Personalities

Dennis Hearne’s San Francisco

By Frank Holland

Jay, Sam and Wu of Yuet Lee Restaurant. (Dennis Hearne)

Love: Following weeks of anxiety and lockdown fever, longtime San Francisco photographer Dennis Hearne takes to the streets to capture the faces of a burgeoning new normal

About 10 years ago, as the Great Recession clenched its grip around the City, Dennis Hearne began a photography project to document what he calls the “disappearing part of San Francisco.” In many ways, it was an extension of the work he began when he moved to the City in 1965.

“I moved to North Beach from Italy because I wanted to be around the Italians. I had never been there, but it looked like Italy from the pictures. I stumbled into a city of enormous change.”

A New Hampshire native and an army brat, Hearne spent his teenage years in Livorno, Italy, before moving to a city on the brink of massive cultural upheaval. He quickly enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute and embarked upon a career in photography animated by a deep ambition to capture the essence of his subjects. “It’s a kind of social anthropology,” he says. “It’s how people interact together.”

Dennis Hearne. (Iris Lei)

With the City so abruptly pulled apart by the coronavirus pandemic, Hearne took to the streets as he has so many times before looking for something resonant in our new, socially-distant reality. Unlike just a few short months ago, Hearne’s favorite haunts — small music venues, dive bars, dance halls — have all gone silent.

“I’ve always liked to shoot the nightlife of San Francisco,” says Hearne. “The heartbeat of the City, the smaller places that are being lost. It’s an interesting world.” He pauses for a second, muses about the effect of the pandemic on the local music scene before noting, “How can you go to a bar to hear music when you can’t be near people?”

Hearne himself is a distinctive character that exudes a sense of boho cool in his ever-present pork pie hat and closely cropped goatee. After more than 55 years in San Francisco, he has become as much a fixture of the City as Coit Tower. “What’s nice about being out in the neighborhoods is that when you get on a bus and you’re walking down the street, even if you’ve got a mask on, within a few blocks you’ve got four people who say hello who know you. It’s the amount of time you’ve been in the neighborhood, or your particular slouch.”

Humble and easygoing, Hearne boasts an impressive artistic pedigree. After earning his BFA and MFA from the Art Institute, his work has been exhibited everywhere from MOMA in New York City to London’s Southbank Centre, among countless other galleries. He quietly acknowledges his friendship with Annie Liebowitz, a former classmate at the Art Institute for whom he used to handle black and white prints during her early days in New York. “It’s been a little while since I’ve talked to her,” he says. “She’s really busy.”

With the coronavirus threatening to accelerate the destruction of so many parts of the City that were already hanging by a thread, Hearne sought to capture what he always has: the interplay between people. “I’m looking for signs of life in the springtime,” he says.

“Basically, this is an ode to the people that are trying to make the City happen again.”

Huina and her son Andy on Grant Avenue. (Dennis Hearne)
Ben Ramirez’s “Free Coffee.” (Dennis Hearne)
Nicholas Mastrelli of Molinari Deli. (Dennis Hearne)
Christian Jung of Al’s Attire. (Dennis Hearne)
Frank Balistreri of Portofino. (Dennis Hearne)
Fanny Renior, a bon vivant at Caffe Trieste. (Dennis Hearne)
Kristin Wojkowski at Golden Gate Park. (Dennis Hearne)
Castro Theatre. (Dennis Hearne)
Stockton Street Market. (Dennis Hearne)
Luciano Repetto of Graffeo Coffee. (Dennis Hearne)
Mac Leibert of Pier 23. (Dennis Hearne)
Amy Blumenthal of Sweetie’s. (Dennis Hearne)
A.J. of Ice Cream Bar. (Dennis Hearne)

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