CJM teens paint portrait of San Francisco through lens of their cameras

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Before entering the exhibit “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951” on the second floor of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, one arrives at a wall of 14 color photos of present-day life in San Francisco.

Like the images in the main exhibit, the shots portray many different sides of urban life, including portraits of people looking straight into the camera. Based on the quality of the photos and their prominent location, it may come as a surprise that they were taken by teenagers — all participants in the museum’s yearlong internship program, Teen Art Connect.

“Red Rocker” by Hyacinth Parker photos/courtesy of the cjm

The project, “Our Lens,” is the CJM’s first youth-created exhibit. As the wall text explains, the photos aim to “create a portrait of the city” — following in the footsteps of the New York Photo League, a group of young and mostly Jewish documentary photographers motivated by leftist politics who were active from the Great Depression into the early 1950s.

Before heading out with their cameras onto the streets of San Francisco this past June, the teens studied the work of the Photo League and participated in a two-day workshop with photographer and educator Emilio Bañuelos. Among other techniques, Bañuelos taught them to “make a portrait” by connecting to those they were photographing.

“Wait What”  by Kyle Castro

“Instead of just saying ‘Hey, can I take your picture?’ which seems relatively casual and quick, ‘making a portrait’ adds emphasis to being patient and actually creating a moment with someone,” said Hyacinth Parker,  17, a senior at the Urban School in San Francisco. “All of us had our own special moments with the people we were photographing, even if they were very brief.”

Parker’s photo, “Red Rocker,” shows a young woman holding a cigarette as she gazes confidently into the camera. Parker said her photo was influenced by “Lower East Side,” a 1947 photo in the “The Radical Camera” exhibit that shows a midget leaning against a fire hydrant.

“It was interesting to see how the photographer [Lisette Model] had gotten down on the person’s level and because of this, there were just different aspects of him that you could see,” Parker said, adding that Model’s shot influenced the height of her camera as she took the picture and the lighting of her photo.

“Painter on 2nd Street” by Lena Crown

Lena Crown, a 17-year-old senior at Piedmont High School, said she sought out the internship in order to pursue her interests in art and Jewish studies. She’s now in her third year as an intern and her photo, “Painter on 2nd Street,” shows a man pushing a cart of paints. Crown said that she saw the man from across the street and went over to ask if she could take his picture.

“The painter was so sweet and genuine and we just had this immediate connection,” she said. “It ended up being the photo I took that I really connected to the most.”

The museum’s 13 interns are a diverse group; they aren’t all Jewish and they take the internship to pursue a variety of interests. The paid internship includes workshops, hands-on experience working in the museum’s departments and the opportunity to lead museum tours. Some of the non-Jewish interns described being inspired and influenced by the Jewish content of the museum.

Ema Barnes, a 17-year-old Lowell High School senior, identifies as agnostic but said the museum’s philosophy of approaching Judaism from multiple perspectives has had a big influence on her.

“[The idea of multiple perspectives] has kind of transferred into my life,” she said. “I’ve gotten into competitive debate over the time that I’ve been working here. Now I generally like to ask a lot of questions.”

“La Huelga” by Matthew Escobar

The interns each took hundreds of images before going to a professional digital lab to process and select their best shots. Leah Greenberg, the museum’s youth programs manager, said the students did not edit their photos with Photoshop or any other program.

“Our approach was that it was about what you could get in that moment and not what would happen afterwards in the darkroom or in Photoshop,” she said, explaining that the Photo League used 35mm cameras that were “innovative for their time” and were able to catch moments quickly.

For Barnes, this idea of quickly capturing a moment relates to what Bañuelos taught them about “making a photo” instead of “taking a picture.”

“I love diction and I think it’s so interesting that when you’re ‘taking a picture’ you’ve taken something away from someone,” she said. “But the word ‘make’ puts you into the picture as well.”

“Our Lens” and “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” through Jan. 21 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. www.thecjm.org
To learn more about the Teen Art Connect internship program, visit http://tinyurl.com/aspffdj

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.