A Conversation about Photography: Janet Delaney

“I have discovered that I have only one tool but it can do many tasks.” Janet Delaney

Writers have said that you need a routine to become a good one. And so the human being in general. To mark the importance of these two lines, we decided to start the year off right with a series of conversation about the most commun subjects, some kind of cultural analysis to enjoy now or in the future, that aim to left written the ideas of those who keep working to give away a magnificent gift to the world. Today’s matter: Photography, words by: Janet Delaney.

Flag Makers, Natoma at 3rd St, 1982 (from South of Market) – Janet Delaney


Can we start this interview talking about what else is happening right now in your life?

I am busy getting a second book together, titled Public Matters, to be published by MACK later this year.  In this next book I am looking at the changing demographics of city life once again, this time focused on the Mission District and the impact of immigration as well as gentrification. Also I am photographing once again in the same district that I documented in the early 1980s, exploring the ultimate transformation of a working class neighbourhood into the most elite/expensive area of San Francisco known as SoMa.

What does time mean to you?

I have a hard time grasping time as I am, for better and for worse, generally in the present moment.

Have you met any of your idols? How was the experience? If the idol was or is alive… 

I met Imogen Cunningham briefly at a dinner party just before she passed away in 1976. She was brilliant but very dismissive of me, understandable as I was just 24 and she was 93. I heard Eugene Smith speak at the San Francisco Art Institute just before he died. He gave a powerful and unforgettable lecture.  I have never really had a mentor, but I do work closely with a group of friends who all speak the same language of photography.

Do you remember what were your thoughts before starting to develop your career as a Photographer?

Before I actually understood that I could be a photographer, I considered architecture but I could not imagine working for a client. After undergraduate work in fine art /photography, I considered city planning but I could not imagine all those meetings. I always knew I wanted to teach in some capacity. Ultimately, I was very happy teaching photography in the architecture and citing planning department at UC Berkeley. I was able to bring together all of my loves.

End of Natoma Alley, Between the SFMOMA and the W Hotel. 2013 (from SoMa Now) – Janet Delaney

What is Photography for you? What’s your concept, vision all about.

Photography for me is a way of being, it is a way to create a visual point of entry into a state of mind.

I never tire of it. I find it endlessly fascinating and challenging. I have almost no mastery over it, even after all of these years. Why does one photograph succeed more than another? Photography is a very illusive and seductive medium.

What have you discovered over the years developing your career in Photography?

I have made a living with the camera and with photography all my life. I have photographed in war zones and at weddings. I have documented demolition sites and architectural masterpieces. I’ve taught at the college level and at homeless shelters. The camera has taken me around the world and deep into my own home. I have discovered that I have only one tool but it can do many tasks.

What’s your opinion on the take of Photography nowadays?

I remember when we were discussing visual literacy as a skill we needed to teach/learn.  Now everyone speaks in photographs, but the photos are often more revealing of what we want to be than what we are. 

It can be overwhelming to consider how many people are photographing everything at every moment.  But what does a writer do? Everyone has a pencil, how much good writing is there?  In the end it is about having something to say and managing to say it, and then succeeding in getting others to see it.

As a writer myself, I know that we [writers and journalists] have to consider a few things in order to expose a piece; for some reason I think artists enjoy more freedom when creating and exhibiting their work. Is that true or you are always struggling with the idea of how people might react to your work?

It is true that the written word can be scrutinized for logic in ways that visual art may elude. Even so, I road test my work among a group of smart friends who will point out inconsistencies. As a writer might become enthralled with a turn of a phrase even if it does not advance the text, a photographer may have a photo in a series that is dynamic but not on point.  Editing and sequencing is as crucial to a good project as the taking of the photographs. Once I feel resolved in my project I can’t really think a great deal about how others will react to the work, I just have to let it out into the public and move on.

Helen and her husband Chester having lunch at the Helen Cafe, 486 6th St. 1980, (from South of Market) – Janet Delaney

The Chilean writer Isabel Allende, said that you are a true writer once you have published your second book. I was wondering when a photographer can be considered a true photographer and not an amateur.

Amateur status in photography is highly prized. It means you do it because you love to do it. A true artist can also be an amateur.  I don’t think there is an equivalent in photography to the litmus test of Allende. There are many amazing bodies of work that may never be published. Are they not to be considered works of art?

What is your reference source that never stops giving you good ideas? Do you have any?

I listen to my gut a great deal. If an idea gets under my skin, if something keeps pulling at me, I will go after it. I don’t judge whether it is a good or bad idea. It is just something that I need to follow up on. I usually have a few ideas going at once, old work I am bringing out, current work I am making, projects in the planning stages and projects that are daydreams. All of them do not work out, at least not yet.

For you, what’s discretion and what’s censorship?

Ugh, This is a big issue in photography. Though we’ve all studied the meaning of post modern so we know nothing is real, we still think photographs are true. They still hold power. And of course I love that a photograph still has the power to seduce. There are instances where you need to use discretion in order to avoid censorship.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, 126 New Montgomery, 2012. (from SoMa Now) – Janet Delaney

What makes you cringe?

Photographs that emulate an idealized view of the world.

Experience can make you more flexible or more stubborn?

More flexible

If you would have the chance to ask a very tricky question to a fellow photographer, what would that be?

I would ask them how to make a good portrait. 


Janet Delaney

Berkeley, California

January 15, 2018




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