On a Mission: Katherin McInnis created a film version of her "Woodward's Gardens" audio tour. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF51: Katherin McInnis Cues the Carnival Music

Jennifer Preissel April 28, 2008

Photographer and filmmaker Katherin McInnis, a longtime Bay Area resident who recently relocated to Brooklyn, screens her most recent film, Woodward’s Gardens, in the experimental shorts program "In A Lonely Place: New Experimental Cinema" at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. A couple of years ago, McInnis, in conjunction with local exhibition space Southern Exposure and the Mission-based Neighborhood Public Radio, created an audio tour of the city blocks bordered by Duboce, Mission, 15th Street and Valencia that once comprised the grounds of Woodward’s Gardens—an elaborate 19th-century amusement park. One part zoo, one part leisure space and one part spectacle, the grounds were owned and operated by the hotelier-cum-showman Robert Woodward, who came to be known as the "Barnum of the West." McInnis was so intrigued by the transformation this urban space had undergone in just over a century that she decided to create a film version of the tour. She also offered a photo-essay on the project last year in SF360.org.

For her film, McInnis culled archival 3-D photos (called stereophotographs) of the area and intercut them with her own three dimensional images of the modern-day lower Mission District, a rapidly gentrifying residential neighborhood dominated by landmarks like the Hwy 101 off ramp, Rainbow Grocery, the Zeitgeist bar and the Armory Building. To that, she added a backdrop of ghoulish sound effects—including wailing zoo animals, whirling carnival rides and laughing spectators. In juxtaposing images from past and present, McInnis reveals a Lee Friedlander-esque wit as she creates a dialogue between the transitory spaces depicted in both. Shots of Woodward’s sprawling grounds and elaborate statuary abut those of graffiti-ridden walls; the manicured gardens of the 1800s are contrasted with the flowers encased in glass at one of today’s local restaurants. In Woodward’s Gardens, McInnis creates an audiovisual pastiche of past and present that reveals how quickly urban spaces, both public and private, evolve.

SF360.org has been running a special series of interviews with Bay Area filmmakers in the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival. SFIFF51 runs through May 8 at the Sundance Kabuki, Castro, Pacific Film Archive, Clay Theatre and other locations.

SF360: How did you decide to be a filmmaker? What pulled you into this profession?

Katherin McInnis: Well, it’s funny—I was actually a photographer first, which is very evident in this work. My work has a lot to do with photography. I was in grad school and I knew I was going to change my focus; I had been making black and white prints for a long time and that process was dying. I wanted to get into filmmaking and it was a really good time because digital image making had become a possibility at that point. It was kind of, not accidental, but I got interested in a few projects that seemed like they should be more than just still images.

SF360.org: Did you go to grad school in the Bay Area?

McInnis: I went to California College of the Arts. I started in photography and ended up in film and video. That was a good thing, because the school was very open—you could do narrative filmmaking if you wanted or you could do more video installation work.

SF360.org: Could you talk a little bit about your work prior to this film? I believe you made a film about San Quentin?

McInnis: I did do a film on San Quentin that also became a series of photographs. I made a kind of a documentary—it’s about the post office and the village and the publicly accessible areas—there’s actually a town of San Quentin, right outside the prison. It’s about the line between public and private in that community.

SF360.org: What have you chosen to make the focus of your works?

McInnis: I made a piece that showed in last year’s Festival that was shot at the San Francisco Bay Model, which was sort of similar to Woodward’s Gardens—it revealed a sort of post-apocalyptic San Francisco. The San Francisco Bay Model is a working hydraulic model of the Bay, but there are no buildings and very little topography—it just represents where the water is and where the land is. It’s kind of a landscape film. Most of my films are about the social and the natural interacting.

SF360.org: This film [Woodward’s Gardens] started out as a radio guided tour of the area. You worked on it with [Mission District arts presenter and exhibition space] Southern Exposure.

McInnis: With Southern Exposure and Neighborhood Public Radio. It was just an audio tour. People walked around the site and listened to this audio, recreating the amusement park and its downfall. The incredible thing when you look at the photographs in the film—most of which are by Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins—you see this incredible place, which was really only open for less than twenty years. It was incredible that it was built and then disappeared in that time.

SF360.org: The tour that you created—does it have the same soundtrack that the film does?

McInnis: It’s actually a longer soundtrack. The film is kind of distilled down. Some of the photographs I used in the original tour and that was where I started doing the research. I didn’t have a map initially, so I looked at all these photographs to construct the tour. The tour was half an hour long—you can still download it.

SF360.org: Did it have narration and interview footage or was it just a sound collage?

McInnis: It was a sound collage tour and it was kind of guided. I did have photographs and I did do some explaining, so it was kind of a mix. The narration was live. A lot of people knew a lot about Woodward’s Gardens. One guy came to the tour because he knew as much as I did about this place, so there was kind of this interesting sharing of information that happened with the tour. It wasn’t just me dispensing information—there was kind of a discussion as well as the sound.

SF360.org: Where did you cull your sounds from? You incorporate this array of sounds like zoo animals and circus music—where did you pull those from?

McInnis: A lot of them are just sound effects. It’s really layered. The reason I used a lot of sound effects is because you can’t have car noise in the soundtrack. A lot of it is sound effects. Some of it is from an internet archive movie about Coney Island from the 1930s. I cut out the bits that seemed like they could fit—kind the sideshowy sounds. You’ll hear the sound of the carousel in Central Park which is not too appropriate, but worked in a certain sense. And Woodward’s Gardens actually advertised themselves as the Central Park of the West, so it kind of made sense.

SF360.org: What drew you to this topic? Did you have a connection with the area or did you find out about the place and thought it was interesting?

McInnis: I found out about it a long time ago and it was always fascinating to me that there was just no trace of it left. That was always really interesting to me, that it was completely unrecognizable. I always wondered what was going on at the Armory building (at 14th Street and Mission), and I know the neighbors hate it, but it’s so appropriate that there is a porn house there—it’s such a crazy looking building. It was empty for so long. The area always fascinated me. I can’t remember how I found out about it, but I knew about it a long time. When the opportunity for the audio tour came up, then I knew it was the perfect thing. The tour had to be somewhere in the Mission because of the radio range. I thought, I’ve always wanted to do something about Woodward’s Gardens because it seemed like a magical place.

SF360.org: What inspired you to make the film in 3-D?

McInnis: A lot of the original photographs were shot in 3-D. Many of them were stereographs. Muybridge actually had a little stand where he sold stereographs. That was the entertainment at the time. I had all these 3-D images so it just seemed right to make more. It actually turned out to be quite a bit harder than I thought it would be. It’s actually kind of difficult [to shoot them], because you can’t get as far away from your subject as you should to make a good 3-D image without getting into the street.

SF360.org: So is that an effect you create digitally afterward or when you shot the photos, did you shoot them three dimensionally in the camera?

McInnis: These old photographers had special cameras that took two photographs at one time [thus creating 3-D images]. The stereographs are actually polarized that you look at through special lenses. The way that I found to take three dimensional photos without a special camera was to shoot two photographs on a tripod. I just moved the camera over a bit. It’s really hard to get two cameras close together enough to shoot what will become a 3-D image. Each picture is really only about an inch and a half apart.

SF360.org: Is that why you don’t have any people in any of the modern shots?

McInnis: It’s really hard to get people to hold exactly still. It’s interesting that, in the Muybridge pictures, a lot of those feature him. There’s this kind of creepy man in a lot of those photos and it’s actually Eadweard Muybridge. Yeah, it’s really hard to have someone hold still for that length of time, because you do have to take two pictures. That’s part of why. But there aren’t a lot of people in the original photographs either. There are a lot of traces of people in my photographs. There is one photo in particular where a woman with a shopping cart is hiding behind her shopping cart. She didn’t want to be in the picture, but she said it was okay for me to photograph her cart. There are a lot of traces of people.

SF360.org: That kind of gives the images a ghostly quality. You have the older photographs, of a time and place that does not exist anymore, and even in the modern photos, the lack of a human presence gives the images a ghostly feel.

McInnis: I think that’s true. For instance, I never saw anyone come in or out of the Armory, which is kind of weird. Clearly things are going on in there, but I never saw anyone go in or out.

SF360.org: You incorporated a few shots of watchful security cameras into the montage. Is that where the security cameras were placed?

McInnis: No, the security cameras were on a drug rehab center. You don’t really see people go in or out of there either.

SF360.org: You do use some photos of naked bodies, but their heads are cut out of the shots. And against that you have a soundtrack of whipping noises, which is kind of comical. There are no animals whipped here anymore, but now we have human bodies.

McInnis: I didn’t even think about that. The Armory is home to Kink.com. I guess it’s a fake dungeon inside where they shoot S&M porn. That’s what they specialize in.

SF360.org: The juxtapositions you create are quite arresting. You have these old, grand sculptures and gardens and zoo animals butting up against scenes of urban decay and modern city streets. Do you want to explain what you were intending to convey through those juxtapositions?

McInnis: It’s interesting because that neighborhood itself is such a juxtaposition. There are new fancy restaurants alongside what used to be one of the most hardcore neighborhoods. Someone told me that that was where the first needle exchange in San Francisco was, right outside the Armory. There had been a lot of drug trafficking there. People have said to me how nice the neighborhood looks now compared to back in the day. It’s almost coming full circle—developing a restaurant row, a lot of the apartments being turned into much fancier apartments. I was thinking about what our leisure activities are now, what our public space is and what our amusements are. That was what I was thinking rather than, "We used have these great parks and now we have this shitty neighborhood." I was thinking that this used to be public space, and [asking the question] what is public space now?

SF360.org: You keep coming back to this one image of the ground and the path you’re walking on. Does that come from the fact that this was originally created as a walking tour or were you looking for a cohesive image to which you could thread the rest of the images?

McInnis: It’s kind of both. I actually shot video initially just to give myself a sense—how it works as a walking tour, to give myself a sense of timing, like now, five minutes into the walking tour, we’re turning a corner. In another five minutes, we turn back onto a quiet street, to give myself a sense of how a walking tour would go. I think I wanted the project to have a sense of, this was here, this is here now, something else could be here at another time. To give a sense of how ephemeral things are. Visually, it does become a thread and it’s 2-D, so it allows you to move in and out of the 3-D.

SF360.org: How did you actually find the original photos? Where did you track them down?

McInnis: There’s actually a ton of them. There’s an amazing Muybridge collection at UCBerkeley. They have a ton of stuff. Once you start looking, at a certain point, I had done enough research about Woodward’s Gardens that I could tell that, even if they weren’t marked as such, I could tell that they were taken there. There are a few images where I cheated just a little bit—from the same time period, but not actually taken there, but there are only maybe one or two. One or two is the Midwinter Fair in 1894 instead of Woodward’s Gardens—but really minimal cheating. But everything else is from Woodward’s Gardens. But it’s kind of amazing that something from that time is so thoroughly documented.

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