Julie Michelle’s Love Letter to San Francisco

[shareaholic app=”share_buttons” id=”20872686″]

Remember when I participated in the I Live Here: SF shoot with the fabulous and talented Julie? Well, I wrote about it, as I’m wont to do, in hopes that Julie gets a little of the press she deserves. It ran today in the SF Chronicle, though was sliced and diced as expected (ohhhh, freelancing). Here’s the final cut, but below you’ll find Julie’s full—and fascinating—story.


People like Julie Michelle take setbacks in life as an opportunity to reinvent themselves, a chance to pursue that which drives their native spirits, long held in reserve as hobbies or potential “dream careers.” In Michelle’s case, a lost job she wasn’t passionate about created space for a pastime more satisfying, and most importantly, paved the way toward a new professional life in which she was clearly destined to thrive.

The 42-year-old San Jose native who worked her way up the peninsula over the years—first to Palo Alto, then eventually to land in the Sunset—has had a long-time love affair with the City by the Bay. So it’s no surprise really that Michelle decided to meld that fervency with her keen eye behind the camera to create I Live Here: SF, an ongoing photography project in which she employs everyday locals as her subjects. But in order to fully appreciate the concept and its creator, one must first understand Michelle’s background.

Though her degree is in printmaking from San Jose State University, Michelle has hopped around in her professional life, most recently having worked in an administrative position at an interior design firm—until the powers-that-be implemented money-saving tactics in the form of lay-offs in April. Michelle had already been working on I Live Here: SF for a month at that point and capitalized on her sudden influx of free time.

“At first, the two were unrelated: I had this hobby [I Live Here: SF] that I enjoyed and devoted some time to, then I was unemployed and figuring out what to do next,” she recalls. “Finally, I thought I needed to fill my time somehow. You can’t just sit at home all day and send out resumes—that gets depressing.”

Prior to that job, Michelle worked as a makeup artist for five years and now attributes her ability to analyze a face to this detail-oriented past profession. (And yes, she does offer her pro-bono aesthetician services to all I Live Here: SF subjects who want to be made up.)

“Being a makeup artist primed me to look at faces in a very objective way and summarize one very quickly. You learn to look at faces in a different fashion because you’re constantly touching them, summing up in a way—not good or bad, just objective—and I didn’t realize until I started doing these shoots just how much that’s helped my photography.”

One thing Michelle lacks is any semblance of formal photography training; she’s fully self-taught and only acquired her first camera in March 2008. In fact, she confiscated it from her boyfriend, who purchased their first “big-girl camera,” to take to AT&T Park on the weekends. And the rest is history. Every morning, afternoon and night when she wasn’t working, Michelle was taking pictures of her beloved San Francisco, often in her favorite neighborhood, Chinatown, when the sunlight just beginning to creep over the horizon in the early hours of morning.

“When I was starting out, it didn’t even occur to me to take pictures of people. I was so entranced by San Francisco that all I wanted to do was take pictures of everything around me. People didn’t count,” she recalls.

Her project didn’t begin to take shape until Michelle wandered into a shop, the Queen of Sheba, one particularly gloomy day earlier this year and struck up a conversation with the woman running the place. After awhile, Michelle gained the courage to ask if she could photograph her; the woman consented. Michelle posted the results on her personal blog, Tango Baby, and wrote an accompanying story. In the subsequent days, she was overwhelmed by all the reader feedback she received suggesting she do more of the same.

“That was when I thought this could be fun—meeting people in San Francisco and taking their pictures,” she recounts. “When I was trying to come up with a concept, I realized I love being here so much, and everyone you meet –whether a native or transplant—is here for a reason. They feel very attached to this city, and I thought it would be great to let them use their own voice and write their own story and I’d take their picture.”

So in March, she created I Live Here: SF and posted her progress on a separate site, http://iliveheresf.blogspot.com. The project is structured so that any resident of San Francisco can be a subject—“I figure if somebody comes across it and lives here and wants to be a part of it, all they have to do is ask,” Michelle says. Michelle requests that each person finds “their own San Francisco,” whether a neighborhood, a walk, a place that captures his or her version of the city, and she sets up a time for the shoot.

“It really is all about them [the subject],” Michelle says. “They write their story, they edit their photo set, they pick their location…that’s all a part of their story.”

Oddly enough, while Michelle confesses to be painfully shy—“I would never go up to anyone on the street and say, ‘hey, I want to take your pictures,’” she admits—it’s pretty clear this social aspect of getting to know the subjects has been one of the most rewarding parts of the project.

“It’s been a great experience on so many levels, but primarily because I meet all kinds of people. I don’t have criteria about who does this. It’s not like you have to have a certain job or age or race,” Michelle explains. “I’ve met this whole diverse array of people who are just as excited about the project as I am. It’s neat because you have this idea that you’re excited about, but it’s your idea, then you meet other people who are just excited if not more so, and it makes it really fun.”

After the editing process, Michelle allows the subject to choose which photos he likes and which ones he wants removed from his file entirely. “I don’t want anyone uncomfortable with any photo floating around of [him or her],” she says. She gives the subject the images on a CD, along with some prints as an added bonus, to do with what he or she wants, whether posting on a personal blog or Facebook page or using as a professional headshot—and all for free.

“I never wanted money to be an issue with this project,” she says. “There’s so much room to collaborate in this city that I didn’t feel like this plea would fall on deaf ears. I figured that somebody out there would be supportive of it—and they were overwhelmingly supportive. It’s just part of giving back—if people are going to be generous with me and their time, their faces, their story and their passion, it’s worth more than money. It’s the goal of a combined vision and enthusiasm. When people come to me and they’re excited, that’s all I need to keep moving. I have no ulterior motive.”

Michelle admits her other tasks and hobbies—her writing, house cleaning and, most importantly, tango dancing (which spawned the title of her original blog)—have taken a back seat to the project. Still, ever optimistic, what she misses from her dancing days, she’s managed to find in her art.

“You can have an intimacy with someone while taking their photo just like you were dancing with them. You can be with somebody and walk around and take their picture and still have that same kind of inner rewarding feeling as you would after a really great dance. It becomes collaborative. That’s really nice, as photography can often be a very solitary thing.”

In the six months since the project’s conception, Michelle has photographed more than 50 subjects, from eclectic personalities like SFGate’s politics and culture blogger, Beth Spotswood; biotech rep, yoga instructor and firespinner, Autumn Feldmeier; and professional ballerina Harriet McMeekin to Michelle’s own beloved tango teachers Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt; divorce attorney Kate and her companion pup Roo; and resident guidebook writer and event organizer “Broke-Ass Stuart” (Schuffman). She claims to have no favorites, though it’s evident by the poignant gleam in her soulful gray-blue eyes when the subject arises that a shoot with one relatively homebound woman suffering from chronic fatigue and her senior rescue cat captured her heart.

“Because of her condition, Patti can’t get out much, and it was so sweet that she let me, a stranger, come into her home—and her heart—to take pictures. She wrote her story and the story of her cat, Ginny, who has cancer and who she adopted at 11—she wanted to give Ginny a good place to live before she passed away. Their two stories together were so beautiful because Patti isn’t Patti without Ginny, and Ginny isn’t Ginny without Patti. I came home and cried because that they let me do that was just so amazing.”

While I Live Here: SF has opened doors Michelle once thought unimaginable—she’s landed portrait, wedding and concert photography gigs as a result—she doesn’t envisioning ending the project anytime soon.

“Now that I’m so involved in it and love it so much I don’t see that I’ll ever have an arbitrary stop date. I’ll want to have a show at some point and there will probably be some natural segments to the project like a part one and two but I don’t see me ever saying, ‘OK, I’m done!’”

After I Live Here: SF’s one-year anniversary in March, Michelle hopes to show the socially organic product in a local gallery space. Currently, her urban landscape photographs can be viewed and purchased at Tedda’s Boutique on Polk Street through Sept. 26; other upcoming exhibits are in the works. Her professional portfolio can be viewed on her website, http://www.femmefotographie.com. Those interested in participating in I Live Here: SF should contact Michelle via e-mail at iliveheresf@gmail.com.

  • October 1, 2009

    I love to read the back story. Off to read your article…

  • October 1, 2009

    This is SO awesome, Kristin! I can’t thank you enough… and yes, this “director’s cut” of the article is so much better. I’m glad people will get to read it in its entirety.

  • October 7, 2009

    What an awesome story. I’m so happy for her that she’s getting recognition for doing something innovative and something that she loves.

Leave a Comment