• Nestor Aquino

Michael Hruska

June 15th, 2021 marked the grand reopening of the state of California. No more physical distancing, no more capacity limitations, and no more masks (in most settings.) ‘The Mask’ has become a byword and an encapsulating symbol of the pandemic. To celebrate the reopening I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on this past year with the work of Michael Hruska. He's a San Francisco based photographer whose street portraits from the past year have been transformed by the presence of this ubiquitous symbol.

How long have you been practicing photography?

I first got into it when I was 14 in 1969. My first camera was a 35mm Kowa SETR, then a Canon FT. I joined a camera club in high school and we developed and printed our own B&W film in the club darkroom. By the time I was finished with high school my musical interests eclipsed my photography interests and the picture taking, more or less, took the back seat and went dormant for several decades. My renewed interest in photography began in 2015 with a Galaxy S camera phone. After that, a series of Fujifilm digital cameras. First an X100T, and presently an X100F and XT3. Now the music is, more or less, dormant.

How long have you been working on street portraiture?

As I started getting more absorbed in taking pictures again I found myself drawn to people as my main focus. This started happening around 2016. For about a year I was just taking hip shots, candids, and sort of clandestinely taking photos of people (all of which I still do in between portraits). After a while I felt I wanted to make more of a connection and be up front about what I'm doing with my camera. I got my first Fujifilm in October of 2016, an X100T, and began my Instagram street portrait series in September 2017.

Why does this style of photography interest you?

Looking through images on the internet or in photo-books, I've always been naturally drawn towards images of people. Mostly in urban surroundings. Public events, marches, parades where the energy is running high. Vivian Maier was a major influence when I started getting back into photography.

What draws you to a person to ask for their photograph?

A vibe, spirit, body language, eye contact, lighting, originality, presence, creativity in appearance. Musicians, artists, poets, performers. One, some, or all in no particular order. People who stand out in some way, though sometimes not always so obviously. Some have a quiet presence.

How do you compose your photos to achieve a balance between person and location balance?

I alway like, when possible, to have context, a sense of place, depth, and visual cues in the background. Available lighting will usually dictate which and to what extent I can use my backdrops.

How did this project change once the pandemic hit?

San Francisco is where I like to take pictures given the endless and eclectic parade of people and goings on. I could no longer photograph there, or where I work at Aquarium of the Bay as a private events photographer, from March thru July of 2020. So I began photographing people in masks locally in Alameda. Usually at the supermarket when I would make food runs. I was surprised how open people were given the gravity of the pandemic.

I began several projects meanwhile. A series of self-portraits in various locations around the island of Alameda, I photographed a series of pandemic graphic art posters by various artists from Amplifier Art(@amplifierart on Instagram and which someone was stapling to trees and telephone poles around Alameda. Then I made a series of photos of vintage LP jackets for which I made miniature masks for the musician's cover photo, and A series of flower portraits "Flower Power In The Hour Of The Pandemic". And of course all the murals by local artists that were appearing on all the boarded up storefronts. I especially liked it when I came across the artists as they were painting them and asked if I could photograph them. The summer of 2020 saw a peaking of Black Lives Matter masked events, protests, police station sit-ins and die-ins, and marches in Alameda. I was able to photograph several of those.

Did you ever consider halting the project for your own safety?

I considered it. I think it may have gone on hold for the first couple of weeks of shelter in place. But what happened was I ended up adapting and evolving with the new situation at hand. I feel I can always improve my photography, no matter what. It gets me out of bed in the morning. But a little adversity, ideally, makes us all a little more empathetic, fearless and stronger. Necessary qualities for a people photographer.

What impressions did you get from others as the pandemic persisted? Did it change the longer it went?

I sensed people were a bit more on guard yet still open to being photographed. There were certainly a lot less people on the street to choose from. But the interaction with strangers will always be flirting with the unknown. An improvisation. A performance.

When was the first time you stepped back into San Francisco after lockdown?

Middle of July, 2020. We were allowed to open the Aquarium gift shop, and then the Aquarium itself, following strict guidelines. I was back to work in San Francisco in limited capacity until the second shutdown at the end of November 2020.

Do you remember when you first approached someone wearing a mask to ask for their portrait? What was that like?

I had noticed people were starting to wear masks in The City a month or so before the shutdown on March 16th, 2020. I have many candids of people wearing them as I walked by them on the street. I sensed something was up. My first portrait of someone with a mask was of a skateboarder named Archie on Market Street. This was on March 13th, 2020. He was happy to do a portrait. I remember asking another couple wearing masks a week earlier and they declined. So the idea must have been floating around in my head to start some kind of people in masks series.

My first "San Francisco Masked" series portrait was July 16th, 2020. A local masked photographer named Pete with a Fuji XPro2 standing in front of the Aquarium. This was my first morning back to work in The City.

Is there a particular interaction that stands out to you from this past year?

Every interaction is different. I do like it when someone says "You made my day!", or words to that effect after photographing them, because that's exactly how I feel when someone agrees to do a portrait. It juices me. It's give and take on both ends.

How do you anticipate your photography to change now that there’s an end in sight?

I intend to keep moving it forward. Flowing with it. Slowing things down. Taking more time. Staying in the moment. Going where it takes me. Exploring new subjects and locations. It’s pretty much endless, even within San Francisco. I’ll Bop till I drop.

I think what drew me most to Michael's work was how he achieved a balance between a street photograph and a portrait. It’s not hard for one to distinguish what part of the city this photo was taken, but it’s never to the extent where the portrait becomes secondary. This balance served useful when masks started making appearances in his photographs; time and place became very specific in these images. This was San Francisco during the pandemic. I think Michael’s work from this past year will serve as a historic portrait of San Francisco and its significance will grow with the passing of time.

You can find more of Michael's work on his instagram.