SF artist Irene Poon's photographs capture small, beautiful moments in Chinatown and elsewhere

SF artist Irene Poon’s photographs capture small, beautiful moments in Chinatown and elsewhere | Pro Club Bd

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

Taking a friendly rather than voyeuristic approach to street photography, San Francisco photographer Irene Poon invites viewers to remember that most 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 is presenting a solo exhibition of Poon’s work from 1962 to 2015. If you normally only visit the great local museums, this is the perfect time to reconsider . Poon’s work has previously been shown at the de Young Museum, the Crocker Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Seeing her photos in the state of San Francisco, where she worked for 45 years, is like seeing Robin Williams perform at a local comedy club.

Alongside Poon’s images, Fine Arts Gallery director Sharon Bliss and curator Kevin B. Chen decided to include selections from their personal collection. Among the 80 objects on display are images by celebrated photographers Ansel Adams, Robert Bechtle, Benjamen Chinn, Imogen Cunningham, Miné Okubo, Walker Evans, Minor White and Charles Wong – many of them friends of Poon’s, testifying to their deep connection to the artistic community .

In 2016, Poon told The Chronicle, “You can never really leave home.” And she hasn’t. Born in Chinatown in 1941 to Guangzhou immigrants, Poon stayed in San Francisco, earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1964 and her Master of Arts degree in 1967 from what was then San Francisco State College. After graduating, while working as a visual resource librarian at San Francisco State, Poon worked as an activist and curator, organizing exhibitions and publishing seminal books on Asian American art history.

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

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

With the sharpness and warmth that only film photography can produce, Poon’s images of Chinatown from the 1960s and 1970s depict a world lost over time, the dissolution of segregation and assimilation.

In “Portsmouth Square” from 1968, a young girl sits on a bench with her grandmother. The sharp metal rungs of the mundane sidewalk grate behind them insist on his tangible presence and thus that of the two subjects – so much so that you can’t help but feel the fullness of their lives. Your personality is never in question. That feels important in 2022 as we face another cycle of anti-Asian racism.

The back of a chair blocks a corner of the 1965 picture entitled Memories of the Universal Cafe. The people gathered around the table are randomly arranged. Poon doesn’t bother to privilege the viewer; her camera perspective is that of the passer-by, the community member. We see the guests and their bowls of rice as if we were casually walking between the tables ourselves.

In Memories of the Universal Cafe, the viewer sees the patrons and their rice bowls as if they were casually walking through the tables themselves. Photo: Irene Poon

Poon’s use of the camera as an integrated part of the community distinguishes her work from Walker Evans’ pitying gaze while photographing the destitute of the Great Depression, or Diane Arbus’ fixation on marginalized people, whom she called “freaks”. Instead, Poon’s camera poses as a friendly neighbor, something reflected in the little boy’s face who returns her gaze through a window in 2015’s ‘Breaking Out.’

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

“They are very generous pictures. There is no judgment in them,” Bliss added. “Poon’s openness invites a seemingly endless number of fleeting, precious moments of public intimacy—the kind that we reticent mortals encounter only occasionally.

“She found life really interesting.”

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

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

Artist Irene Poon in her home.

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

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

“Moving Images: The Photography of Irene Poon, 1960s to the Present”: 12pm-4pm Tuesday-Friday. Until July 29th. For 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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