Photographer Darwin Bell returns to the Tenderloin Museum’s gallery with a collection of vivid imagery plucked from the streets of his adoptive home: the TL. “Heart of the City” is comprised of twenty digital prints on metal that celebrate the iconoclastic neighborhood’s perpetual state of metamorphosis.
Bell’s sense of place is a strong one. “I don’t like directing a photo,” Bell told the Tenderloin Museum, “I like letting the setting direct me.” He uses the neighborhood’s abundance of historic architecture to frame his intensely high-def cityscapes and street scenes. His photographic eye moves from expansive shots (modern glass exteriors looming over ornate, Art-Deco buildings) to nuanced close-ups (an eyelash resting on a shockingly green street shrub). This dynamic visual range correlates to Bell’s feelings toward his surroundings. “There’s a fleeting nature to this city,” Bell said. “My goal was to capture things before they change.”
In “Heart of the City,” the markers of change are often signage, such as the Tenderloin’s iconic hotel neons, ghost signs and graffiti. Some are more permanent than others, but they all work to identify places in a neighborhood that escapes any simple definition. These experiments with text-in-image relate back to Bell’s first photographic practice: snapping found text with a Polaroid camera and stringing together the prints to form messages. His earliest efforts “didn’t really deal with composition so much as finding the words to match up,” Bell said. “It was about the hunt.”
Foraging for found text attuned Bell to what the streets had to say. While some human forms appear in “Heart of the City,” the collection as a whole portrays the Tenderloin as a living organism, an urban body. The inhabitants of the TL communicate with the built environment through eye-catching signs, carefully drawn murals, and spontaneous sidewalk scrawl. Bell’s camera records everything from the small talk to deep conversations.
What unifies these diverse scenes is Bell’s penchant for bright, surprising colors that leap out of otherwise muted urban scenery. “Color has a psychological effect on how you feel,” Bell said as he lamented the recent trend in the Tenderloin of repainting old buildings in drab blacks and grays. The streaks of color in Bell’s photography add an expressive, whimsical aspect to his work, evoking his subjects’ true character.
What’s more, Bell is close to the heart of the Tenderloin Museum. He has been a vital member of our community since the Museum’s opening, lending a helpful hand at countless events and documenting countless more on film. “Heart of the City” opens on April 5th, and the artist will be present for an opening reception in the Tenderloin Museum gallery as part of #SFfirstThursdays Art Walk.