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The vast gap between even the most sophisticated camera lens and the human eye is never more apparent than at night: Rich variations of cobalt sky collapse on film into a chalky black, detail is obliterated by shadow, and delicately hued objects are made garish by the sodium haze of street lamps. Since available light is scarce after dark, the camera's aperture has to be left open for long stretches. Several minutes -- or hours -- might be recorded in a single still image; ghostly traces of movement linger like smoke before the static backdrop of immobile objects, while the lights of moving cars leave streaking tracers as the vehicles race through the frame. At its best, a nocturnal photograph can reveal the immutable form of a place, the core that remains constant as life drifts through.
"Through the Eyes of the 22: Photographs by Peikwen Cheng" Through March 26 at City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett (between Polk & Van Ness and Grove & McAllister), Ground Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 554-6080 or visit www.s facgallery.org.
Tim Baskerville heads a group called the Nocturnes, which is dedicated to supporting and promoting the art of night photography. His latest curatorial project, "Embarcadero Nocturne," brings together a group of photographs collected after dark along the stretch of spacious sidewalks, tourist-friendly piers, and trendy new loft buildings that has risen from the ashes of the much-maligned Embarcadero Freeway, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and removed in 1991.
Unfortunately, too many of the artists featured in "Embarcadero Nocturne" rely on trite money shots -- the Bay Bridge by moonlight, the Ferry Building flanked by palm trees. But there are a few images that evoke the howling desolation of a walk along the waterfront alone at night, when the beauty of the place is laced with anxiety.
Standouts include a surreal shot by Mike Quinn of white circus tents lined up in a chain-link corral, patrolled by stadium lights that stand guard like sentinels. Andy Frazer contributes a striking portrait of defunct concrete pylons that seem to hover above the water's surface, weathered and gnarly with rebar. A wide-angle black-and-white photograph by Manu Schnetzler captures the bridge and its reflection in haunting high contrast. One of the show's loveliest images, meanwhile, is a small square photograph by Fred Chang in which the tangled branches of a tree are silhouetted by the glowing outlines of the Embarcadero Center's holiday lights. The peculiar color distortions characteristic of film shot at night are beautifully exploited by John Monroe, whose iconic picture of the dive bar Pier 23 is awash in lush magenta and blue. And Nancy Piotrowski approaches abstraction with a zip of reflected red sandwiched between stripes of inky water.
The works are on view, appropriately enough, at three locations spanning the length of the Embarcadero itself. At the South Beach Cafe, near SBC Park, photos are hung haphazardly above the tables, vying for attention with the large-screen television tuned to ESPN. At 4 Embarcadero Center, copies of many of the same images rest awkwardly on easels in a shallow storefront wedged between Nine West and Liz Claiborne. And at Fort Mason Center, a slightly more expansive selection of works lines the halls of the building's administrative offices. While I'm all for encountering art in unexpected places, I couldn't help but feel that these locales diminished the impact of the photographs. In fact, "Embarcadero Nocturnes" is far more effectively presented online, in a virtual gallery unsaddled by distractions.
A similar problem besets "Through the Eyes of the 22," an exhibition of photographs by Peikwen Cheng taken along the route of the 22 Fillmore bus line. The photos are on view in City Hall -- in theory, an ideal venue for such a manifestly civic project. Unfortunately, they're hung along a relentlessly institutional corridor deep in the bowels of the building, requiring intrepid viewers to pass through security and navigate a maze of hallways before viewing the art. The San Francisco Arts Commission's inspired solution was to create an additional "rolling gallery" by mounting prints of selected images on the Muni line (not the 22, unfortunately) that cruises up and down Van Ness.
Seasoned Fast Pass veterans know the 22 as the workhorse of S.F., a crucial municipal artery that cuts across socioeconomic barriers as it emerges from the deep recesses of Potrero Hill, barrels down the busiest thoroughfare of the Mission, and crosses Lower Haight before shooting up Fillmore to its terminus in the swank Marina District. Cheng records with a compassionate eye the daily dramas enacted within and around this remarkable urban stage.
In Opera, a heavily made-up Asian woman with blond pigtails is joined in open-mouthed aria by the yawning woman next to her, as the young couple beside them struggle to suppress smirks. Other images conjure the contemplative daze of the morning commute, the crush of bodies at rush hour, and the flashy gold caps of a driver's smile. My favorite is a photo of a pensive young man clad head to toe in a fuzzy turquoise bunny suit, ears hanging dejectedly, a scratched message on the window next to him declaring "Fuck $."
Several of the compositions taken beyond the confines of the bus are quietly stunning: the silhouette of a boy waiting patiently in the bus shelter, a tangled web of light-rail cables set aglow by street lamps at dusk, the incandescent red and white trails of traffic below as the 22 passes over Geary. Though Cheng's prints suffer slightly from the granular quality of overenlargement, the photographer possesses a keen sense of composition and a knack for clicking the shutter at just the right moment. While the images of "Embarcadero Nocturne" cast the waterfront as a noir backdrop for untold stories, "Through the Eyes of the 22" gives us a sidelong glance at the fantastic collisions of humanity that define this city.
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