When George Eastman produced the first commercially available camera, called the Brownie, in 1900, he hoped that photography would become accessible to everyone — providing people from all walks of life with an easy and fun method to document the world around them. In 1992, when photographer Tom Ferentz founded the Sixth Street Photography Workshop, his vision was as egalitarian, but with a specific focus — to bring photography and creative exploration to the residents of San Francisco’s hotels and shelters in the Sixth Street corridor.
Ferentz started the program in connection with TODCO, a SOMA housing/community development nonprofit organization. Today, housed in the somArts Cultural Center, the Sixth Street Photography Workshop serves the residents and residences of Sixth Street, SOMA and the Tenderloin, including homeless, transient residents and other people living below the poverty line. Many people living and working in these neighborhoods are involved in the program whether as photographers, subjects or audiences. Ferentz and program associate and darkroom manager Amanda Herman manage all aspects of this program, from teaching to fund-raising to organizing and hosting exhibitions and openings.
More than 300 photographers have gone through the program to date. Despite the many challenges that face its members, participation in the workshop is consistent. The flexibility of membership enables photographers to take just one class or to stay for months or even years to hone their craft in the weekly sessions. In addition to Ferentz’s and Herman’s facilitation of the program, a group of some 20 experienced photographers volunteer their time to teach participants the technical aspects of framing, composition and exposure and advanced printing techniques. With this focused attention, some Sixth Street photographers commit stridently, developing full series and otherwise investigating of their subjects or ideas.
Beyond the classes and the darkroom, the workshop offers its participating photographers different projects and opportunities to show their work in the community, including exhibitions and portrait events. Each year, exhibitions are held in some of San Francisco’s low-income and transient housing complexes in gallery-like settings — providing powerful works of art for the residents and offering unique and diverse perspectives on a world rarely shown, by artists embedded in its culture.
Spark follows a few of the photographers that are part of this program including Robert Farrell and Max Nolan.