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The Hills of San Francisco Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

28 June 2018

For a long time we've wrestled with the problem of capturing a convincing image of the hills of San Francisco. They're steep. But with merely two dimensions, it's impossible for a photograph to convey that.

San Francisco Hill. Two dimensions is barely enough to convey how steep this hill is.

We measure the steepness of any hill on a personal scale, having biked up many of them over the years. We consider a few of them personal enemies armed with intimately psychological weapons (well, that steepness) designed to defeat what we consider our most impregnable defenses.

This one, just short of the Arguello Gate at the Presidio, is one of them.

It's just one short city block long (San Francisco city blocks are either short or long) but there isn't a pair of gears forged on the planet that can handle it in stride.

Easy for us to say. But it's hard to convey that in a photograph.

Shot straight on, it's just a wall. Shot looking over it from the other direction, it's just a nice elevation providing a good view like any other hilltop.

To convey its steepness, you have to shoot it at an angle. And the most extreme angle is 90 degrees, which is what we did here.

We did a little more, of course.

The orientation is vertical. That nicely frames the tall building but it also disturbs the bottom third of the frame. With the hill.

Outlines. The lines tell the story.

And that building is no accident either.

It is full of level lines from the bricks in the staircase to the panes in the windows to the shingles on the sides and roof of the building.

They all scream, "This is level!"

And then there's that street light. Tall and skinny, it marks the perpendicular as if it were a law of nature. "Thou shalt be perpendicular!"

As our thumbnail on the headlines page shows, however, the base of that street light needs a concrete wedge to achieve its perpendicularity. There is probably a position in the Department of Public Works titled Chief Perpendicularity Technician II (Chief Perpendicularity Technician I being insufficient to the task).

You see how the light pole barely makes it to the second story windows, which are a metaphor themselves. The first story windows look perfectly sane, dark panes that don't let you see inside. Normal windows.

But at the second story and in the dormer, the windows take on a demonic reflection we recognize from our own eyes bulging out as we pump the last few impossible cranks of the pedals to reach the top of the hill.

They don't look like windows at all, really.

So you need more than an angle of the scene to capture a steep hill. You need the contrast of something indicating, even screaming, normal.

Some of the streets in the city are so steep that steps are carved into the sidewalks. Believe it or not this block of Arguello is not one of them.

It's simply too flat.

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