On the morning of March 13, five of us with cameras squeezed into an Uber in Santa Monica and gazed out the window during the short ride to Venice Beach. We were there on self-assignment. We wanted to document how life was changing in L.A. during the early days of coronavirus. Thanks to my long legs, I rode shotgun in the silver SUV.
“Aren’t you nervous about it?” the driver asked me as we arrived.
“I am,” I replied.
He looked concerned as he turned his eyes back to the road. And he didn’t say another word until we reached our destination.
We gave him a few packets of sanitizing wipes as we exited the car. He opened the first one and wiped down his hands and the steering wheel. Outside the car, we stood evenly spaced and gelled our hands as he drove away.
I had visited this area many times in my life. I grew up 30 miles away. Venice Beach was always a place to witness Southern California’s colorful eccentricity. Based on those memories, I had already decided to set my camera to its most vibrant color profile: Velvia.
Modern Fujifilm cameras support their classic film looks, but in a different way. Instead of an actual roll of 35mm Provia, Velvia, or Acros, they have digital simulations that you can choose from. My X100V has the full complement of these profiles that I can select from depending on the mood that I want to depict. In my mind, Venice Beach was either Classic Chrome or Velvia. I opted for Velvia, the bolder choice.
But the world was a different place that day, and the boardwalk was quiet. A light rain dampened the already gloomy mood. People were nervous about the virus. We didn’t know it at the time, but shelter-in-place orders were hanging above our heads. I stubbornly stuck with my camera settings as I walked along the empty sidewalk searching for color.
At that moment in time, Venice Beach, normally abuzz, was basically five photographers, a handful of local residents, and a few dismayed shop owners. Practically everything else was closed.
I made eye contact with a local who had been standing in a small group, talking with folks he seemed to know. He introduced himself. Brian.
Brian was philosophical. I loved his wardrobe. He looked fantastic. “Finally, color!” I thought. I asked him for a portrait. He said OK and stared directly into the lens as I snapped the shutter. He seemed undaunted by my presence.
Another man wearing a face mask with the words, “Sooo Blessed” printed on it saw me taking pictures of Brian. He approached me to say hello. I noticed he had a well-worn leather camera bag over his shoulder. Out of it, with a bit of showmanship, he produced a vintage Canon FTb SLR camera. It was his rabbit out of a hat. He may have thought that I had a film camera as well.
I asked him if I could photograph him with his gear. He nodded affirmatively. I love the looks of classic 35mm SLR cameras. And it felt right to make a portrait of him using my retro-styled X100V.
About a half hour passed before I rejoined other members of my group. We decided it was time for a change of scenery. Maybe buy some food and get out of the damp weather. After lunch, we wrapped up our exploration and returned to the motel for post processing.
A few days later I left L.A. with memory cards full of pictures. As soon as I got home, the door closed behind me.
For the next two months I was sheltered in place. I kept busy with projects, but never picked up the X100V that still contained shots from L.A. I wasn’t inspired by my overly familiar surroundings — the house, backyard and cat. No film simulation could move me.
Instead, I made movies upstairs. I recorded a course on digitizing family memories, and another on efficient ways to archive our images. That kept me busy and out of circulation. I needed to be distracted from what I really wanted to do: grab the camera and go explore.
Finally, on Friday, May 8, Sonoma County began to relax its shelter-in-place order ever so gently. Word was that San Francisco might follow suit. This was my chance.
I geared up and drove South across the Golden Gate Bridge. I had my mask, hand sanitizer, a light lunch, and a few ounces of water. I knew that I would have to be self-contained. I also knew that there would be no available restrooms in the city.
Once again, the X100V was at my side. This time I was feeling darker. Two months of shelter-in-place will do that to you. Instead of shooting bold color, as I had in L.A., I switched to Acros black and white. It was the right choice for an overcast day in a sequestered city.
I parked the car and worked my way down Stockton St. toward Union Square. Businesses were boarded up. Everyone wore a mask. And the few people who were on the sidewalks kept their distance from one another. They moved down the streets like iRobot Roombas, automatically changing course when human obstacles were detected.
It was lunch time, yet Union Square was vacant except for one man eating a sandwich. This is a central congregation place in the city where office workers and tourists alike gather for a bit of sun and people watching. But not today.
I positioned the camera low composing on the LCD that I had flipped up, and photographed him. From there I walked over Market Street. It was unlike anything I had seen in San Francisco. This was a Sci-Fi movie set.
I looped over to Grant St. and headed up toward Chinatown — more nailed-up storefronts, a few people on the street, and that was it. I shot 92 frames over the course of an hour, then it was time to double back to the car. My morning coffee had reached its final destination.
I was thinking about what I had photographed as I walked. Curiosity overcame me. I stopped at the bridge that spanned Stockton St. to review my pictures on the camera’s LCD.
The images told the story. There was the empty Apple Store, vacant Union Square, and the total absence of cable cars at the Powell and Market St. turnaround. I thought about the thousands of people whose lives had changed in a San Francisco minute.
I heard someone yelling and looked up from the camera. A woman was running down the middle of Stockton St. hailing a bus. There were no oncoming cars to threaten her. There was only the bus driver and a handful of passengers. I think he waited for her.
That was my cue to go home as well. I put the camera in my bag and continued toward the car. Images from the day were still processing in my head.
It felt good to be back on the streets, even for a short while. The day in San Francisco helped me realize how lucky I was. Unlike many, I had somewhere safe to return to.