Janet Delaney, Photographer, Author: Public Matters

We speak with photographer and author Janet Delaney for the opening of her show and launch of her book Public Matters.

Janet is a photographer and educator based in Berkeley, CA. She is currently focusing her attention on urban issues. Delaney has received three National Endowment for the Arts Grants and the Phelan Award. Her photographs are in collections such as the San Francisco Museum of Art, the de Young Museum, and the Pilara Foundation among others. Her work has been shown both nationally and internationally.

Public Matters brings together photographs made by Delaney in Reagan-era San Francisco. At this turbulent time in the mid eighties, she was living in the  Mission District. She would spend weekends photographing public gatherings, from the annual Cinco de Mayo parade, to the Peace, Jobs and Justice marches, which rallied against the U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. 

Order Public Matters book >

Find out about the exhibition at Equinom Gallery >

The gallery will have books to sell in November. There are a few copies at Alley Cat (support your local bookstore.) And they should be at SFMOMA, City Lights and Leica Gallery as well.

Click or tap on a photo to scroll through the gallery.


How did you arrive at your title: Public Matters?

It was literally from a quick brainstorm with Erin O’Toole at SFMOMA. I showed her the work and wondered what a good title would be. We tossed out a few variation and when she said Public Matters it totally clicked. This work is about public life and I feel strongly that public life matters.

What years do the photos span?


When did you move to the Mission? Where did you live? What was it like?

I moved to Folsom Street in 1981. I rented a small house with a full basement where i was able to install a full color and black and white darkroom. Folsom is a busy street, less so above Cesar Chavez where I was, but I did get to know my neighbors. On one side there were artists living in a storefront and on the other side there was a three unit apartment where a large family from Mexico lived. There was a great deal of focus on the Sandinista Revolution and the war in El Salvador. Many of my friends spent time in Central America doing coffee and cotton harvests, helping with the literacy campaigns and reporting for news agencies. Most of my social life was spent organizing around these efforts.

What were some favorite Mission hangouts in the 80s?

San Jose Taquera, Galeria de La Raza, shopping at the tiendas on 24th St.

Do you still attend protests? What are some differences?

I do still go to protests. They are not so different, perhaps there were more hand made signs and crazy outfits. I was usually one of the few people with a camera then, so I felt needed.

What are some parallels between then and now?

We have a clear goal now as we did then, and that helps to get people to speak out. During the 1980s Reagan era those of us on the left felt slammed by the onslaught of conservatism that followed the progressive movements of the 1960s and 70s. This is similar to now in that the left had some forward momentum under Obama, but much of that ground has been lost under Trump.

Your photos show a great deal of intimacy. How do you engage with your subjects?

Two things come to mind. The twin lens Rollieflex that makes square images is very quiet and unobtrusive. I made the 35mm photos during crowded street events which allowed me to get close to people who were generally in a festive mood. I am gentle in my approach. Quick to spot a good moment, but not pushy. I am not afraid and I really do love people so perhaps that comes across.

In your book South of Market, you were a “witness to the destruction of a working class neighborhood.” Are you continuing this work?

Yes, I am following up on that project by photographing SoMa Now. It is tough because I am not directly connected to the neighborhood now, but I feel roots there. I have been returning to photograph the way the district has been transformed which includes photographing not just the buildings but also the people and the daily life of work and relaxation.

Can you speak more to the issues raised in your projects?

I think we need to call for policies that focus on highly skilled job training for local residents so that those who already live here can have a stake in the future of the city. Housing without employment certainly won’t answer the problem of keeping diversity in the city. Also having a “continuing education program” that inspires those new to the city to embrace and support the cultures that exists here would help to lessen the “them and us” sensibility we often find now with so many newcomers. But everyone already knows this. And many people are working toward these ends every day.

Without economic diversity we really create a ghetto of wealth where the serving class commutes long distances from the outer fringes of the Bay Area. It has been many years since police and firefighters could afford to live in San Francisco. In 2011 only 25% of police officers lived in the city. Less than 1% of school teachers can afford a house in San Francisco in 2018.

Economic diversity is a core element in creating dynamic cities. Artists, teachers, service workers all need to be integrated into the life of a healthy city.

What’s it like photographing in an era when everyone has a camera?

I can only say everyone has a pencil. How many people actually write?

Are you still shooting in the Mission?

No, not with any particular focus, just occasionally when the impulse overwhelms me.

Who are some of your influences?

I studied the photographers who worked during the 1930’s Great Depression, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. I think they both did and still do influence my work.

Do you have any advice for young photographers coming up now?

Having something to say really helps to make your work come together. Many people love to take photos, it is as if you own a moment in time. The challenge is to lace those moments together into a coherent whole.

What’s next?

After the book Public Matters gets fully launched I want to get back to photographing more in SoMa and see if I can’t bring that project to completion.