I’m a compulsive photographer.

That’s not to say I shoot anything and everything.

I aim to create visually striking images that are technically sound. I am highly selective with my subject matter, but that doesn’t mean that my images are imbued with some deep intellectual meaning or have a philosophical purpose. On the contrary, most of my subjects are usually only interesting to me in a purely visual way.

Something about my subjects intoxicates my senses and makes me want to look at them over and over.

I work as a community college counselor and I love it. It’s what gives my life meaning and purpose. It’s how I choose to do my part in leaving the world a better place than I found it. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Photography is how I reward myself for working hard during the week. I shoot to explore, to de-stress and to get into a flow. Yeah, it’s a mental health thing…but to be clear, it’s an obsession.

I actually consider myself mainly a coastal photographer. But when I’m not travelling (which is most of the time), I spend my spare moments in San Francisco photographing people.

I suppose my interest in all things urban started when I was in junior high. In the summer, I would take the train up to the city and spend my allowance on cassette singles to make mixtapes (mostly hip-hop at the time). Back then, to me, the pierced-up and tatted-up punk rockers hanging out on the corner were the epitome of cool.

When I started DJing and producing music in the mid-90s, I specialized in electronic dance music. I was methodical in my efforts in scouring the city for obscure vinyl records and finding that rare gem. I’ve always been a finder and collector of things. In the mid-2000s, my time spent working at a record store on Haight Street ingrained a certain aesthetic into my very being.

After suffering significant hearing damage, I retired from music. Thankfully, soon after, photography became my creative outlet.

There's a similar thrill in finding an inspiring subject and framing it with a perfectly complementary backdrop as there is in finding that magical record in the back of a dusty bin and being able to re-contextualize it and blend it into a tapestry of other songs.

There’s a certain zen to being mesmerized by a beautiful image as there is in losing your shit to a hypnotic dance floor stomper.

It's hedonistic. It’s escapism. It’s an indulgence of the senses.

It’s fun.

 


 

Street Candids

I photograph people because they are unique, dynamic subjects that have been molded by a lifetime of experiences. And San Francisco is ripe with interesting looking characters. When I come across one, I challenge myself to get as close to them as possible and make a candid image of them that is flattering and technically sound. Good lighting, beautiful clean background, expressive eyes…that kind of stuff. I relish the physicality and the mental acuity required for my style of street photography.


These images are people in their day to day lives just going about their business;  being who they are, thinking whatever mysterious thoughts they happen to be thinking at the moment.  Or maybe, they're not thinking at all;  maybe they're just immersed in the present moment experiencing life as it comes.

 


 

Stranger Portraits

Sometimes while I'm out and about, I come across a person and something about them just compels me to stop them and ask them if I can make a portrait with them.  Mostly I do this to ensure I get a strong shot (candids are very hit-or-miss for me).

I'm continually surprised by accommodating people are.  I still haven't gotten used to them thanking me afterwards, as if I've somehow done them a favor.  It's like they don't fully realize how much of a gift they are actually giving me by providing me with their generosity, time, and trust. 

 


 

The Alina Lee Project

Stopping and photographing strangers on the street has been hugely rewarding and has really deepened my faith in the kindness of strangers. It’s a crazy feeling to have them thank me when they are the ones giving me a gift that only they have the ability to give.

Yet I felt that there was still something missing.

It’s a lucky occurrence when these strangers are actually comfortable being photographed. The ones that are comfortable rarely know what to do with their hands and body.

I came to the realization that I wanted to try doing what I was doing with these strangers, but with an experienced, professional model. Someone that knows how to project their very being into a frame effectively and powerfully.

That’s when I reached out to Alina Lee.

I was drawn to Alina because of her soulful eyes and her ability to seemingly tell a story through just her expressions and body language.  

I also felt that if I had ever seen her on the street, I'd know in a split second that she has the exact vibe that I look for in a subject.

This project is a true collaboration between Alina and myself.  It is a result of us exploring the nooks and crannies of San Francisco with the intention of capturing Alina's true personality and sense of style...her very essence.

 


 

Want More?

I also do coastal photography.

For that stuff, please visit TonyVanLe.com.