Local photographer Dallis Willard takes photos that capture the essence of San Francisco, working in a way that makes the quotidian come alive through the eccentric characters and situations he comes across traversing the city streets.
Growing up in the Midwest, Willard moved to San Francisco in 1999 at the height of the dot com boom. He’s lived all over the city–including a stint on Treasure Island. For the past decade he’s worked at the Presidio YMCA and currently heads an after school program for boys.
Willard has been taking candid photos of San Francisco and its diverse inhabitants since the early 2000s and draws inspiration from the lifestyle photography of the various different skateboarding publications he’s been reading since 1988. We recently sat down with him to talk.
Two photos introduced me to your photography. The first was a photo of a man on the ground inside a Muni bus in the foreground with a young woman in the background looking disturbed. Can you tell me what’s going on in that picture?
My girlfriend and I were coming back from downtown on MUNI and got on at Market St. I let her have an open seat in the back of the bus and I stood. In the back there was a man passed out and sleeping in the seat. So we went across town and I looked back and he had fallen out of his seat—and as I was looking back these two people they were getting off at the same time.
In another photo, there’s a man holding a gun that seems to be standing right outside a vehicle you are taking the photo from. Was your life in danger there?
I was hanging out with my friend Chris [in Kansas], who used to be in the military and drives an armored car, and I was taking pictures from the car of him [and his holstered gun which you can carry openly in Kansas] and then he just pulled it out.
From your Flickr, it seems like you have a lot of photos that capture graffiti throughout the city. Is there any specific reason or motivation for making that a theme?
I have always been into drawing and painting. As a kid I wanted to design skateboard graphics, I wanted to draw graffiti for zines.
When I started off taking photos of graffiti I was just using a point-and-shoot, but as I went on I tried to incorporate more of San Francisco into my photos and from that it turned into taking photos of people.
Is there a specific neighborhood that you like to shoot in more than others?
When I go to take photos of graffiti I go to the Mission and the Tenderloin. I love shooting in Chinatown because of the vivid colors and the liveliness of the neighborhood.
How do you approach a subject on the street who you want to take a portrait of? Do you have any issues with people that didn’t want to have their picture taken getting upset?
I have only had one person tell me no before. I prefer the candid moment like the guy on the bus or the mailman who just happened to be taking his break inside the mailbox. For the man with the Transformers tattoo, I saw him in the crosswalk and approached him and had a long conversation with him before I took his picture.
Some people have told me I have a pension for human suffering; I’m not into human suffering so much as I grew up in a place where you can be walking down the street and be called a punk skater [expletive] by someone driving to their friend’s house two blocks away. Here you can be screaming at the wind naked and no one bats an eye.
Have you showcased your work anywhere or are planning to in the future?
I took nine weeks off to do nothing but photography. I’m hoping to be featured in a gallery show by the end of the summer.
It seems like you take a lot of photos. How many shots does it take to get something right?
For the Lil Kim show I shot 675 photos and after I went to edit them I ended up sending my friend 7.
Do you take photos with the intention of trying to create narrative?
When I’m taking photos I think [to myself], would this be interesting to someone who has no connection with it? I try to find that angle and create enough of a narrative there so you can guess what’s going on but then you can take things out of context.
For more of Dallis’s work check out dalliswillard.com