Photographer and Tenderloin resident Darwin Bell only went into the now-defunct Tea Room Theatre at 145 Eddy St. a single time, and he remembers it as “one of the saddest things.”
Admission was $15, so he and his friends simply asked the management if they could take a look at it without committing.
“They were playing ’70s porn, so that was good,” Bell says. “It was three guys in there, all kind of moaning.”
They weren’t moaning together, he’s quick to add. They were separate, sort of the way people disperse upon entering a crowded elevator to maintain maximum distance among everyone.
“We just looked around, like, ‘OK,’ ” Bell says. “And then it closed. I asked the owner, ‘Can I go in and take photos?’ Because I wanted an empty theater. And she wouldn’t let me! She was like, ‘It’s not pretty. No.’ I didn’t care about pretty. But she still wouldn’t let me in, and I’ll regret that to my dying day.”
We’re at the opening for the Tenderloin Museum’s exhibit “The Heart of the City: Photography by Darwin Bell,” where drag performer Donna Personna is standing in front of a portrait of herself in profile, hands raised and fingers splayed like the hallelujah emoji. (“I thought I was looking at a mirror,” she says. “I started fixing my hair.”) Bell’s show includes 20 digital prints on metal that record a neighborhood that’s perpetually in flux. The Tea Room is gone, as is the decades-old gay bar The Gangway, both of which Bell captured. A four-year resident of the neighborhood who lived near Alamo Square for about 30 years prior, Bell notes that the false eyelashes he photographed on a tree limb are also gone.
“That was in the Tenderloin National Forest,” he says. “A friend of mine said, ‘There’s an eyelash on a tree. Go find it!’ ”
In spite of all this, it’s not a melancholic exhibit. Bell, who frequently contributed images to SFist, is simply too drawn to color and texture. From a figure in silhouette in front of an F-Market streetcar to the tiles on the Owl Tree on Post and Taylor streets — not technically in the Tenderloin, but close enough — they show a misunderstood neighborhood at its finest moments.
“These are the greatest hits,” he says about having whittled down his collection of street photographs. “I love living in the Tenderloin. I find it so vibrant and crazy. It’s city living at its most — at its most.”
He leaves it at that. But if there’s an ethics to street photography, that goes double in a place where it would be easy for the observer to reify marginalized people’s socioeconomic position under the pretense of simply recording life as it really is. Nothing about this show feels exploitative. Bell doesn’t capture images of people or things that would inspire humiliation if the subjects ever saw the photograph, and he marvels about how living in the neighborhood has guided his sense of perception.
“I don’t even see the things I see,” he says. “I just don’t notice things anymore.”
The Heart of the City: Photography by Darwin Bell, at the Tenderloin Museum, 398 Eddy St., tenderloinmuseum.org