Political history has an awful habit of repeating itself. It seems that no matter the decade, the country or the party involved, governments make terrible decisions that afflict, and often outrage, the general public. In these instances, an equilibrium of passion and exasperation is reached; crowds band together, and two forms of creativity often become their means of protest. The first is a tightly gripped placard voicing concern and the second is photography or, more importantly, photographers; those who document the times when others convene en masse to shout about a social concern. During the 1980s in San Fransisco, there was one particular photographer who embodied this feeling more than many: the gifted, excited and then indignant, Janet Delaney.
Janet, who grew up in Los Angeles, began her relationship with San Fransisco during a visit when she was just 14. It was the Summer of Love and the photographer recalls the first day she visited Haight Ashbury – the counterculture birthing district of the 1960s – as seeming “a bit like what I imagined a European city might be”. At this age, inspired by a visit from a German exchange student when she was 11, Janet fantasised about Europe. She loathed “the mall and car culture of LA”, instead covering her bedroom walls with paintings by impressionist artists of European city streets. The city along the coast wasn’t something she gave much thought at all, “coming from Los Angeles,” she says, “I honestly was without a clue about real city life.”
However a few years later Janet was fully embedded in San Fransisco’s then culture: one which welcomed artists with open arms. She was an artist herself, beginning to take photographs at the age of 17 before studying the medium at San Fransisco Art Institute, graduating with an MFA in 1981. At first, her photographs lensed antiwar rallies and rock concerts until Janet started studying where she “began to make very formal photographs that ‘looked like art’,” she explains. “Eventually I fused these two ideas into narrative work that addresses social issues with a keen eye.”
It’s at this point that Public Matters, a series taken by Janet during the 1980s and recently published by Mack, began to take shape. The photographer had just finished her degree and her “keen eye” was fresh from education and the fact she’d recently moved to a new part of town, Mission District.
In her early 30s at the time, Janet was teaching photography while juggling a part-time position as a documentary photographer for nonprofits, although admittedly “struggling to stay employed”. Political issues began to seep into Janet’s daily life and, in turn, her work. She spent three summers photographing the Sandinsta movement in Nicaragua. When back in San Fransisco it was women’s rights causes and anti-nuclear issues that she used her lense to get behind, while also regularly photographing the Latin community in her neighbourhood. The Janet of the 1980s was “young, excited hardworking,” she describes, “and angry at the conservative Reagan regime.”
Although not the European lifestyle Janet had envisaged for herself as a teenager, living in San Fransisco made her focus this lens. The 1980s brought turbulent change to the city under the administration of its mayor Dianne Feinstein who oversaw the introduction of large skyscrapers to the city’s landscape. Large numbers of homeless people took to the city’s streets, largely due to President Ronald Reagan’s closure of institutions for the mentally ill and cuts to housing benefits. The photographs published in Public Matters however, do not have the documentarian air of anger you would expect to reflect the time.
Janet Delaney: Public Matters, Dexter King, Martin Luther King’s Son at First Martin Luther King Day Parade, January 26, 1986, courtesy of Euqinom Gallery and Mack
Janet Delaney: Public Matters, Pawnshop, Mission St, 1984, courtesy of Euqinom Gallery and Mack
Instead, Janet’s photographs present hope in the displays of community she decided to shoot as, although a turbulent period, San Fransisco’s cultural output was thriving. The book displays ambition and a sense of togetherness in images of the Cinco de Mayo Parade, a celebration of Mexican culture taken in 1983, the Peace, Jobs and Justice Parade in 1986, the first Martin Luther King Day Parade or just in a photograph of a sweet couple enjoying the carnival in 1985.
As a documentarian, Janet’s catalogue includes harsher journalistic photographs of protests, mostly shot in black and white for publications, but the photographs in Public Matters, “are calmer and allow the viewer to consider the details and the sense of place more carefully,” says the photographer. Janet also puts this sense of calm down to the tools she used at the time, particularly a twin-lens reflex camera “that I used to make the square images render a scene as a more serene,” she explains. “I included 35mm photos to keep the energy,” noting how the particular quality of her photographs “is a bit of a mix of style and content.”
Publishing a book of photographs taken over 30 years ago must be a strange feeling for any creative. We could forgive Janet for feeling a little nostalgic for the scene she used to inhabit or a life she used to live. But for her, a still extraordinary practising photographer, she doesn’t tend to “long for the past,” instead, pointing out how: “There are things that have definitely improved. If you look into the background of my photos from that era you will see mainly ads for cigarettes and beer. You’ll never see those now!”
Yet one aspect of the 80s lifestyle she does admit to holding dearly is a day-to-day routine that didn’t rely on, or revolve, around technology. “There is a culture of intimate street life that I do want to acknowledge as something that is worthy of encouraging,” she says. “When we disappear into our cell phones and use online shopping and order takeout, we isolate ourselves from others. But more importantly, we need to ensure that cities can be home for economical and socially diverse groups of people. Without some effort to ensure this mix they will become ghettos for the wealthy!”
In publishing a book that captures a public voice through photography, it goes without saying that comparisons will ultimately be drawn between Janet’s images of marches in the 1980s with the marches taking place in 2018. Living through both of these politically charged times has left Janet reflective. “We still march, though not often as we once did,” she muses. The photographer also points out how two major societal elements are different when you compare the 80s to today: “One is the impact of the internet and its omnipresent ability to both inform and to spread disinformation,” she points out, “the other is the presence of a government that has no shame. Perhaps these two are related?”
But if you’re going to take anything away from Janet’s photographs it shouldn’t be a want to reflect, but to act instead. Public Matters shows the power of culture and community at a time we probably need it most. “The marches are a way to not only show dissatisfaction but also to bolster the sense of belonging to those who take to the streets. We are not alone in our positions,” states Janet. “The photographs can serve to remind people that there is a long history of fighting for various causes.”
So take Janet’s photographs as encouragement. They offer a glimpse into a world now long-gone but they are as relevant today as ever. They are a reminder to keep vigilant and promote how “staying vocal is essential”. After all, as Janet so wisely says: “It is a public responsibility to question authority.”
An exhibition of Public Matters opens at Euqinom Gallery from November 1 — December 22, 2018.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.