I was a bit surprised when my accountant, Jerry Newman, emailed at Christmastime to invite me and my husband on a personally-guided walk through the Presidio. I’d only been in his Geary Street office a few times, where I’d admired the photographs on his walls – brilliantly colored southwestern vistas, bleak and grungy portals into forgotten San Francisco, and a small but captivating view of Crissy Field.
“I took that with an iPhone 3,” he said modestly.
Jerry knew I was writing a novel set on the Presidio. He’s been walking these trails for decades. Hoping he’d share some history with me, I went along.
He led us on a two-hour ramble along the Crissy Field shoreline to the Letterman Center and back to the main post. Along the way I discovered that his knowledge of the place is just as informed by a supernatural photographer’s eye as by his army days here, and by the rich and marvelous and inexplicable love of place that can mature in the course of forty years.
His first stint here as an army lieutenant and programmer was in 1968, after the Summer of Love. One of the rare men who’d actually volunteered for a tour in Vietnam, he’d been influenced by novels to take control of his life. (“Never read Ayn Rand before a big decision,” he warns.) But the complex routines of the quartermaster corps -- where he was responsible for shipping barbed wire, bulldozers, food and clothing, all the materielle of wartime, to half a million soldiers around the world – soon gave way to a more subtle, singular determination to capture landscapes on film.
His father, an artist who’d spent his life studying the Europeans masters, managed to raise four kids only by becoming an artisan -- painting backdrops for Disney and doing gold leaf lettering for jewelry store windows. He was disgusted by his son’s choices. “What a rotten subject,” he said of Jerry’s first photos of the Presidio’s National Cemetery. Death was not a subject for high art.
But Jerry persisted. In 1970, he began his career in earnest, opening a small studio and dark room in Berkeley, where he taught himself to see things by studying other people’s work. A few years later he shut it down. He’d been living on three dollars a day and sleeping in the store’s back room. To save his sinking passion for photography, he realized, he would have to unhook it from financial concerns.
Since then, his work has become deeply personal, and driven by the kind of discipline that typically doesn’t last for four decades. “I used to go out every Saturday and shoot four rolls of photographs,” he says. “That’s 48 photos. Four rolls, no matter what. If you think about it, that’s two to three thousand pictures a year. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. At least 50,000 photographs. And I’ve come up with 500 that I think are publishable.”
His website reveals a passion for portraiture, but it’s an expansive love of western landscapes, and the Presidio in particular, that he comes back to again and again. The tiny, beloved photo in his office shows his favorite spot in the world: the copse of trees on Crissy Field beach, where benches face the water and the majestic bridge. It’s a place of contemplation, “where you’re as far away from everything as you can possibly be and not get wet.” When I press him to explain what he really loves about the place, he taps into the darker, greater impulse of the Golden Gate. Very quietly, he confesses, “It’s where I want to die.”
Taking Down Joan Baez
Native landscapes exist in our imagination as being somehow more organic, purer and healthier – maybe even more sacred -- than the landscapes that were constructed deliberately by the US Army. Jerry, my husband and I continue our walking tours, and over the next year, I begin to appreciate how these dueling ideals are shaping the modern Presidio.
Recently, coming down the Lyon Street stairs while following the Presidio’s eastern wall, my husband remarked: “This whole place is a little bit magical.”
“A little bit?” Jerry replied. “You haven’t done enough acid here.”
Along the neatness of the wall, the forest’s tangled undergrowth has obliterated a foot trail, making it impossible to walk beside the wall itself. Even the army’s neatly-planted eucalyptus soldiers now stretch and sway with arrhythmia. Joggers busy the stairs, swarming around us like birds darting for breadcrumbs.
Getting closer to the Lombard gate, we begin discussing ways that people shape and control things, and Jerry brings us to 1969. That year, the Sixth US Army commander proposed setting an ambush for a group of protestors who were planning a peace march through the Presidio. The general decided he would let the head of the parade onto the post. Then they’d put up a blockade, locking out the bulk of the protestors. This would allow them to capture, beat up and incarcerate the lead protestor, Joan Baez. Surprisingly, it was the Presidio’s Provost Marshall who nixed the plan, reminding the general that beating the hell out of Joan Baez would be an abridgment of her civil rights. The protest went ahead.
How does a soldier in his neat uniform coexist within the psychedelic synchromysticism of San Francisco? We Presidio residents are the inheritors of this delicious conflict, only today we ask: how can the chaotic, free-roaming sprawl of nature coexist within structures that value linear restraint? Isn’t cutting down the eucalyptus a bit like planning to take down Joan Baez? We get rid of what we don’t like. We are still controlling every corner of our world.
There’s a controlling, deliberate side to photography as well – the side that waits for days or weeks for the right moment, the right angle, the perfect light. The side that takes 40 years to produce a couple hundred good shots. Yet while he works, Jerry loses track of himself, entering a blissful, jhana state of no-mind. You reach a point, he says, where you don’t even need a camera. “I just need my eyes. Then I click – and shut off my mind.”
He thought of the Presidio for many years as simply “a place you go to when you want to go to a place.” It was only in 2005 while driving along Kobbe one foggy afternoon, that he was inexplicably struck by the beauty of a stand of trees. For two months he took photographs there, returning to the site with an ever greater sense of intimacy, before arriving there one day to discover that all the trees had been torn down by a Trust eager to plant a native forest there.
So much of western landscape photography is designed to show us a romantic world of innate stillness and beauty, unbroken by toxic waste dumps, prisons, mining facilities, and gaudy, tourist-trashed scenes -- the battlefields of development. But landscape photography has a powerful mythos, one that has shaped our park system. Carleton Watkins’ photographs convinced Congress to create the first national park, Yosemite. Like those who practice habitat restoration, a photographer is busy shaping his world, busy creating a dream of what we haven’t lost, but may lose any day.
“The Presidio,” says Jerry, “was always a dusty place full of marching people. Now it’s becoming a monument to the aesthetic of San Francisco.”
Jerry’s photos capture some of the mythos of the Presidio. Many of them are available for purchase on his website. Inspired by Jerry and by people like him who love this place, every once in a while I’ll take a historic and photographic walk through one of the Presidio’s many landscapes, where we’ll peek into overlooked bits of the history, habitat and happenings of the place.