Photographer Charity Vargas lives and works in the Presidio of San Francisco at a never-to-be-repeated time: the long moment of its transition from a historic army post into a new kind of national park. When the military folded their flag and left after two centuries of guarding the Golden Gate, the Presidio almost stopped breathing. It slipped into a kind of coma – though the trees and vines and grasses kept insistently encroaching on the now-silent batteries, sealed barracks, empty buildings and deserted roads.
Vargas came to live in the Presidio three years ago during this momentary pause in its long life. She started exploring the complex old post looking carefully and lovingly at its gentle sleep and slow but steady revival as a national park with a new civilian community living and working here. She has an eye for what it essential about the Presidio: the very American ordinariness of its military architecture and the strange “wildness” of its man-made forests. Many of her images put the two together in a new way, as a filigree of evocative shadows cast on the “screens” of plain white walls. They almost seem like photographs of photographs with the building walls the film on which the fugitive shadows are cast. Photography -- literally writing with light -- here becomes writing with shadows with the unseen light source behind us.
Another way that Vargas’ images are her own is her penchant for photographing buildings at night when light streams out of the buildings’ bright, revived interiors. There’s new life inside these resilient old walls, these pictures say. Vargas can make stark buildings glow like jack-o’-lanterns.
Other of her images have a cinematic quality even though they are completely still. Looking down her streets and across her lawns and into her overgrown forests you get the feeling that something is about to happen, but you don’t quite know what. It’s unusual for photography to convey such a sense of expectation.
Vargas prowls the Presidio looking for photographs. She likes the night because “everything drops away and things simplify.” Her aim is to make her Presidio photographs “look the way I feel about this place.” Often it’s something very small that makes her want to make a picture. Sometimes it takes her several attempts “to get it the way I want.”
Though Vargas’ photographs convey the classic look of black and white film, her technique is ultra contemporary. She first makes her images digitally in color and then converts them with software to look like black and white silver-nitrate film. She doesn’t manipulate her images in a darkroom but rather on a computer screen in a lit studio. It took her almost three years to perfect this technique that uses the latest technology to reach back to an older sensibility. As Vargas puts it, “I see in black and white. I like its depth and simplicity.”
Introduction copyright © 2008 by Randolph Delehanty, Ph. D.