50 years of S.F. street photography by two local artists

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Maury Edelstein, a garrulous and energetic 84-year-old, walked a few blocks from home recently when he realized he’d inadvertently violated the cardinal rule of street photography: “I forgot my camera,” he said. “My head was down the whole way home. I didn’t want to see anything until I got my camera.”

Packing up to three cameras at a time, Edelstein has been taking candid shots of people in his native San Francisco almost daily for nearly 60 years. “I take them because I can’t stop,” he said. “I’m addicted.”

Some of his best work comprises half of the two-man exhibit “Maury Edelstein/Ted Pushinsky: Fifty Years of San Francisco Street Photography, 1965-2015,” at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art in San Francisco. More than 50 photos by the indefatigable Jewish lensmen are on display through June 30.

Though Wolfe describes the pair as the “city’s reigning elder statesmen of the genre,” the street photographers hadn’t met before the exhibit. Now Edelstein says he feels a kinship with Pushinsky, 68, while Pushinsky expresses admiration for Edelstein’s “commitment to his work.”

In this age of the selfie stick and around-the-clock social media updates, the pair’s candid pictures of others present two distinctive yet compatible perspectives on “the human condition,” as Pushinsky put it.

A San Franciscan since the late ’60s, Pushinsky brings a photojournalist’s eye to crafting crisp, well-composed shots of complex, sometimes gritty, occasionally ambiguous scenes.

Most street photography subjects are unidentified. Pushinsky’s 1978 Folsom Street Fair scene, for example, finds a young man in a crowd as he lifts his tank top to show a half-circle “San Fran” tattoo above his navel. His gaze is piercing above his dark, peach-fuzz mustache.

A 2014 color photo taken on a BART train offers an unusual upward angle on a cluster of three young women, possibly drunk, wearing matching tight T-shirts. One woman holds a cellphone before her as she gazes over her shoulder.

“Untitled,” 1987 photo/maury edelstein

Also on exhibit is Pushinsky’s strikingly unglamorous shot of infamous S.F. stripper Carol Doda in 1982. Topless and wearing heavy makeup, she dances on a gaudily decorated grand piano at the (now defunct) Condor Club in North Beach.

“I’m looking for something that catches my eye, that serves me well, that’s compositionally correct,” Pushinsky said, “that has content that surprises me and pleases me when I see the photograph itself.” He shoots primarily in the Mission District, near where he lives.

Pushinsky came to San Francisco soon after the Summer of Love. Born in New York, he spent his teen years outside Philadelphia, earned a bachelor’s degree at Penn State University and  “fancied myself as a writer while in college and coming out of school.”

Then, he said, “I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. I needed another way to express myself.”

Edelstein, who retired seven years ago after a 50-year career in life insurance, said it was commuting to work downtown by bus or streetcar in the late 1950s that prompted his longtime shutterbug hobby.

“I looked at the other riders,” he recalled. “Moishe, I said, why aren’t you taking pictures on the bus?” A self-taught photographer, he already owned a Minox miniature camera, purchased to take photos of his children.

So, undetected, he started taking photos on the bus. The Minox “had a side viewfinder and top viewfinder,” he said, that permitted him to hold his camera almost anywhere.

Holding his hands in front of face, he explained, “I don’t take pictures by going like this. I take pictures surreptitiously. It was a matter of survival. I didn’t want anyone to hit me.”

Edelstein quickly branched out to photographing street scenes, walking several hours a day to find his subjects.

He still hits the streets, now with three digital cameras, almost every day. “I’m always looking,” he said.

Edelstein takes photos in North Beach and Chinatown, as well as in the Mission. He’s looking “for their color, for an incident, for abstraction, for composition,” he said.

His subjects generally are hanging out, resting or in transit. The slight blurriness in some shots belies Edelstein’s gunslinger approach to rapid-fire picture-taking.

In a 1985 snapshot, two people share a wooden bench in front of a brick building on a sunny day. An older man in suit, tie and trench coat sits proudly with legs crossed, his extended left hand resting on an umbrella handle. To his right, a young woman in shorts and running shoes looks away.

A 1986 downtown photo shows two women wearing red winter coats and holding leather purses as they stand in what look like mannequin poses in front of a bright red wall. “I’m sitting in a restaurant and I look across the street and see that,” Edelstein recalled excitedly.

His earliest photos in the exhibit are 1965 black-and-whites taken on bus rides. One shows a pair of nuns demurely sharing a seat. Another features a scowling older man in sunglasses, sitting by himself.

“Untitled,” 1985 photo/maury edelstein

Pushinsky, too, shoots regularly. “I go out pretty much every day with my camera, out looking, hoping to come home with something,” he said.

“I just try to be where there’s a lot of street activity: the Mission District, the Haight. I live within walking distance of 24th and Mission. I have a real affinity for the Mission District. I’ve been taking pictures there probably since around the mid-1970s.”

Like Edelstein, he carries a small digital camera that allows him to shoot undetected if necessary. He began his street photography with the Nikon film cameras he used as a professional photographer working for Newsweek magazine as well as boxing and wrestling magazines. He also was a stringer for wire services, took publicity stills and shoots for dance companies.

A self-taught photographer, he credits his work with boxers and dancers for “helping me in the street. I inadvertently trained myself for photographing movement.”

Pushinsky, who earned a master’s in design from U.C. Berkeley, has also worked as a copy editor and proofreader. During the 1990s, he did screenwriting in Hollywood, where with camera in tow he was that rarest of creatures: the Los Angeles pedestrian.

Both men pursue interests in addition to photography.

“Untitled,” 1986 photo/maury edelstein

Edelstein has long been part of the San Francisco Jewish community. His parents, George and Pauline Edelstein, took in a German refugee couple in 1939 for what became a two-year stay. George Edelstein owned Mission Sweater Shop, a local clothing store, and “was a Zionist before that was popular,” his son said with pride.

Edelstein has attended a weekly Torah study group for decades, and was a devotee of Rabbi Saul E. White of Congregation Beth Sholom. Edelstein even produced a film of the rabbi’s 1982 sermon on “The True Meaning of Religion,”
which White presented as a guest of San Francisco’s Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples.

Pushinsky, while not particularly religious, can be found in synagogue as part of family lifecycle events and celebrations.

Though Pushinsky’s photos have always depicted people from contrasting backgrounds sharing the streets, in the past two years he has witnessed a huge socioeconomic shift in his beloved Mission District.

“It’s just incredible,” he said, citing the rise of $1.5 million, one-bedroom condos at 24th and Folsom streets. “Before the tech explosion, it was primarily a Hispanic neighborhood. It still is — for the moment.”

Whatever the neighborhood’s fate, Pushinsky and his camera surely will be watching — just as Edelstein continues to seek his sly slices of life in the city they treasure.

“Maury Edelstein/Ted Pushinsky: Fifty Years of San Francisco Street Photography, 1965-2015,” through June 30 at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art, 1 Sutter St.,

Andrew Muchin

Andrew Muchin is a freelance writer and host of the weekly "Sounds Jewish" radio program on Mississippi Public Broadcasting Music Radio and Radio-J.com.