Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Rendezvous With San Francisco's Loveliest Ladies

"I have to shoot the Golden Gate Bridge today! I'm leaving soon and I might not have another chance. Right?"

I was talking to Stephen Lee, my San Francisco assistant and protegee, as we drove into the city. I had four dancers headed towards the bridge. We were ready to attempt an iconic Dancers Among Us image, but I had an uneasy feeling that it was the wrong decision. It was certainly the obvious choice, but at the last minute I called an audible.

"Let's go to the Painted Ladies instead."

I have no idea why I did that, but I've learned to trust my instincts. I had heard of the Painted Ladies, but I knew nothing about them. Somehow I was being pulled there. Perhaps the photography gods were sending me a message.

As Stephen drove, I Googled "Painted Ladies": "A row of Victorian houses at 710–720 Steiner Street, across from Alamo Square Park, in San Francisco. It is sometimes known as 'Postcard Row'... The most famous row of houses in San Francisco."

We arrived as the sun broke through the clouds. I saw the tourists before I saw the Ladies.

Behind the scenes photos by Samantha Siegel

As I looked through my camera, I understood the appeal. A row of brightly painted antique Victorians framed by the modern San Francisco skyline. There was definitely potential here. But what would the dancer be doing? Kaitlin Ebert arrived in a pink dress, excited and ready to jump! All I needed was a scenario.

Alamo Square provided the answer. A man was playing fetch with his dog, and he was using one of those cool tennis ball throwing devices. He introduced himself as George and agreed to lend me both the thrower and the dog. Kaitlin jumped high in the air, looking as joyful as possible.

She nailed it! So did the dog. And so did the weather (blue skies can be an uncommon sight in San Francisco). I got my Painted Ladies shot. I guess that's what the photography gods had in mind.

Or maybe not.

As we were leaving, George casually mentioned that he lives in the blue Painted Lady. I stopped in my tracks.

"Can we take a photo at your home?" I asked apprehensively.


Access to one of the city's most famous houses should not be approached casually. We all scoped out the facade, looking for the perfect shot.

"Can she pose on that top balcony?" I asked George. Once I assured him he wouldn't be liable if she injured herself, he was happy to accommodate us.

But what could she be doing? Why is she up there?

"What if I'm kicking my boyfriend out of the house and throwing his clothes at him?" Kaitlin suggested.

Amazing idea. Just perfect.

I turned to dancer Brendan Barthel. "You can do a nice back bend, right?"

"Beautiful! Here's the idea- the clothes are about to hit your face, and you're bracing for impact. Of course, you have to be naked as well." He stripped down to his underwear and socks, and gave the tourists a nice show.

Kaitlin threw on a slip, grabbed a bunch of clothes and headed upstairs. It turned out to be a very difficult shot to get. Initially I had the wrong angle.

When I moved my position the shot looked better, but the clothes kept falling too far apart.

It was also missing an element of humor- something to bring it all together. Someone should be in the window, filling that empty space. But who would be there? Another woman maybe? Too obvious. A child? No, that's not funny at all. Or...

"George, can we borrow your dog again? Can you get him to look out the window?"

Unbelievable. Now if only he would look over at Brendan, just when the clothes are in mid-flight, while both dancers are hitting their poses perfectly and Brendan has a funny expression on his face.

We kept trying. The dog was getting antsy, and he kept disappearing behind the curtain. Then he poked his head out and looked right at Brendan. I screamed, "NOW!" I took four photos and he disappeared for good. We were done.

I looked at the photos, holding my breath...

I screamed in joy and ran around in circles! George and I celebrated together.

Thank you photography gods. I'll never doubt you.

Postscript- If you haven't already, you HAVE TO click the final Dancers Among Us photo to see it larger. Check out Brendan and Kaitlin's fantastic acting- Broadway is waiting! And thank you to everyone behind the scenes for making the shot possible- photographer Samantha Siegel (pictured on the sidewalk), assistant Stephen Lee, the irreplaceable Dudley Flores, and George, of course.