San Francisco Photographer Captures Castro’s Queer Culture

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Editor’s Note: Some of the following images contain nudity.

Seven years ago, photographer Anton O’Donnell moved to the Castro.

“Already on the path to self-discovery and determined to pursue art, I knew I couldn’t be anywhere but San Francisco,” he said.

“I’ve fully come out here and also learned a lot about how to be myself. The level of self-expression I see from others here is amazing,” O’Donnell said. “It was natural for me to want to document such a dynamic place. And it’s totally full of weirdos, so I felt like home from the start.”

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell
Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell
Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell
Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

Photography is a new form of artistic expression for O’Donnell, who grew up in San Luis Obispo skateboarding and playing music. His first introduction to visual art came in 2012 when he produced a film about skateboarding. The following year, he discovered the photography of Vivian Maier.

“I fell in love with Vivian’s amazing photographs and especially her endearing self-portraits. I wanted to follow in her footsteps,” he said.

A self-portrait by photographer Anton O'Donnell.

A self-portrait by photographer Anton O’Donnell.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

The Castro District proved to be the perfect canvas for O’Donnell, now 38, to explore with his camera in hand.

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

Not only did he find his partner there, but a few months after arriving in San Francisco, O’Donnell met photographer Arthur Tress, who influenced his style and encouraged him to explore his local environment and the creative possibilities therein.

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

“I use my camera to connect with people and the environment and especially to represent LGBTQ+ lives and to help preserve San Francisco’s rich cultural and artistic scene.”

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell
Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell
Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell
Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

One of the main reasons O’Donnell documents the streets of the Castro is to celebrate queer street style, freedom, and sexual expression. “I’ve lived and traveled to enough places now to know there’s no place like the Castro, with its cast of characters and personalities that make it such a special place,” he said. -he declares. “The Castro is one of the last strongholds for freedom and self-expression, especially given the threat to much of marginal society.”

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

O’Donnell doesn’t find it difficult to document the Castro, for on every corner there are neighborhood exhibitionists happy to cater to tourists and passers-by.

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

“It wasn’t difficult to photograph here because the Castro loves being in the spotlight,” O’Donnell added. “I just show up with an open mind.”

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell
Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

For the first four years of his project, O’Donnell shot exclusively with medium format cameras and at the start of the pandemic with black and white Kodak Tri-X film. He now explores the streets with a Hasselblad 907x medium format digital camera.

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell
Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell


Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

“The lack of an optical viewfinder on this camera forces the photographer to stare at the screen and shoot at waist level, much like the twin-lens reflex camera that Vivian Maier photographed with,” he said. Explain. “It’s a much less awkward way to shoot since the camera position isn’t so obvious to the subject.”

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

O’Donnell’s mission is to share the images of his adopted neighborhood at a time when queer culture, through anti-transgender laws and anti-gay education legislation, is under threat.

Photographer Anton O'Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco's Castro district.

Photographer Anton O’Donnell captures the queer street culture of San Francisco’s Castro district.

Courtesy of Anton O’Donnell

“The groundbreaking Twin Peaks Tavern, the first gay bar in the United States to open its windows to the street, is our Stonewall. Look through its windows and you’ll see an older generation communing quite naturally and comfortably with a young crowd.” he said. “Walk the blocks and you might meet Dane, a neighborhood eccentric who once saved a man from a burning car next to the Castro Theater. These are the kinds of moments I feel particularly drawn to capturing. With my Hasselblad camera tucked in my arms, I do my duty to keep the Castro queer.

You can view a collection of Anton O’Donnell photographs from Jane Warner Plaza at Manny’s Cafe at 3092 16th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District through September 2022.

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