On The Street

When Tomás Kofman from For Freedoms emailed to ask if I would be interested in documenting two billboards in San Francisco, my initial reaction was: Yet another outfit trying to con yet another photographer out of time and money.  Tomás included links to examples from other photographers.  I quickly realized For Freedoms was the real deal. The real real deal.

The name refers to a series of paintings by Normal Rockwell of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms from 1941: Freedom Of Speech, Freedom From Fear, Freedom From Want, Freedom Of Worship.

I already knew about one of the founders, Hank Willis Thomas – I follow him on Instagram!    While I’d seen work similar to these billboards, never a project with this much range, focus, imagination, serious intent, and fun.

The billboards look like parodies, but they’re not. For Freedoms was onto something else. Parody, as a word, has become a confusing methodology the last few years, every week the world pushing back via outrage and disappointment, outfitted with bizarre reasoning and nonsensical explanations, leading to hurtful actions. Humor helps: the brilliant, biting work being done by comics, many of them spawn of the Chappell Show or Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  Respectable news organizations, cognizant their respectability is on the line as a result of their past sins, have stepped up their game.  These kinds of changes have helped prop up my Pollyanna attitude: Everything Will Be Alright.  It’s taken some effort to maintain, however.

I’ve been sustained by a flourishing of good work of all kinds that, intended or not, funny or not, educates me and rearranges how I comprehend the world we have now.  Effective work does not have to be subversive to be effective (but it’s nice when it is).  The work For Freedoms produces is subversive: it looks familiar, quickly reveals it’s not what it seems, finally coming around to being exactly what it seems.  This can’t be easy.  Above and beyond, it’s art, and so is impervious to being pinned down as subversive or parody.  The work works.

The For Freedoms website presents a mission – and attitude – containing a tone reminiscent of the socially committed art projects of the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties, some of which were funded by the federal government, inconceivable in the present day.

The billboards had wit, charm, good looks, and smarts – what’s not to like?  I wrote to Tomás right away, and signed up.  The billboards needed to be shot and delivered within a single day in order for them to do their job on social media. My job was not to be an artist but to produce artful documents, revealing the context the billboards lived in. Both would look their best at dusk, so the hard part for me would be moving quickly enough to cover the few miles between the billboards in order to get all my photos the same evening before it got dark – and to keep myself from being run over while I was, on occasion, standing in the middle of the street, sometimes on a ladder.  It all worked out.

I’ve shot in the street before. In this case I did my work on the sidewalk or safeguarded between cars.  The only time I got scared was when, while on my ladder on the sidewalk, two large dogs in a beat-up RV a few feet away started barking then lunging at the glass on the passenger door so hard I was afraid they would somehow break out.  I was worried enough to glance around to see which nearby car I could climb on top of out of their reach.  There were none, and in any event had they got out I would never have made it more than a few steps.  I believe in sacrificing for art, but not my life. I got my shot and quickly crossed the street.

I do a lot of architectural photography, meaning my job is to document environments with accuracy, remaining respectful to the intentions of the designer.  A touch of artfulness is OK as long as it helps translate the 3-D world into a 2-D photo.  Billboards exist in a context that is both 2-D and 3-D at the same time, which, along with the style guide Tomás sent me made my goal easier to reach.  I got the shots, went home, and delivered images the next day. 

I believe in the importance of the give-back (I serve on two boards). This had been an opportunity to promote the better angels during a time when those angels seem to be just waking up from a long nap.  This assignment was a gift: being asked to produce photos supporting a smart, informed, broad-minded attempt to make the world a better place.  That’s as good as it gets.