Bartenders go to bars on their nights off, but only Atsuko Morita walks in with a view camera and tripod to spend an evening under the black hood. She works four nights a week behind the plank at Festa Karaoke Bar in Japantown to pay for the three nights she spends behind the camera, shooting the classic dives of San Francisco.
“I feel like I should document them before they are gone,” says Morita, who works in the large format like an indoor Ansel Adams in order to catch all of the accumulated detail in the barrooms of the Little Shamrock, the Geary Club, Pittsburgh’s Pub and all the other old-time neighborhood joints.
She does not photograph the bar that she tends because karaoke has been done. So have barflies and bartenders. So have outdoor neon bar signs.
Morita is interested in the interior still life of decay and clutter to be found on dusty liquor bottles, cocktail glasses, cash registers, pinup calendars, dim light bulbs, pool table felt and the worn-out leather on barstools. “I want to show how the character of the bar reflects the owner and its customers,” she says.
She tends to go shortly after opening, or past midnight, when dives are uncrowded, and she’ll hit as many as three bars a night. She never drives, which makes it convenient that many of the best dives are near her home, a shared $1,600-a-month apartment on the first floor of a multiunit building on Bush Street below Nob Hill.
Silicon Valley Plastic Camera Show: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. Through Oct. 12. Art and Art History Building Gallery, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. 408-554-4000. www.scu.edu
The Artist’s Life is a recurring feature that will shine a spotlight on the talent who help make up the rich tapestry of the Bay Area’s cultural life.
“Rent control,” is the first thing she says to a visitor admiring the woodwork in the lobby. Morita, 46, came from Osaka, Japan, 13 years ago to learn photography at the Academy of Art. She is still learning English, which costs $500 a month for lessons. She’d been a bartender in Japan and was a bartender here while shooting the Pacific Ocean with a pinhole camera she built.
She wasn’t looking for a project shooting bars. The project found her when she went to one of her hangouts, California Dream’n on California Street, only to find it out of business.
“I didn’t have time to capture it,” she says. “I realized so many bars are closing down.”
She is not the type to just barge in with her camera and set up her tripod. She will scout a location first and tell the manager about her project. To build her confidence she started with her own neighborhood — High Tide, the Outsider and Hanaro.
Talking to the regulars, she would learn other spots to hit. Bar people are happy to talk about bars, and they got more talkative when she brought in her gear and set up. So she started a side project with a Fuji Instax camera. When people would chat her up, she’d take their picture with the Instax then ask them to sign and date it, and write about their personal history in that bar in a notebook she carries. She now has two notebooks full and is working on a third.
Flipping through the books, she stops at a Polaroid of a man named Ron. In his entry, he described Gino & Carlo in North Beach as “a place where everyone can find a common bond while wasting valuable time.” At Aub Zam Zam in the Haight, Kristy wrote “we come here to drink from the water of life or to seek answers when you’ve run out of your own.”
At the Casanova Cocktail Lounge on Valencia Street, a customer wrote “This is the first bar I went to when I moved here. I had a beer in front of a velvet painting from the ‘70s and I knew I was home.”
The instant photos and confessionals are a nice distraction because it can take Morita hours to set up one shot. She works in sheets of film and is careful not to take too many because her Kodak Professional Portra film costs $4 an exposure and another $10 to develop it.
If it is dark, which dives tend to be, it can take 30 minutes with the shutter open to gather enough light. She never knows exactly what mystery her camera will uncover until she prints an image in the shades of red and gold and blue that are the natural light in bars.
The long exposure picks up scratches on the bar top and the tiny holes in the wall, left by errant throws at the dartboard.
“Damaged floors or money pinned to the walls,” she says. “Everything means something.”
Morita always works in color film, and two of her pinhole images were jury selections for the Silicon Valley Plastic Camera Show, now under way at Santa Clara University.
Her barroom work has not yet seen the light of day. She’d like to make a book, maybe have a gallery show at SF Camerawork or SOMArts, both of which have included her in group exhibitions.
By now, Morita has shot 30 or 40 bars, some of which have closed during the three years she’s been shooting.
She recently had to return the large-format view camera, which was on loan, and is using a medium-format Mamiya, which doesn’t require a hood.
She’s been asked to leave a few places but has never had a drink poured over her head or on her camera. She knows how to handle herself in bars, but just to be on the safe side she usually brings along a few friends to protect her gear. She always buys, which adds to her overhead.
“Free drinks for them,” she says.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]. Instagram: sfchronicle_art
- The Overwintering Project invites printmaker artists to help make seabirds visible, and save their habitats
- What will it take for historic S.F. bars like Specs’ to survive coronavirus? Crowdfunding
- Tributes to the entertainers and artists who died from coronavirus
- Spotify's 'tip jar' is a slap in the face for musicians. It should pay them better
- Sponsorships Are Helping Homebound Artists Replace Lost Revenue, But 'Their Leverage Has Diminished'
- State survey shows alarming coronavirus impact for Acadiana artists
- How to take better portrait photos with your smartphone
- 'I hate you with a passion!' Petra Ecclestone's fiancé Sam Palmer challenges her ex James Stunt to a 'no holds barred street fight' so he can 'smash him to pieces' (for the NHS!)
- This artist creates pop art-inspired portraits to raise funds for COVID-19 relief
- Steven Spielberg pays tribute to E.T. cinematographer and 'singular talent' Allen Daviau following his death at 77 from COVID-19
- My Surreal ‘Disaster Artist’ Date With Kris Jenner
- Mask Smile: Photographers, Videographers Capture Life During COVID-19 Pandemic
- Construction starts on four key projects in Chu Lai OEZ
- Film companies postpone work on new projects until social distancing period ends
- 'He was a visionary who wasn't afraid to take risks': Mick Jagger, 76, pays tribute to his 'dear friend' Peter Beard, 82, after he was found dead near his home
- Alaya F Pays Tribute To Mother Earth With Art; Stunned Fans Think She Can Have An Alternate Career
- ‘Homesick’ Prince Harry & ‘Worried’ Meghan Markle May ‘End Up Regretting Their Life Choice’ - Report
- Bartenders concoct ways to serve and survive by mixing things up online
- My favourite travel photo – by readers
- 'We're On Life Support:' Coronavirus Crisis Squeezes IL Breweries
Artist’s Life: Bartending pays for dive bar photo project have 1491 words, post on www.sfgate.com at July 24, 2018. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.