Thomas Alleman – I left San Francisco in a slow-churning panic in 1988, worn-out and soul-sick from three years of doing reportage in the gay community, which was then being drowned in the first crashing wave of HIV and AIDS.
I was broke, too, and alienated and weird, and so Los Angeles seemed like a perfect place to retreat to; I could live quietly amongst other anxious exiles, and conjure my next impossible dream.
But, as James McMurtry sings: “I don’t want another drink, I just want that last drink again.” LA felt like purgatory and punishment for a long time; it took me five years to make peace with the horizontal, sun-bleached blight of it all, and I was one of those people who was always going to leave. I just wanted my last drink again, but better: I wanted San Francisco, as I’d dreamt it being, before it all went bad. I wanted that first sip again, that first hint of bracing, golden intoxication, that belief that the night was young and the party would only get better.
I stayed in Los Angeles, and learned to love it, and learned to be a photographer there. In 2001, I began using plastic cameras to photograph LA’s strange neighborhoods in a manner that was new and exciting to me. Partly, I was trying to make visual my memories of music I heard when I was eight years old, dizzy with scarlet fever and swooning in my bed in a room at the end of a long hallway: my mother played a transistor radio while she cleaned, and I heard those Top 40 tunes only after they’d traversed half the house, bouncing off walls and oozing past drapery. The detailed dynamics of the recordings were stripped away or rounded off, and what remained for me—what entranced me!—was just the architecture of a song, its broadest strokes, its impregnable essence, and the feelings that bubbled upward through that murk.
The plastic camera pictures I began making in 2001 seemed like that, like music from another room. A lo-fidelity version of itself, familiar and deep but different, ravaged by static.
I returned to San Francisco in early 2002, to try making these pictures there, using my plastic Holgas and black-and-white film. Now, I go back a couple times a year—bringing my LA career up to the Bay for a spin—and I shoot those screwy pictures for two or three days between assignments or gallery openings or workshops. I’m long past those years of regret and longing, when every trip across the Bay Bridge, coming into town, broke my heart, and stirred my passions for return and renewal—but I still feel ghosts there, in certain neighborhoods, when I turn certain corners. More like, the ghosts of ghosts: not memories of real people or particular evenings or actual laughter, but the recollection of a dream about all that, my beautiful naivete, windblown shards of hope about a life I could never make real. That first long drink of San Francisco, when the glass was still full and the best part of life had just begun. [Official Website]