San Francisco's topography granted early western settlers a ready-made form of illustrative mapping: standing on any number of hills, one could render a sizable portion of the city below, and thus easily convey its economic and residential growth. This tradition reached its apex in the late 1870s, when photographer Eadweard Muybridge made 360-degree panoramas from the top of Nob Hill. The marvel of these images rests not simply on the famous innovator's ability to assemble a mammoth, continuous view of the city – by this moment at least 50 such photographic views had been produced – but the technological–geographic alliance they represent. The city offered up both wealthy patrons and a physical terrain ripe for such proto-cinematic recording. The photographs, in turn, are both documents of civic boosterism and vivid descriptions of a continually expanding and rebuilding city. As David Harris argues, these two functions are inextricably linked: not only did Muybridge's Nob Hill perspective offer a totalizing, immersed urban view, the locale was also home to the opulent mansions of California's political and industrial tycoons, including railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins. Stanford was Muybridge's foremost patron: Stanford funded the photographer's foundational motion studies, and commissioned sweeping views of the city from his new home. Likewise, Muybridge's panoramas were made from a privileged point of access at the Hopkins residence.
Muybridge's photographs bring the viewer beyond everyday, embodied experience to a new form of technologically and culturally advantaged perspective. This first fully circumferential image of the city implies an all-seeing, mobile vision; even to absorb the entire set of prints requires physically traversing their large linear expanse, a process which amplifies the already dramatic hilltop view. This tradition finds its most notable legacy, not surprisingly, in many cinematic representations of San Francisco. If Muybridge's panoramas are the acme of a powerful photographic archetype, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) is the city's filmic equivalent. As the title indicates, acrophobia is the central motif; the film's spatial thematics are largely structured by the city's inclines. Repeated shots of Scottie, the protagonist played by Jimmy Stewart, descending over San Francisco's hills help establish Vertigo's journey of psychic decline. Numerous films follow suit in using San Francisco's swift, curving slopes as dramatic propellants: think Steve McQueen hurling through the streets in Bullitt's (1968) famed car chase or the rooftop shots of Clint Eastwood and his serial killer nemesis looming over the city in Dirty Harry (1971).
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Both later films, in fact, picture Potrero Hill. The neighbourhood is part of Bullitt's central car chase; the cinematography and stunt staging cannily utilize the visual trickery of repeated inclines, allowing the cars to bob in and out of sight throughout the pursuit. The hillcrests also render the vehicles airborne, creating rollercoaster-like views through the front windshield and generating the voyeuristic pleasure of mechanical buoyancy as part and parcel of death-defying stunt driving. If some of Bechtle's images of Potrero Hill bear an uncanny resemblance to still frames of Bullitt, as with the artist's 1994 watercolour Twentieth and Mississippi and an image of Frank Bullitt's Ford Mustang at Twentieth and Kansas – the sites are just several blocks apart – the parallel is ultimately deceiving. For nearly every film still of the cars framed by the pavement gradient is countered with a vertiginous view down the hill, or, in the case of the Twentieth and Kansas sequence, a shot which juxtaposes ascending and descending views through the pursued's rear view mirror.
This difference of up versus down is what separates virtually all of Bechtle's work from the vast majority of San Franciscan imagery. The artist avoids using the city's inclines as panoramic or privileged perspectives, instead constantly turning the viewer's attention toward the ascending slope. Consider, for instance, the works depicting Arkansas and Twentieth Streets discussed above. Those who have never visited the neighbourhood may be surprised to learn that the view in the opposite direction is a fairly spectacular slice of downtown San Francisco. It may seem disingenuous not to offer this birds' eye perspective of skyscraper development, but Bechtle steadfastly adheres to the residential. For the artist, works like these offer the challenge of grappling, as in the case of Twentieth Street VW (1990), with a supremely high horizon line and vast quantities of pavement. The formal task here is very much a modernist one: as Bechtle puts it, 'having a painting that's two thirds or three quarters blank space and the challenge of activating that space without painting every pebble'.
Bechtle's disinterest in the classically 'urban' aspects of San Francisco also has much to do with the artist's staunchly anti-touristic position. His sense of native vision precludes even familiar destinations from becoming frequent painting subjects: though he has owned a vacation home in Massachusetts for over 25 years, the artist comments that he still has not figured out how to paint the area without feeling like a tourist. Likewise, in San Francisco, he not only avoids recognizable panoramas, but also the city's numerous natural and architectural icons. The abundant pavement pictured in Twentieth Street VW and numerous other Potrero works again exude a Kevin Lynch-like focus on the perceptual experience of the local pedestrian or commuter. Concrete, of course, forms the pathways of daily life and connects the city to its suburbs; in a fluidly travelled (and thus traffic-clogged) metropolitan region like the Bay Area, one frequently feels enveloped by road surfaces. This humblest of materials is also particularly important in a hilly terrain like San Francisco, for here every view out over the ocean or a lower-lying neighbourhood is matched by a reciprocal view up a paved incline. Thus, to live in the city offers the great fortune of first-hand familiarity with Muybridge’s panoramas, but also an equal visual intimacy with the forms of common neighbourhood infrastructure.
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- Robert Bechtle, Twentieth Street VW, 1990.
- View from Twentieth and Arkansas Streets, Potrero Hill, San Francisco.
- Eadweard Muybridge, panorama of San Francisco from the California Street Hill, 1878.
- Robert Bechtle, Twentieth and Mississippi, 1994.
- Bullitt, directed by Peter Yates, 1968.
- Bullitt, directed by Peter Yates, 1968.