Recent Acquisitions: New Photograms Speak to the History of Bayview-Hunter's Point

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds every other Friday.

Ron Moultrie Saunders moved to Bayview-Hunter's Point 28 years ago, but he had never been to the local library until the community began holding meetings about upcoming renovations. Just a few years later, he not only frequents the Bayview Branch Library, but his art hangs in two locations.

In 2009, the San Francisco Arts Commission asked artists to contribute submissions for consideration. Of the three who made it to the final round, Saunders was the only resident of San Francisco. When the SFAC formally commissioned his work for the library, he promised to deliver a series of photograms that spoke to the physical location of Bayview-Hunter's point.

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"This neighborhood became an important place because of the water and the shipyard," Saunders says. "I wanted to reflect something back about the community as well, and water is the most evident."

Photograms can be traced back to the 19th century, when images made in a darkroom without the use of a camera gained popularity. Saunders placed materials on the surface of photographic paper and then exposed it to light. To superimpose images, he layered the objects on the surface of the silver-based paper, and then made separate exposures of each element.

"This is an old technique, and I want people to know that you don't need a camera to do this," he explains. Ultimately, Saunders hopes to work with librarians on a course that would teach children the technique.

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For the artwork now on display in the courtyard, Spirit and Nature Dancing Together, Saunders reproduced photograms on porcelain enamel, which should protect the works from external elements. A row of four panels features a silhouette of a person in profile, gazing towards an outstretched hand. In the background, natural elements are identifiable -- salt crystals, wood shavings, and water.

In the children's Reading Area, Symbolic Relationships consists of five photograms. Images were digitally enlarged and reproduced on paper, mounted to aluminum, and placed behind plexiglass. "I wanted to reference back to the Native Americans who were here," Saunders says, describing one image in which a feather is superimposed with the outline of a head. Indeed, Native Americans were the first people of the Bay Area, and prioritized their natural surrounds.

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Saunders, who is a landscape architect in addition to artist, hopes that his works will inspire library visitors to look closely at the plant world around Bayview-Hunter's Point. Flowers in a vase, he points out, are very pretty, but if you look closely at the stems and petals, a pattern emerges. When you hold them up to the sky, veins and capillaries, which give the plant life, are suddenly visible.

"At first, it is always about investigating the hidden world," he says, "but it quickly becomes more than that."

Bayview Branch Library is at 5075 Third Street (at Revere), S.F. Hours vary.

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