Understanding artistic art
Editor’s note: Some of the following images contain nudity.
Seven years ago, photographer Anton O’Donnell moved to the Castro.
“Already on a path to self-discovery and determined to pursue art, I knew I couldn’t be anywhere but San Francisco,” he said.
“I fully came out here and also learned a lot about how to be myself. The level of self-expression I see in others here is incredible,” O’Donnell said. “It was only natural for me to want to document such a vibrant place. And it’s totally full of weirdos, so I felt right at home from the get-go.”
Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro District.
Courtesy Anton O’Donnell
Courtesy Anton O’Donnell
Photography is a new form of artistic expression for O’Donnell, who grew up in San Luis Obispo skateboarding and performing music. His first introduction to visual art happened in 2012 when he produced a skateboarding film. The following year, he discovered the photography of Vivian Maier.
“I fell in love with Vivian’s amazing photography and especially her endearing self-portraits. I wanted to follow in her footsteps,” he said.
A self portrait of photographer Anton O’Donnell.
The Castro District proved the perfect canvas for O’Donnell, now 38 years old, to explore with his camera in hand.
Not only did he find his partner there, but a few months after arriving in San Francisco, O’Donnell met photographer Arthur Tress, who influenced his style and encouraged him to explore his local environment and the creative possibilities therein.
“I use my camera to connect with people and the environment and most importantly to represent LGBTQ+ lives and to contribute towards preserving San Francisco’s rich culture and art scene.”
One of O’Donnell’s main reasons for documenting the streets of the Castro is to celebrate queer street style, freedom and sexual expression. “I’ve lived in and traveled to enough places now to know there is no place quite like the Castro, with its cast of characters and personalities that make it such a special place,” he said. “The Castro is one of the last fortresses for freedom and self-expression, especially given the threat much of marginal society is under.”
O’Donnell doesn’t find it challenging to document the Castro, because on every street corner, there are neighborhood exhibitionists happy to respond to tourists and passersby.
“It hasn’t been difficult to photograph here because the Castro loves being under the spotlight,” added O’Donnell. “I just show up with an open mind.”
For the first four years of his project, O’Donnell shot exclusively with medium format film cameras and at the start of the pandemic with Kodak Tri-X black and white film. He now explores the streets with a 907x Hasselblad digital medium format camera.
“The lack of an optical viewfinder on this camera requires the photographer to look down at the screen and shoot at waist level, very much like the twin reflex camera that Vivian Maier shot with,” he explained. “This is a much less obtrusive way to photograph since the camera’s position is not so obvious to the subject.”
O’Donnell’s mission is to share the images of his adopted neighborhood during a time when queer culture, through anti-transgender laws and anti-gay education legislation, is under threat.
“The revolutionary Twin Peaks Tavern, the first gay bar in the United States to open its windows to the street, is our Stonewall. Peer through its windows, and you will see an elder generation communing quite naturally and comfortably with a young crowd,” he said. “Cruise the blocks, and you might run into Dane, a neighborhood eccentric who once saved a man from a burning car next to the Castro Theatre. These are the kinds of moments I feel especially drawn to capture. With my Hasselblad camera nestled dearly in my arms, I am doing my duty to keep the Castro queer.”
You can view a collection of Anton O’Donnell’s photographs of Jane Warner Plaza at Manny’s Cafe at 3092 16th Street in the Mission District of San Francisco through September 2022. He will be having a guided tour of his images on July 28 at 6:30 pm.