Street Cameraman

One man, one million photos taken on the streets of San Francisco.

Street Cameraman
One man, one million photos taken on the streets of San Francisco.

(This is an adapted excerpt from my San Francisco Story Annual 2023, which will be made available to Friends of Woody this Saturday.)

Woody relatives
Ethel and Carol Slinkey on Powell Street, circa 1948. (Photograph likely by Joseph Selle.)

My great-grandmother, Ethel (Neate) Slinkey and her first grandchild (my aunt), Carol Slinkey, are caught by photographer Joseph Selle headed down Powell Street just past O’Farrell Street. The woman, clutching what may be a bag of candy with her purse, is skeptical. The child, holding what looks like a toy rocket, is confused. Dressed well, as people were expected to do then to go downtown, they each have a small spray corsage pinned to their lapel, perhaps Christmas related.

The Hotel Herbert is still at 181 Powell Street. The entrance no longer has a canopy, but a vertical sign continues to hangs above the cable cars and the tourists. Once flashy bright neon, it now reads “Herbert” in a dull modern font.

Joseph Selle of Fox Movie Flash in Maiden Lane near Stockton Street, March 1966. (James A. Martin photograph / Tiffany Cabinet Slides, Courtesy of Donnie Weaver, SF

Joseph Selle standing in Maiden Lane waiting for his next victims. His red uniform cap with badge gives him an air of authority, although the gold lettering on it, “Fox Movie Flash,” doesn’t explain what his responsibilities encompass. For decades, Selle waited on blocks around Union Square and Market Street to photograph men, women, and children.

street photos
Two Fox Movie Flash shots in front of the Pix Theater on Market Street in November 1960. Take a look at one and see how long you end up clicking.

You’re on a date, maybe a first date. Or just exited a movie with an old friend. Or taking your grandchild to buy new shoes. Walking down the street, mid-step, maybe mid-conversation, you’re surprised when what looks to be a hotel doorman points an odd camera at you.

You’re given a numbered ticket and, for a fee and your address, told a souvenir photograph of this magic moment can be mailed to your home to remember forever. In an era when people didn’t have cameras in their pocket, or maybe not even in a closet at home, it’s a good racket and Selle did it from the 1930s to the 1970s.

street photos
Two Fox Movie Flash shots from a roll of Powell and Geary Street shots. Tens of thousands of images taken were never purchased.

His custom camera used 35mm movie film, which is why the prints look as if they were snipped out of a film noir thriller. Each roll had 1,000 exposures. Some thousand of these rolls were donated to the Rochester Visual Studies Workshop after Selle’s death: 1 million images of San Franciscans caught mid-stride.

Some of the one million Fox Movie Flash exposures.

They are not art. They are more engrossing, fascinating, and emotional than most art. If you had family here in the city in the mid 20th century there is likely at least one of Selle’s snaps in a shoebox. Grainy, blurry, maybe with a number on the side, here is a second of time travel and your ancestor in hat, gloves, or baggy suit looking surprised to see you blink in and out.

I love the night shots, when 6th and Market Street was the land of theaters and it seems everyone was out walking in 1954.
More 1954 pedestrians on Market Street.

Set aside an hour or two before you go to Andrew Eskind’s website dedicated to Joseph Selle’s work. Thousands of the one million exposures are scanned there and clicking through the diverse multitudes wearing hats, bow ties, furs, their hands in gloves, hands with packages, hands holding hands, is like standing on a corner in 1954, tides of the world washing over you.

Woody Beer and Coffee Fund

Frisco and Woody
Frisco and Woody, two old friends, in Simple Pleasures. He had an Italian soda!

Great thanks to Mike P. (F.O.W.) for single-handedly underwriting my birthday evening with Friends of Woody at the Plough and Stars. We finished second in trivia night because I mixed up Huntington Beach and Venice Beach. Hey, Southern California is not my thing and I apparently don’t listen to smarter teammates. Chip in, if you can, and let me know when you're free for me to buy you a beverage.

The Hole in our Hearts

Arnold Woods
Arnold, forever Friend of Woody

Two days later and everything spins. In a moment, without warning, we lost our good, good friend, Arnold Woods. With grief and shock, we waited there with him in the building for hours. And while I wanted to feel anger at the Medical Examiner’s “busy day,” in the end I feel honored and privileged to sit there with Beth and Nancy and Greg and have a long goodbye.

My friend, I hope in heaven every concert is by rock legends, that the Mets and Giants alternate winning the World Series each year, that you find a great pickleball partner until your friends here can join you, and that refrigerators are full of Coke Zeros.

Thanks for all you’ve done for us. You were always the one to count on and it’s hard to know what we do now.