The Best Street Photographer In San Francisco 2015: Troy Holden

Determining “Best” is a subjective act, but if relentless energy, decisive moments and community-spirit are factors then Troy Holden is on the podium


Editor’s note: This is the third in Vantage’s six-part series of year-end “Best Of” proclamations. See the Best Nature Photos, the Best Photobooks, the Best GIFs, the Best Exhibition, and the Best Portraits of 2015.


Troy won’t thank me for the click-bait title, so let me defend it by saying that if you’re looking at Troy Holden then you’re looking at the earnest spirit common to all street photographers throughout San Francisco (well, perhaps not all photographers). This city is changing fast and street shooters feel a responsibility to document the city as it is because, well, who knows what it will become?

Troy suggests we meet at the Brown Jug, a dive in the TL. It’s not too far from his routine back-and-forth along mid-Market between 5th and 10th streets. He shoots on Market Street because that’s where the changes are most rapid and the contrasts most stark; it’s where suits and start-up kids try best to ignore the desperate circumstances of San Francisco’s homeless population.

We get pints. The first question I have is why? Why street photography? Troy has a particular personality suited to street photography. He’s a collector. Photographs are just the latest thing. “In the past it was CDs, before that vinyl, before that baseball cards and before that hot wheels,” he says.

He can’t take pictures quick enough to capture all that’s around him. Through quantity comes quality. But I press him further. It has to be more than blanket coverage? Well, yeah, there’s the importance of isolated (decisive) moments, but it’s about the use of those images and it’s about a historical record. The pleasure he gets from the act of photographing is rewarded in the future by the importance of permanent record. Two birds, one stone.

Street photography is visible and urgent in San Francisco right now.

To degrees it always has been, consider the old guard — Maury Edelstein, John Harding, Vladimir Panasenko and Ted Pushinsky (many of whom remain active). But there’s young pretenders too. I can’t write down the names fast enough as Troy rattles off a list of photographers he knows and loves— Ben Molina, Lula Ore, Chris Beale, Brian Brophy, David Root, Monika Valecka, Jack Simon, Brandon Doran, Emmanuel Blackwell, Brian Sorensen to name a few.

There’s others. I think of the legendary Michael Jang; there’s the quiet and brilliant Alan Dejecacion whose SF street shots Vantage featured in July; there’s the everywhere names of Travis Jensen and Erik Kim; there’s sexy time Joe Aguirre and Mark Murmann the photo editor at Mother Jones; then there’s Stephen McLaren’s fresh eyes on his new home city; and there are shots from Rian Dundon’s Out Here.

It’s important to Troy that he’s seen as part of a legitimate and purposeful practice. It’s also important that people understand that he is new to this — he only got “serious” in 2014, he says.

After a few years shooting, it was only in 2014 that he made images he was proud to share. The UrbEx, long exposures, light-paintings and abandoned structures he focused on were just tactics to prevent him from getting close.

“I was being shady and kept my distance,” he says “I knew the photos that I wanted to making, but I just wasn’t making them.”

Clearly, he worked through those fears of being visible. Now he’s super-close taking some of the rawest, life-affirming, and emotion-crushing images of public life that San Francisco knows.

Troy Holden stays busy. In February, he initiated a three-month regime of 12-miles a day to shoot through 300 rolls of color film. Since then, he’s put work up in barber schools, restaurants and bars. He’s wheat-pasted his stuff with others in Aldophe Gasser’s parking lot. He’s made zines and GIFs, and flogged prints for $10 a pop at a local bar. He’s helping octogenarian Edelstein process and edit his decades-deep archive, made Instax portraits in his pop-up studio on a corner in the Tenderloin, and collaborated with non-photo artists. Oh, and he and his wife had a second child.

We order a second pint. It occurs to me that, at any moment, any one of the punters might be walking in to a Troy Holden photograph. That’s the point; Troy’s been coming here for years. He asks the bartender about one of the regulars. He took a photo of the guy over the pool table months back and wants to give him a print.

The urge to share work as frantically as they make it is something peculiar to street shooters. I get the impression that Troy feels like his photography can, if shared, be of some service to the city, or at least to the communities in his photographs. This is his contribution. Troy grew up in Michigan but moved to San Francisco in 1996. At this point, he’s lived here longer than he ever did in the Great Lakes State.

His first neighborhood was mid-Market.

“It was crazy back then but it never felt unsafe,” he says. “There was opening drug dealing, public intoxication, peddling of stolen goods, but no violent crime. It was very live and let live, which is what I was always searching for.”

In the nineties, downtown San Francisco was a different place. The corner-stores and pharmacies were mom ‘n’ pop, as was the army surplus store where Troy got his SF Giants caps (you’ll never see him without a Giants cap).

“Mid-Market had everything I needed.”

As Troy’s got closer his gear has got smaller, simpler, lighter.

He’s gone from a whopping DSLR, to the Fuji X-Series, to the Ricoh GRD, to the Olympus XA2, and now carries the dinky Olympus Stylus Epic. It’s small, self-focusing and fits in the pocket. Sometimes he carries two — one for color and one for B&W.

There’s a lot still to learn. Troy’s trying to print and edit his work like he shoots it — quick and dirty. After it took him a year to make his first zine, he sees there is room for improvement.

“I made it way too complicated,” he says. “I went through a terabyte of photos.”

He’s learning his way around the darkroom too. He used to get his stuff printed at the lab but he recently set up a darkroom in his house. Friends are showing him how to make contact sheets. He marks them up with china pencils. White = Street, Yellow = Family, Red = The Best Stuff.

Organizing folders in Troy’s studio have the themes such as “Dogs” “People” and “Signs.”

“I’m slowly filling them, but most of my photos never gets released,” says Troy. “The majority don’t see the light of day.”

Prior to making photographs, Troy drove a cab, worked for record labels and for big tech companies.

Both dot com waves,” he emphasizes.

Whether or not you like Troy’s work and the buzzing photo community from which it arises, you’re going to have to get used to it. It’s only going to continue.

“I’m dedicating the next 30 years of my life to photographing this city,” says Troy without prompt. “I’m very much a creature of routine and I don’t get sick of walking up and down the same strip.”

We get another drink.

The characters on Mid-Market are there for all to see, but I want to know what else draws Troy to this strip.

“The sidewalks are wide, the buildings are low, there’s plazas, transit stations, transfer points, there’s a bunch of foot traffic and the light’s predictable.”

Seems obvious, now.

“Maybe there are intersections in Chinatown which are as dense with action?” Troy wonders. “But this is where I want to shoot.”

There’s a strange mix of uncertainty and nostalgia percolating in photography in San Francisco right now. It’s something I wrote about at the start of the year and it’s a thought with which I close 2015.

Despite more and more photos being made everyday on smartphones, they are not being archived. Hell, they’re not even being made with conscious design. Troy Holden’s work and that of his street shooting peers will come to fill the visual gap left by demolished buildings and transformed blocks. These images here are a small piece of the deliberate analog capture of a city being transformed by digital advance.

Matt Weber’s photographs up and down 42nd Street in New York show us the importance of photographing urban change. Weber’s marquees, characters and strip clubs are all gone and so would they’re appreciation if it were not for his work.

Troy Holden’s stuff might fill a similar gap in 30 years time?

Your Best SF Street Photographer?

And to close, I’d like to ask you readers, ‘Who are your fave San Francisco street photographers?’

This is the season of goodwill so give your pal, your preferred image-maker(s) a shout out in the Responses section below. You can even drop in a .jpg of your fave image by she or he.

Merry Christmas, may 2016 be a good year for street shooting, public theater, big smiles, love, life and golden-hour light.

Peace.

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