A century past the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, California’s Bay Area still manages to harbor hidden gems. Deep within the heart of San Francisco, beyond the landmarks, big-chain establishments, and polished scenery, lies the Excelsior District. By outsider definition, Excelsior is just another blue-collar neighborhood bordered by Mission Street in the west, Interstate 280 in the north, Route 101 in the east, and part of John McLaren Park in the south. To photographer and reformed family man Travis Jensen, a self-proclaimed San Franciscan (it’s tatted all over him) who spent the latter of his teenage years in the streets nearby, it’s now an extension of home.
“I started taking photos in Excelsior about four years ago, and it started out being a project of exploration,” Jensen says, reflecting over the phone on the beginnings of his upcoming photo book, Forever Upward, which documents everyday life in Excelsior. “I always felt like that was the last real, true San Francisco neighborhood that was left…There’s nothing I love more than being out at Excelsior Park on a Sunday afternoon after shooting different parts of the city, and everybody just meets up there. It’s not planned; you never know what’s going to happen. It’s cool because everyone will be out there and have their kids. It’s a great environment, kind of like ‘La-di-da-di, we like to party, we’re not bothering anybody.’” For him, Excelsior was his “final frontier” for his photography within the San Fran landscape. “Why in the f--k do people go to these third world countries to take photos when there’s so many untold stories in your own backyard?” Using his camera as a “vehicle or beacon,” as he says, Jensen chose to tell this community’s story through photo.
In contrast to its streets named for foreign countries and luxe capital cities, Excelsior is an understated neighborhood of mom-and-pop businesses and generations of working-class residents that look out for the youth. “There’s no Starbucks; there’s no weird hipster stores here,” Jensen says. Instead, it’s a simplistic place built on respect. Oh, and fun, with locals that do monster donuts and attention-grabbing sideshow stunts in the street from time to time. “I was going out there by myself, just shooting and walking around, and I reached out to some of the locals like, ‘Hey, I’d really like to just hang out, check you guys’ scene out, and snap some photos,’” opting to take a respectful approach to his subjects. “It can be dangerous, it can be risky. There are a lot of things that can happen. You’re dealing with real people, photographing strangers in public.” According to Jensen, Excelsior’s reputation precedes itself in the city as an area that warrants caution. Although suspicious at first, the natives eventually warmed up to his presence, seeing his genuine intentions, and what began as day-to-day shooting of local happenings turned into so much more.
“These photos aren’t staged; it’s not like ‘Okay, we’re going to have a photo shoot out here today and you’re going to spin this Mustang.’ When it happens, it just happens, and you have to be ready with your camera,” he says. Always on a quest for memorable “baseball card shots,” as he calls them, Jensen approached his photography like skateboarding, using what he calls a “delicate dance” to capture standout moments. “It’s like approaching a jump on a handrail and 20 stairs; it’s the same thing.”
True to his style, Forever Upward, named after the meaning of “Excelsior,” is filled with about 120 images of the district’s raw truth through car stunts, neighborhood hangouts, and locals showcasing hometown pride. The lack of color washes away racial differences and neighborhood affiliations, Jensen says. Here, the people are one. “Regardless of what anybody says, San Francisco looks better in black and white than color.” According to Jensen, it’s a style influencing other artists in the entertainment business, too. “I knew we had something special with this Excelsior work when The Hundreds hit me up, and they were like ‘Hey, have you seen that new Kendrick Lamar video?’ It was flattering and then trippy at the same time,” drawing parallels to the high-contrast black and white and San Francisco street culture shown in Lamar’s “Alright” video. “I had people tell me ‘Dude, you were definitely on that mood board.’ Don’t get me wrong, I love that dude, his s--t is dope. That song is amazing and I respect that guy—I don’t know, maybe it was a coincidence. It’s all good, I’m not mad.” For him, seeing his work’s impact is a compliment. “I feel like my type of photography gets overlooked in this Instagram world a lot because I don’t shoot the go-to photos. I don’t dangle feet off of rooftops, or take pictures of girls dressed up smoking blunts.”
What he does do is capture rare moments from this journey of growth that speak volumes. “There’s a portrait of somebody standing in the street, and I think he’s holding a beer in his hand. He has a jacket on that says Excelsior Crocker Park, and you can see some hesitation in his face,” Jensen says. “He’s a good friend of mine now, but I remember when I took it, I was like, ‘Hey, let me get a portrait of you.’ And he was like ‘Uh, okay.’ It was probably the first time anyone’s ever asked to take his picture. There’s something really strong about that portrait to me.”
With this project, Jensen says he went beyond “easily digestible” photography to tell a story and present a meaningful body of work, comparing it to legendary hip-hop artists like Eric B. & Rakim and De La Soul’s approach to albums. It’s not just a book that means something to Jensen; it’s also his way of teaching the craft to others. “It’s kind of like free masonry for photography, minus all the weird rituals and s--t,” he says jokingly. In fact, while the book’s foreword was originally supposed to be written by Jensen’s now-close friend and dreadlocked photo subject Rasta Dave, who helped introduce him to the community, it will now feature Dave’s work as his introduction into the fine arts/photography world. “This project was absolutely fate. Maybe like a year ago, [he and Dave] were standing out on the corner of Excelsior and Mission, and he was like ‘You know, five years ago, you would’ve caught me out here with a pistol shoved in my pants. Now I’m out here with a camera.’ At that point, I was like ‘Wow.’ That’s how special this project and these relationships have become.”
“These guys are some of my best friends now,” Jensen says. “I deal with the same s--t; I’ve been through some of the same struggles,” referencing the class wars that currently exist within San Francisco and his younger years chasing girls, weed, and skateboards. Jensen feels San Francisco’s gentrification is also relevant to urban communities across the country facing the same changes. Since the project’s start, Jensen has unexpectedly formed familial relationships with Excelsior’s residents. He’s watched children mature, experienced the loss of some of the people he’s photographed, and inspired locals like Rasta Dave to pursue successful careers in photography. And while his photography initially served as a means of passage into the eclectic, yet self-policed community, strong in its defense against intruders, it has since evolved into preservation of their bond, now forever sealed in black and white. “It’s a pretty special place, how everybody looks out for each other. If somebody needs a hand, everybody steps up. I’ve made lifelong friends. The kids are getting older, and I captured their youth, from riding little BMX bikes to doing wheelies on dirtbikes, their baseball games, their birthdays—it’s crazy. These are my friends’ kids.”
Like Jensen’s images, the portrait of this community’s character has remained unchanged, even in the face of police interference and gentrification that forced Jensen out of his own San Francisco home. His work, often shot from close range, gives a voice to his subjects who have been silenced by insistent politicians. Using the Japanese aesthetic of “Wabi-sabi,” or beauty in imperfection, Jensen hopes that his work will shed light on Excelsior’s untouched essence past its appearance to help ensure its survival. He sums up the neighborhood in three words: family, brotherhood, and community.
Feeling the radius of gentrification closing in, though, Jensen is waiting for the right time to release the book as the last defense against reform. “I’m all for change, but the way this was handled is just sad. Everything that made San Francisco special is starting to disappear,” Jensen says. “This body of work, if anything, will stand as a document of time, from a historical standpoint—like this is how it used to be over here. This will always be home base for me.”
Video courtesy of Green Label