Elska is a project centered on traveling around the world, meeting a selection of everyday local guys, and introducing their city and their lives to readers through honest photography and personal stories. Below, photographer Liam Campbell shares exclusively with GayCities a selection of photos and behind-the-scenes commentary about some of the beautiful men he met in San Francisco for the latest issue.
During my trip to San Francisco, I met and photographed fifteen local guys for my Elska Magazine project. The first subject was Art, and he gave me the perfect introduction to San Francisco life, which is having to walk up and down the steepest hills I’ve ever encountered in any cityscape. I had expected this somewhat, but not to the degree I experienced it with Art.
When we first met outside his apartment in Noe Valley, I asked if he had anywhere in particular he wanted to do some photos and he said, “Yes, I know a spot with a great view.” So we climbed until I saw an amazing vista of the city beyond, still a bit hazy from the morning fog. We stopped to take some photographs, and he led the way further up. ‘Oh, I guess this wasn’t the view he meant’, I thought, and I soldiered on until we saw an even more incredible view. We took some more shots, and then, after seeing me practically panting to catch my breath, he shook his head with a devious grin and said, “No, that wasn’t it, we still have higher to go.”
This pattern went on a total of five times before he finally led me back downhill and invited me home to take more photos there. Before I left he admitted that he chose to move to that neighborhood because of its close proximity to the Castro, San Francisco’s historic gay ‘hood, which he imagined he’d be walking to and from a few times a week. But it only looks close on a map, in real life he’s also tired of the hill-climbing required to walk there – he still goes, but now tends to take the bus instead!
Usually, when making Elska I feature ordinary guys who’ve never done any kind of photoshoot before, and this is something I love about my work. Watching people confront their vulnerabilities, grab hold of their confidence, and own their beauty – it’s amazing to see that revealed in the photographs I take. But occasionally I meet a guy who’s no stranger to showing off, and that can also be a pleasure.
I first discovered Tal when one of the other guys I met in San Francisco recommended him to me. “He does life modeling at a place near me,” he said, and so I knew he was certainly not too shy to do a photoshoot.
In our session, I let him lead. There was no shyness, no awkwardness, just him being open and his authentic self. Like when he put on a slightly transparent white leotard as we were shooting in front of the Painted Ladies. Or when he wore a mesh tie-dye tank top whilst standing on busy Van Ness Avenue, not flinching once when cars honked as they passed by. Or when he put on an oversized opalescent tutu and danced to the sound of the music playing in his own head. It was all pure magic.
There’s an old phrase referring to California as the “land of fruits and nuts”, meaning it’s full of gay people and crazy people. I imagined this phrase being attributed to Joan Rivers as uttered on some 80s late night talk show, though apparently this etymology goes way back, when most of California was covered in orchards and farmland.
In any case, if I had any expectations of my trip to San Francisco, I would meet a lot of gay people and a lot of, shall we say, eccentric people, or hipsters perhaps. The closest I came to finding that ‘fruit-and-nut’ archetype was Kramer.
We met outside Rockridge BART station in Oakland, grabbed a coffee, and then he took me in his old jeep (which was so old it almost could have been around during the Summer of Love) and drove me to a forest. I didn’t know why we were going there, just something about there being really tall trees that I had to see.
When we arrived, he grabbed a massive case out of the back seat and lugged it into the forest. I had no idea what it was, but then after finding a quiet, secluded spot with some nice speckles of golden-hour light, he revealed it to be a harp. He started playing it, serenading the birds, the occasional dog-walker, and me.
Another magical, and utterly weird, photoshoot. Which then got nuttier, and fruitier, when he took me back in the car and to another wooded area, this one which inexplicably had an old bathtub in it. Naturally, he got naked and climbed inside.
People often talk about San Francisco as one of the USA’s most beautiful cities, and it’s not something I can argue with. However, what I liked most about the city was its light. A lot of the guys I met here apologized for the “bad weather,” for the drizzle, the fog, the chilly breeze, and I forever had to tell them that, at least photographically, it was perfect. There’s nothing more flattering to portraiture than a soft, white light, and that’s what San Francisco gave me.
Perhaps the best lighting moment I had was when shooting Dawn. I laid him naked on the floor next to a massive floor-to-ceiling window and asked him to slowly and repeatedly let the bright ethereal rays illuminate his body by lifting the curtain.
I’d been to San Francisco before. The first time was in the early 2000s when I visited with my then-boyfriend, now-husband for Halloween in the Castro District. I’ll never forget marching Market Street along with throngs of revelers and witnessing two men f*cking in the open window above the Twin Peaks Tavern.
As much as San Francisco is famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, for its tech bros, for I don’t know, sourdough bread… the most special thing about San Francisco is its freeness, its willingness to be as wild and crazy as it wants to be without concern for being judged or looked down on.
Each of the men in Elska writes a story alongside their photoshoot, some tale from their life in the city. I was so glad that Jake chose to write his story about one of the city’s legendary festivals – not Halloween but today’s most magnificent party, the legendary Folsom Street Fair. Let’s just say that I could totally imagine Jake as one of the guys letting loose in a window above a bar.
My last photoshoot in San Francisco was with Jessie, but it nearly didn’t happen. After shooting fourteen men in just a handful of days (I had to make the trip especially short to save money) I just wanted to spend my last evening relaxing.
On the morning of my last day, I purposefully chose not to message Jessie to remind him about our meeting place and time, half-hoping he’d have forgotten about it. But he didn’t forget, and so I had to drag myself out of my bed, where I had been crashing for an hour after finishing the shoot with Jake, and find strength somehow. Fortunately, as soon as I met Jessie the power returned. His energy and good humor were too infectious not to absorb.
We did our shoot in Chinatown, one of San Francisco’s most iconic settings, which was established here in 1848. The very first Chinatown in North America. The shoot was so fun and so easy, but it was the indoor part of the session that followed which was the most fun. Almost too much fun. Things got a little carried away, let’s leave it at that.
The new San Francisco-dedicated issue ‘Elska San Francisco‘ is available in a limited edition print format as well as in an electronic version. A companion e-zine called ‘Elska Ekstra San Francisco‘ is also available containing hundreds of pages of bonus outtakes, behind-the-scenes tales, as well as four extra boys and extra stories.