How much time do you give a street performer to capture your attention? And how much less time do you give them when you’re trudging through a BART station on your way to work? Local photographer Peter Taylor is taking his time to highlight the cast of characters that fills Bay Area transit stations through his website, BART Musicians.
Peter began his project so that he could photograph “old, haggard, gnarly faces” and practice his lighting techniques on subjects who would be standing in the same place for at least a few minutes. It is a challenge to take the sour, flat lighting of a BART station and make the performers look glamorous, as if they were on stage, and to work with the different settings and station backgrounds. The project also feeds into Peter’s own tendency toward “obsessive collectorism.” He has photographed 40 or 50 people so far and meets new people every time he goes out.
Over time Peter has become swept up in the stories of the musicians he has met. “The reasons people are down there are much more varied than I expected. I expected more of them to be homeless or have some other social problem.” Instead, while there are some people who are struggling with those issues, there are also working musicians who use the BART as a practice space, travelers who busk in San Francisco once or twice, and long-termers who play for years in the same spot.
Peter always gets permission from musicians before he takes any pictures. He always tips. And the musicians can do anything they want with the digital photos he posts on his blog.
There are, however, limitations to Peter’s project. He works fulltime and can only shoot on his days off. And even on those days, the morning rush hour is just a little too early. And because the musicians’ performances aren’t scheduled, he may miss out on certain people, like the famous punk rocker Johnny Cash of the 24th Street station. Finally, he’s restricted to the lighting and cameras that he can carry in his backpack.
Although Peter’s goal is to give something back to the performers, he worries that there is some element of exploitation built into what he’s doing. For example, he has photographed Melvin Marshal, a long-time performer at Civic Center, who screeches and scronches for hours each day on his two-string violin, seemingly unaware of the passing crowds and the meager tips. “I asked to take a photo, but it was basically in sign language. Does he get it?”
Peter himself is easygoing and respectful of the musicians, putting them at ease as he goes about his business without infringing too much on the performance.
On a recent weekday afternoon, I followed Peter on a BART musician expedition. First, we head to the Civic Center BART station, where Peter makes a sweep of the central areas, and then down the long hall that connects to the 8th Street station entrance. Peter explains that this is a preferred performance setting for long-termers and serious musicians-people who play in the same spot for two or three years.
But today we come across Steve and his dog Joesy, a duo Peter has never seen before. Steve is mild mannered, thin, dressed in Dockers and a button-down. Joesy is a German Shepherd mix, chubby with blond fur. Steve is packing up. Peter introduces himself, gives Steve a tip, and explains his project. Steve seems happy to have the attention, and says he’ll play a few more songs so that Peter can take some photos.
As Steve plays his originals-folksy songs about common ground and building bridges-Peter sets lights on the floor around him. Several passersby stop to listen or give money, including a tiny girl who stares open-mouthed at Joesy. A passing woman ducks below Peter’s sightline so that she can drop a dollar in Steve’s guitar case.
Peter explains that his presence sometimes creates a spectacle. “People wonder who this person is-are they so good that I should be paying attention, or are they so bad?” Similarly, a transfixed, cute kid also elicits extra attention from passersby. Still, Peter feels that the impact of his presence on a performer’s bottom line really varies. Some onlookers might not want to walk in front of the camera and therefore won’t drop a dollar that they otherwise would. For this reason, and because performers may get tired while playing in front of a camera, Peter tries to keep his sessions relatively short.
Steve and Joesy take off and we head to Powell Street, which Peter explains is the “circus” of BART stations. “People are not stopping to listen; it’s all tourists and teenyboppers.” As a result, the station draws a different set of musicians, some of whom are more transient or more performative. Out of this circus, Peter focuses on musicians who have an interesting look about them.
Peter spots a guitarist he has never seen before and goes through his routine for first-time contacts. We listen to the music a bit; Peter hands over a tip. He then introduces himself, gives the guitarist a business card, and explains his project. These first moments are crucial, Peter explains, “If I am nervous or stumbling over my words, the whole thing is shot.” Here, the guitarist, Jimmy T, laughs a little at the attention. “I’m just an old, scruffy hippie man,” he jokes as Peter sets up the lights.
Jimmy T lives on Eddy Street. He has long, wavy gray hair held back from his face by sunglasses. He is thin with wide cheekbones and slightly reddened eyes. I can imagine him waking up on this unusually hot San Francisco day, figuring that he can either play his guitar alone in his apartment, or in the BART station where he might make a few bucks to buy a beer.
“With these older guys with guitars, I try to make them look like Keith Richards,” Peter says. And although he starts off quietly, Jimmy T is quickly launches into “Paint It Black,” his voice building as he gets more into the song.
Some of the musicians Peter photographs are pretty marginalized people, but he hopes that a glamorous photograph of their performance legitimizes what they’re doing, and gives something back to the musician. Peter shows Jimmy T a few of his photos, and Jimmy seems pleased with what a rock star he is.
Peter’s efforts to give something back to the performers also influences his timing. He tries to post new photographs within one or two days of the shoot: “Jimmy T is not going to check the web after that. My business card will be on the floor, and I’ll just be some guy who showed up and took advantage of him.”
After Jimmy T finishes and takes off, we hear another musician start up on the other side of the station. This is Derek Schultz, guitarist for the local band Owl Paws. Peter has photographed Derek and his band before, and Derek invites Peter to their upcoming shows at the Hemlock Tavern and Bottom of the Hill. Derek is an example of the BART musician population that is not in it for the money; rather, he’s using the BART station as a public practice space and marketing opportunity.
Our last stop is in Berkeley, where Aerin Monroe is playing. This is the first time that Peter has scheduled shoot with a musician; Aerin had come across the BART Musicians blog and reached out to Peter.
We hear Aerin playing as we arrive in the station. He has set himself up at the base of the escalators, in front of a brick wall, and his Jeff Buckley-esque voice echoes up to the tall ceilings.
Aerin is sandwiched between two posters. Advertisements tend to distract the viewer, but Peter does not ask him to move. “I’m kind of against moving people, for documentary reasons. I don’t want to upset them. I mean, he was standing in that spot, playing that song.” Peter wants to glamorize the musicians, but he does not want the scene to be entirely staged.
And here it works out. By moving back, almost behind the escalators, Peter is able to capture a shot of a bystander approaching Aerin’s guitar case. The stagey lighting is juxtaposed against this ordinary event-a woman takes the time to notice Aerin as she rushes through her normal work day. The photograph also tells an interesting story: Aerin is a hugely talented and well known musician in San Francisco-a rock star-and he’s also playing in the Berkeley subway station. “I’m so glad that someone is noticing this guy,” a bystander says to me, “The first time I saw him he was playing Cee Lo, and he sounded just like him.”
Peter never records any audio from the performances, but he is trying to hook up Earl Gadsden, a keyboardist, with studio recording artists. “[Earl] needs to be recorded. I want to hear that recording,” Peter says. But for most performers, the exchange of a song for a photograph is the extent of it. “In an hour, 20 or 30 people will take bad photos of them on their iPhones, so to have something taken with good lighting and a quality camera, that in itself is rewarding.”