Appreciating San Francisco and its Trees in Quarantine – by AJ O’Connell

Well, it’s been a long twelve months.

I often think about how some of the most brilliant observers are also the greatest explorers. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”, as the saying goes. While the best camera is indeed the one you have with you, the most beautiful scene is not necessarily where you are. That you have to seek.

Not long after a monotonous, masked world descended upon us, my wife’s inquiries lead us to meet a litter of Cavalier King Charles puppies. Deep down I knew that merely agreeing to this meeting meant it was a closed case. Indeed we came home with this little menace; Hadley, who takes his name from a little wood where I grew up in London, England.

Young Haddy

Though I’ve lived in San Francisco almost four years, I don’t know the city too well. My commute consumes the week days, leaving little time to wander. As lockdown begun, this soon changed. Spring was arriving and our pup itching to sniff his way around the outside world. Every day we explored our surroundings, discovering new paths, and observing new light. Much of the time, I brought along a camera.

One of the favourite photos I’ve made, golden hour outside Golden Gate Heights Park
During quarantine we moved to a charming new neighborhood, Forest Hill, in South West SF
This fellow in Bernal Heights has several enormously long cars like this, constantly rotating around the streets

16th St & Mission; the eerily quiet streets

I was a teenager when the world widely transitioned from analogue to digital. Disposable cameras were my weapon of choice in adolescence, which was just as well since I would invariably lose things. I moved on to pocketable compact digital cameras, early smartphones and eventually a digital SLR, which is where my disillusionment begun. Luckily, one day stumbled into the Lomography store in Soho and reacquainted with film.

Don’t get me wrong, digital is a marvel. It’s incredibly dynamic and powerful, and these days the quality is phenomenal. Somehow though, wielding such power always felt like a burden. It is too cheap, and when things are cheap you take more than you need. I find myself forever trying to pick the ‘best’ shot from a dozen near identical frames, and overwhelmed by the boundless possibilities in post. Overall, to me at least, banishing the sterility feels too much like work. The whole process steals too much time. I make photographs to remember and to cherish, not to sit puzzling at my computer for hours on end. I do that already in my job.

By now I’ve amassed a collection of 10 or so analogue cameras. Not all of them work, and many of them are flawed, but they still serve a function as beautiful relics of a simpler time. I can’t imagine displaying my Casio Exilim EX-S600 on a shelf, even if I knew what happened to it.

Much as I am too lazy for digital, I am equally terrible at tracking film stocks and the cameras I put them in. I can’t accurately recall which was taken with what, except for the tell tale focal lengths or light leaks. It doesn’t really matter that much to me either. The image is the product, and the variability, unpredictability and surprise is what I love.

During quarantine I picked up this Nikon FE-2, dusted off my old Minolta X-300 (both 50mm), and made use of the minute Minolta TC-1 (28mm). But 35mm is my comfort zone, and some of these are undoubtedly born from my trusty Contax T2 – easily my favourite all rounder.

A classically pretty camera, but I think it needs resealing
Both of these produce very sharp images. The TC-1 is one of the tiniest 35mm cameras ever, extremely pocketable

We’ve covered the puppy, San Francisco, and the obligatory background story for film fanaticism. Trees next. We often look past them, but the character they contribute to our landscape is extraordinary; I think our world would be rather sad and barren in their absence.

Each is a unique, perfect representation and metaphor for life. Spiralling toward the light, blossoming and bearing fruit, shading us from the sun, adorning our pavements and defining our wilderness. San Francisco, more than anywhere I’ve known, has an uncommon variety. Having spent the last year wandering the city, it became clear through my photos that I am quite captivated by their beauty.

Ladies and gentleman please welcome to the stage.. the trees of San Francisco.

My lovely wife, young haddy, and a tree
The Bonsai that outgrew its pot

I enjoyed the colour and composition in this one, shame about the light leak
Bernal Heights. There is an abundance of red blossoming trees in the summer
I respect this tree’s antiestablishmentarianism

Something about the palette of this one that works for me. On Laidley, one of the loveliest streets I know

I love the strong shadows and textures in this image
The path down from Edgehill ‘Mountain’

All in all, while the last year has been long, unprecedented and strange, it’s one I won’t forget. The break in rhythm has taught me things about life, and furnished me with a far greater appreciation of my own back garden.

Thanks for reading. I post on Instagram sometimes @aj.colour

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8 thoughts on “Appreciating San Francisco and its Trees in Quarantine – by AJ O’Connell”

  1. Lovely images all of them, if I had to pick just one I’d certainly choose the one with the “antiestablishmentarian” tree, great pic!

    1. Thank you Marcello! It’s always so interesting to know how people interpret images differently; I think that photo is one of my least favourite compositionally, but it’s not every day you find an opportunity to use the word antiestablishmentarianism!

  2. This are amazing photos! I lived in SF for 2 years and you really nailed the atmosphere! Just curious what lab did you use for these photos ? (If these were lab processed and scanned.)

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