Status Versus Substance

A little over a year ago, I read an item in Sarah B.’s most excellent Richmond District Blog about a French bakery called Arsicault opening up in my neighborhood. I love great bread and have often wished for a bakery like Tartine nearby. But Arsicault wasn’t that kind of bakery, and while I like a good croissant as much as the next guy, I didn’t see the need to go out of my way to visit.

Still, I love living in the Richmond District, and I take great pride in all local successes. So last month, when Arsicault was named America’s Best Bakery by Bon Appetit magazine, I took notice. But I still didn’t go, and frankly, while I knew that national recognition like this was a big deal for small businesses, I had no idea how big of a deal it would be.

I’ve gotten a pretty good idea, thanks to my weekly pickup basketball game. I drive past Arsicault every Sunday on my way to the park. Prior to the Bon Appetit article, I had never once seen a line there. Now, the line is around the corner all the time.

This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle had a great piece describing Arsicault’s story and pondering this most recent chapter:

So what had drawn the crowd — bragging rights? The sense of accomplishment? The chance to taste the best new croissant in America and assess it on one’s own terms? Was that even possible anymore?

There’s a scene in Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise” when the narrator and a fellow professor pay a visit to the “most photographed barn in America.” They stand in silence, watching people take pictures of the barn.

“No one sees the barn,” the colleague says finally. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn. … We can’t get outside the aura.”

Here we were, inside our own sugar-scented aura. The charming neighborhood bakery that Bon Appétit’s editors had stumbled on had momentarily ceased to exist, and in its place was a much-hyped croissant factory that caused otherwise reasonable people to wait in a 30-minute line at 6:55 on a chilly morning.

We weren’t waiting for breakfast. We were waiting to see whether this experience was worth it.

I don’t know how good the croissants are at Arsicault, and I am less likely to find out now than I was before, thanks to the ridiculous lines. But it’s been a good reminder to me about how much I value craftsmanship and the unusual relationship between status and substance.

Regardless of whether Arsicault’s croissants live up to the hype, I love founder Armando Lacayo’s story, how it all began with an incessant desire to bake a croissant that lived up to the ones he ate as a child in Paris, and how he kept working and working and working at it, and how he plans to continue to work at it.

Through Our Eyes: San Francisco’s Richmond District

I participated in a wonderful photography workshop last year hosted by the Richmond District branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Throughout the workshop, Natalie Schrik was shooting documentary footage.

The library just published the final video, and I absolutely love it! It’s a three-minute documentary of us shooting the neighborhood, intermixed with our commentary (including mine at the 1:32 mark) and photos (including one of mine at the very end).

It was a great experience, I was happy to be a part of it, and I’m happy to be able to share this video with all of you!

Early Morning Community at the Music Concourse

I took my second ever photography class recently. Once again, the focus was on story. Dorothy Kimmel of the Richmond District branch of the San Francisco Public Library organized this wonderful workshop, which was led by photojournalist Frederic Larsen. The idea was simple: Get people from the neighborhood to document the stories of the neighborhood through photography.

I chose to photograph the community that comes together in the wee hours of the morning at the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. The idea started last year, when I did a six-week stint at Koi Fitness’s bootcamp. The trainers and participants were wonderful, and I discovered that they were just some of many who gathered at that same spot every morning at sunrise.

Not being an early morning person myself, I was curious about who these people were and what drew them to that place. I also realized how beautiful the park is in at dawn and how wonderfully meditative it feels. My goal was to capture the mood and the stories through pictures.

You can view the complete set above or on Flickr, and you can watch me below presenting my work at a reception for the project last night.

I shot this over the course of two weeks. It was a tremendous learning experience. Briefly:

  • Telling stories is different from taking snapshots. It takes work and commitment to get the shots you want. More importantly, it takes time to gain the trust of your subjects and access into their lives. I was frustrated and intimidated by this in the early stages of shooting, but over time, I saw what a difference it made to simply show up every day.
  • There’s this crazy idea that storytellers are supposed to be passive, neutral observers. There’s no such thing. How you integrate into the story has a huge impact on your ability to tell it. As I got to know people, I gained their trust, and I was able to take more intimate, interesting pictures.
  • I was self-conscious about taking pictures of strangers without their permission. What I discovered was that many people invited me into their lives because of my camera (along with showing up every day). It gave me access that I would not have been able to get otherwise.
  • Taking the actual shot is actually one of the least important parts of being a good photographer. I’ve already mentioned one — gaining access. The other is curation. The best photographers take bad shots; they’re just disciplined enough not to show them.
  • Curation isn’t just about highlighting your best looking shots. It’s about picking the best shots that tell your story. Pruning my set was hard enough, but eliminating shots I loved visually but did nothing for the story was painful. And, it made for a stronger story in the end.

I feel like I’m just beginning with this story, and I hope to continue shooting, but here it is for now. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to do this work and to get feedback and guidance from Fred, Dorothy, Natalie Shrik (who filmed an awesome three-minute documentary of the project), and all of my fellow workshop participants. Thanks especially to those folks who let me photograph them, especially the wonderful folks at Koi Fitness.

As always, I love feedback! Let me know what you liked and didn’t like, and why. Please be honest; I have thick skin!

Officially A City Guy

After nine wonderful years in the Silicon Valley, I recently moved 40 miles north to San Francisco. It’s a move I’ve thought about for many years, but a combination of circumstances finally made it reality.    (JII)

Some initial impressions:    (JIJ)

  • It’s foggy all the time. I’m enough of a Bay Area veteran to know to bring a jacket when visiting San Francisco in the summer, but I had seen enough glorious sunny summer days in the city — even in the Richmond District, where I now live — to decide that reports on the fog were greatly exaggerated. I was wrong. If two weeks is a valid sample size, then yes, it does get mighty foggy here. Makes days like today when the sky clears all the more wonderful.    (JIK)
  • Muni does not constitute legitimate public transportation. It takes an hour for me to get from my apartment in the Outer Richmond across town to SBC Park via Muni. CalTrain from Menlo Park to the ballpark also takes an hour, so there’s literally no gain there. San Francisco badly needs some form of public transportation with more comprehensive coverage than BART, but that doesn’t stop at every freakin’ block like Muni.    (JIL)
  • Of course, part of the city’s charm is sharing a bus ride with its scintillating characters. The other night, a crazy fellow sat across from me and started talking to himself. Usually, this is a sign to keep your eyes averted, which is what I did. Nevertheless, he somehow managed to engage me in a one-sided conversation where he explained that everything he had feared in life had come true, and it didn’t turn out as badly as he thought it would. You go, crazy guy!    (JIM)
  • I can see Sutro Tower from my apartment and thus get great television reception. Well, except for KNTV, the local NBC affiliate, which is based in San Jose. I don’t even get a flicker. I won’t recount the politics that led to KNTV acquiring the NBC affiliation, but I think it’s an absolute travesty that I can’t get a signal in San Francisco. The only way to get this broadcast station is via a paid service — cable or satellite.    (JIN)
  • My neighborhood is replete with tiny delis and markets of every ethnicity imaginable. Makes for great ambling and outstanding eating. I am going to have to befriend a Russian local to help me navigate some of these places.    (JIO)

It’ll take a few months before I fully acclimate to my surroundings, but sitting on my balcony on a day like this, gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline, I can’t help but be giddy about the move.    (JIP)