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A Vanished San Francisco, Black, White and Colorful

December 6, 2009

In 1952, when the budding photographer Gerald Ratto was a 19-year-old student at the California School of Fine Arts, he spent much of his time in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. Wandering around the neighborhood with his Rolleiflex camera and a bottle of brandy, he shared drinks and conversation with the residents and snapped pictures of the local kids as they played in the street.

Nearly six decades have passed since he photographed those children. Mr. Ratto, now 76, went on to lead a successful career as an architectural photographer. And the neighborhood, a bustling hub of black culture in the late 1940s and early 1950s, underwent an ill-conceived redevelopment in the 1960s and then significant growth in recent years.

When viewed against the backdrop of that tremendous transformation, Mr. Ratto’s images poignantly recall a vanished landscape. Although the pictures demonstrate an artist’s promise, his photographs do not quite satisfy as either works of art or social documents.

On display in downtown San Francisco at the Robert Tat Gallery, a space specializing in vintage photography, the compact show “Children of the Fillmore, 1952” consists of 52 silver gelatin prints, 18 of which are on display. (The other 34 pictures can be viewed upon request.)

The quality most evident in Mr. Ratto’s photographs is their innocence. Images like one depicting three small girls cuddling and smiling at the camera in what looks like their Sunday best (No. 5 in the series) and another of a boy with a cardboard box on his head and a clownish, gap-toothed grin (No. 14) convey a sense of pure-spirited delight. Meanwhile, there’s an arresting candor and warmth to the photograph of a boy sitting on a staircase with his elbows propped up behind him (No. 20). His posture and face display unfettered openness.

Most of the pictures are posed. They are also uncompromisingly shot head-on and close to their subjects. Yet they refreshingly lack affectation. Clearly, taking the time to get to know the people he photographed paid off for Mr. Ratto. Using the kind of camera that could be operated down by his waist rather than in front of his face, thus allowing him to maintain eye contact with his subjects, doubtless also helped him to earn the trust of the local youngsters.

But pictures depicting the freshness of childhood, though they look great on kitchen calendars, can veer into cutesy cliché. There’s something static and lifeless about Mr. Ratto’s portraits that undercuts their artistic strength. The images of great chroniclers of urban life, like Helen Levitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson, avoid this problem. Levitt’s famous picture of two children, one white and one black, dancing in the middle of a New York street, and Cartier-Bresson’s image of a boy rounding a corner cradling two enormous glass bottles, possess a kinetic energy and distinct personality that ultimately tell the viewer much more about the lives — and environments — of their subjects than Mr. Ratto’s photographs.

The grown-up worldliness that tinges Ms. Levitt’s pictures of children sharply undercuts their sweetness. “In each child, from very early, the germ of the death of childhood is at work,” the author James Agee says of Ms. Levitt’s photographs in his preface to her 1965 book, “A Way of Seeing.” It is this germ that makes Ms. Levitt’s photographs so powerful from a social as well as an artistic perspective. Lacking this quality, Mr. Ratto’s pictures don’t carry the same weight.

If they don’t function completely satisfactorily as works of art, the “Children of the Fillmore” images similarly lack strength as social documents of a neighborhood’s lost heritage. To the extent that the figures depicted in Mr. Ratto’s photographs appear frozen in time, the series draws attention to the vast gap between the neighborhood’s glory days and now. But with their atmosphere of utopian innocence and no hint of foreboding for the neighborhood’s future fall, the images seem naïve when viewed with contemporary eyes.

Gentrification has changed the face of the neighborhood once again. Although the area has revived, thanks to the appearance of institutions like the jazz club Yoshi’s and the spruced-up Sundance Kabuki cinemas, the black population has dwindled, owing to steep rises in the cost of goods and housing.

The district has been trying hard to reconnect with its past in recent years, with the Fillmore Heritage Center at the forefront of the campaign. The center presents historically oriented art shows, like the current exhibition of photographs of musicians shot by Dan Dion at the famed Fillmore Auditorium and a recent show of Mr. Ratto’s work.

These exhibitions might pique the curiosity of a tourist, rock music fan or local historian. But nostalgia for a bygone era ultimately isn’t very helpful to a neighborhood like the Fillmore, which, like most communities, can never hope to recapture its past in any concrete sense.

“Children of the Fillmore, 1952” continues through Jan. 30 at the Robert Tat Gallery, 49 Geary Street, No. 211; (415) 781-1122,


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