SF Artist Irene Poon’s Photographs Capture Small, Beautiful Moments in Chinatown and Beyond

“Virginia” by San Francisco photographer Irene Poon. Poon’s work will be on display at San Francisco State University’s Fine Arts Gallery through July. Photo: Irene Poon

With an approach to street photography that’s more friendly than voyeuristic, San Francisco photographer Irene Poon invites viewers to remember that the majority of life is made up of small, inconsequential but beautiful moments.

For the month of July, the Fine Arts Gallery at San Francisco State University presents a solo exhibition of Poon’s work dating from 1962 to 2015. If you usually only visit major local museums, now is a great time to reconsider. Poon’s work has previously been exhibited at the de Young Museum, the Crocker Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Seeing her photographs in upstate San Francisco, where she worked for 45 years, is a bit like seeing Robin Williams perform at a local comedy club.

In addition to Poon’s images, Fine Arts Gallery director Sharon Bliss and curator Kevin B. Chen decided to include selections from her personal collection. Among the 80 exhibits are images by famous photographers Ansel Adams, Robert Bechtle, Benjamin Chinn, Imogen Cunningham, Miné Okubo, Walker Evans, Minor White and Charles Wong – many of whom are friends of Poon, attesting to his deep ties to the artistic community. .

In 2016, Poon told The Chronicle, “You can never really leave your home.” And she didn’t. Born in Chinatown in 1941 to immigrants from Guangzhou, Poon remained in San Francisco, earning her Bachelor of Arts in 1964 and Master of Arts in 1967 from what was then San Francisco State College. After graduating, while employed as a San Francisco State Visual Resources Librarian, Poon worked as an activist and curator, organizing exhibitions and publishing groundbreaking books on American art history. of Asian descent.

At 81, she and her partner, 99-year-old photographer Charles Wong, still live in San Francisco.

“Prisoner of Color” by Irene Poon. Poon has lived in San Francisco all of her life. Photo: Irene Poon

With the sharpness of detail and warmth that only film photography can produce, Poon’s images of 1960s and 1970s Chinatown present a world lost with the passage of time, the loosening of segregation and assimilation.

In “Portsmouth Square” from 1968, a young girl sits with her grandmother on a bench. The neat metal rungs of the unremarkable sidewalk grating behind them insist on his palpable presence and, by extension, that of the two subjects – so much so that one cannot help but feel the fullness of their life. Their personality is unmistakable. This seems important in 2022 as we face another round of anti-Asian racism.

The back of a chair blocks a corner of the 1965 image titled “Memories of the Universal Cafe”. The people gathered around the table are arranged at random. Poon doesn’t bother to favor the viewer; the point of view of his camera is that of the passerby, of the member of the community. We see the diners and their bowls of rice as if we were casually browsing the tables ourselves.

In “Memories of the Universal Cafe”, the viewer sees the diners and their bowls of rice as if casually crossing the tables themselves. Photo: Irene Poon

Poon’s use of the camera as an integral part of the community differentiates his work from the compassionate gaze of Walker Evans when photographing the destitute of the Great Depression, or Diane Arbus’ fixation on marginalized people who she called ‘monsters’. Instead, Poon’s camera comes across as a friendly neighbor, something you can see reflected in the little boy’s face staring back through a window in 2015’s “Breaking Out.”

“That’s exactly what you would see,” Chen said of Poon’s work. “There is a feeling of intimacy; there is a sense of non-voyeurism.

“These are very generous images. There is no judgment in them,” Bliss added. “Poon’s overture invites a seemingly endless number of fleeting, precious moments of public intimacy – the kind we most aloof mortals only occasionally encounter.

“She thought life was really interesting.”

Luckily for us, Poon decided to share the daily magic with us. Finding bi-Chinese discs hanging from a white-painted garden trellis in an ordinary suburban yard in 1982’s “Brigham City, Utah, detail” feels like a friend whispering a secret of togetherness.

If you haven’t heard of Irene Poon but admire Ansel Adams, it’s time to see her work.

Artist Irene Poon at her home. Photo: Lenore Chinn

“The work is amazing and she’s in these different collections…she had all this success early in her career,” Bliss said. “So what about how works are valued, studied, or taught that certain people — often women, often people of color — don’t fit into the canon?”

It’s time we had a more human and inclusive history of street photography.

“Moving Pictures: The Photography of Irene Poon, 1960s to Today”: Noon-4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. Until July 29. Free. Advanced ticket required. Fine Arts Gallery Room 238, Fine Arts Building, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Ave., SF 415-338-6535. https://gallery.sfsu.edu


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