Photographs on Valencia St.
Photographs on Valencia St. Photo by Christina MacIntosh. Taken Jan. 24, 2023.

The building at the northeast corner of 17th and Valencia Streets used to display vintage sofas and chairs through its large, wraparound windows. Now, the furniture vendor that once occupied the ground level has moved upstairs, and the boarded-up windows function as a new kind of showroom: It displays photographs of homeless residents from around the city, taken by Joseph Johnston, a photographer, Mayan art collector and longtime Mission resident.

Three of the four black-and-white images are on the Valencia side of the building, including a close-up of Gus and Jackie in their tent, Penny dancing, and Joey with a stroller full of sleeping bags, giving a peace sign. Around the corner, on 17th, a photo shows four friends squatting with a dog.

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Though not nearly as large, the photographs are reminiscent of the work of JR, a french photograffeur (photographer + graffiti artist) who puts up photographs of ordinary people in public spaces and calls the streets “the largest gallery in the world.” 

Johnston has also found that the streets offer the most accessible raw material for an artistic practice that began late in his life. “I was too old to go to Africa or Asia to do a project,” he said, describing what it was like to finish a 12-week City College photography course at the age of 65. “But I walk a block from my house and there’s an encampment of homeless people there.”

Johnston had previously shared his work through photo essays, but only began displaying them around the city at the end of 2021, after being encouraged by a close friend and geometric sculptor, Bob Burnside. The sculptor also provided logistical assistance, finding a place to print the photographs. It costs $10 for a poster “36 inches by however long a photo is,” said Johnston.

The two then post on Sunday mornings. They first put up photographs on a closed Bank of America in the Castro back in October, took a break in December and during the rain, and picked up again this past Sunday, putting up the four images on the corner of 17th and Valencia Streets.

Johnston has now been photographing unhoused people for five years, practicing photography for 12, living in the Mission for 46, and living in San Francisco for 53. He has a goal of photographing at least one homeless resident every day, and takes photographs of people all over the city, but his ties are strongest to the unhoused community in the Mission.

Before photographing anyone, he talks to them for “quite a while.” “I won’t photograph sleeping homeless people,” he says, though he admits that he used to. The goal of Johnston’s work is “to get people to realize that these are human beings, too, equally as interesting and as valuable as the rest of us, though much more unlucky than most of us.” When he sees people on the street, he usually stops to talk.

The interactions have changed the way he views homeless residents. Before, he would avoid residents like Carlos “Charlie” Morales, who used to walk around the Mission with a shopping cart, filled with a “rug and everything,” and a fold-up chair. Johnston saw him everyday, but never spoke to him. “When I finally talked to him, I was ashamed,” Johnston said. He still sees Charlie, who now lives in a tent across the street from the Atlas Cafe.

Although Johnston says that his photography practice has led to a “significant change in [his] attitude,” he gives both the unhoused people and the city some credit: “San Francisco feels friendlier than it used to.”

When I visited the images at 17th and Valencia, the night after they were posted, the photo of Joey had been graffitied; the black and white image now red all over. Beneath the photo of Gus and Jackie, a man sitting with his back against the wall crafts a pipe out of tin foil. When I return the next morning, only a pile of foil scraps remains.

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Christina A. MacintoshReporting Intern

Christina grew up in Brooklyn and moved to the Bay in 2018. She studied Creative Writing and Earth Systems at Stanford.

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  1. I was surprised by the fine photographic quality that these cheap prints show. I’m thinking especially of the one showing hands where the Wells Fargo ATMs used to be on Market next to Super Duper.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed the photos Joseph posted in the Castro and am excited to see new ones on Valencia. Thank you for humanizing our neighbors! Please keep it up—this type of work is crucial, and the public street is a most apt gallery.

  3. One reason I like visiting Mission Loc@l are the photos and the occasional chance to share some.
    Nowadays with cell phones and now the growth of AI, images are more ubiquitous than ever: too often trivial or trivialized. What can the serious artist do to make people pause and think?
    I really admire these photographers and their “guerrilla galleries.” I see other excellent work on San Francisco walls that also put me on pause: photos by Troy Holden, and the inimitable Michael Jang.
    I admire Mr. Johnston’s approach to photographing the homeless. They could of course be somebody’s parents, children, grandchildren, brothers, or sisters… or even ourselves.

  4. Since when Graffiti, Street Art or Murals & alike are “Street Photography” ? is ANYTHING shot on the streets, street photography? anything that you can take again an hour later or the next day, or on a tripod? I guess , for Cultural reasons, the meaning of Street Photography has canned. Perhaps this is Urban or City Photography?

  5. Joseph’s work is so beautiful, as are his connections with people in the Mission. Thank you for this story.

  6. Thank you for sharing these inspirational and meaningful stories. These are real people stories. These kind of raw visuals and narratives need to be captured in all of our cities throughout our colonized Amerika. These cities full of wealthy people need to take a good look at the unfolding of this injustice. These are the people who need to be embraced, engaged, and welcomed into the “Think Tanks” of cities across Amerika. Bravo to all you writers and visual and verbal storytellers. – Patricia Pena, Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas/1st Gen Mexican in USA