81 Bees: Documenting Family in Photo Gallery

Members of the 81 Bees display their images at RayKo Photo center and gallery on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo by Franchon Smith/The Guardsman)
Members of the 81 Bees display their images at RayKo Photo center and gallery on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo by Franchon Smith/The Guardsman)

By Marco Siler-Gonzales/News Editor

The meaning of family can be elusive, something impossible to collectively define, but 12 City College photography students set out to capture family in their new photo exhibit at Rayko Photo Center.

81 Bees, a City College based photography group, held a gallery reception at the photographer’s community center at 428 Third St. in the SOMA district on Sept. 23, where photographers, friends and visitors came to examine what the 81 Bees documented in their individual search of family.

Photos lined the right wall of Rayko’s side gallery, revealing stark contrasts between what each photographer found to depict what family is – or how they came to identify with their own.

81 Bees photographer Grahame Perry interpreted family through choice. When Perry moved from England to San Francisco as a child, he left behind an extended close-knit family, but chose to adopt close friends as a form of identity and closeness as he grew up in the city.

Perry’s photo of the famous drag activist group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence encompassed a similar choice of family. “The sisters have been around since the ’70s. The idea is that you have this group and you create this secondary family. It’s very non traditional but at the same time it has lasted for 40 years,” Perry said.

Family photos conjure nostalgia and reminiscence, but Avril McHugh said the memories themselves often seem unclear or distorted as she expressed in her dreamlike transformation of old family photos. McHugh scanned and printed old family photos onto wet watercolor paper, resulting in a smeared gray resemblance of her family members.

“These memories can be vague but are deeply felt,” McHugh explained.

Clare Coppel is one of the founders of 81 Bees, CCSF photo student and the main organizer of the Family Show. Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo by Franchon Smith/The Guardsman)
Clare Coppel is one of the founders of 81 Bees, CCSF photo student and the main organizer of the Family Show. Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo by Franchon Smith/The Guardsman)

81 Bees Start

The photography group was formed in 2008, when photography students in City College’s 81B advanced black and white darkroom class chose to get together after the semester had ended.

“On the final day of class, a few students decided to continue meeting together, and started exhibiting work as a group,” Former 81B instructor Bob Nishihira said.

Since becoming photography department chair three years ago, Nishihira said his involvement with the 81 Bees has dwindled, but has noticed the group has grown more particular about which photos go in the show.

“There is a huge variety of styles and interests, so each theme is very open to interpretation. But now there’s a committee to evaluate the work before it goes in,” Nishihira said.

81 Bees member Clare Coppel organized the show along with Rayko Photo Center Director Ann Jastrab.

Family

Family is deeply engrained in San Francisco’s neighborhoods and districts for those who have roots in the City.

“This is my family’s association,” 81 Bees photographer Gordon Szeto said, explaining his photographs of people who formed a community with others who shared their surname, like his great uncle and other immigrant ancestors. “Everyone in this group is a Szeto.”

Szeto’s photos portrayed the people and private spaces of the Szeto family organization where newly-arrived immigrant men gathered for support while their wives and children awaited permission to enter the United States.

“They had to bond over non-traditional family organizations, so they formed them to have a kinship and battle against the struggles of being a foreigner in a foreign land,” Szeto said.

One of Szeto’s photos portrayed his great uncle holding up a large framed document containing the family association’s laws, which laid a foundation for the family association that integrated generations of Chinese Americans within San Francisco. Szeto believes this type of support is becoming less pertinent for recent immigrants because the Internet has made it easy to connect with family back home.

Szeto’s photographs point out this paradox of what family means, as a never-ending landscape of choice and assimilation which is constantly renewing within each cultural pocket of San Francisco.


Contact a reporter

Send an email to: Marco Siler-Gonzales