chinese dragon jumps and gyrates to the beat of a Taiko drummer, while figures in the foreground clap. These works are fun, dynamic and an interesting counterpoint to the static quality of the other pieces.
In the gallery press release, Pace states that these works are "derived from and inspired by" a large-scale mural project by JR that will be presented in May at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA describes the final project as: "a digital mural that scrolls across a seamless bank of screens, bringing together the faces and untold stories of the people we encounter every day." The mural will be installed in the Roberts Family Gallery, which is free to the public.
The exhibition reflects JR's keen interest in people and how they reflect the urban setting in which they live. How well did he manage to capture San Francisco? Quite successfully, I would say. In one print, there is a unicorn in the background. If these mythical creatures did exist, San Francisco would be the logical place to find one.
Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at email@example.com.
What: "JR, The Chronicles of San Francisco -- Sketches."
Where: Pace, 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto.
When: Through March 24, Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Info: Go to Pace Gallery.