An Island of Lost Beauty in San Francisco Bay

“Where I see colors and shapes and get excited about a   collapsing fence, many, if not most, would find it depressing and want to replace it with a new one. To them I say ‘open your eyes. There’s beauty and richness everywhere, even in the most   derelict situations.’”

 – Peter Whitehead

Call it human perversity, or an innate preoccupation with the lost and the destroyed. In any case wastelands, those spaces where nothing seems to grow, have inspired poets, writers and artists as much if not more than gardens and lush landscapes. Think of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vivid description in The Great Gatsby of a “desolate area” where “ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens…take the forms of houses and chimneys… and men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” Then, too, there’s the group of paintings titled “The Waste Land” by the famed Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, that depict the world’s largest garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro where an army of catadores sort through the trash and find buried treasures.

Peter Whitehead, the English-born artist, photographer and musician, settled in San Francisco in 1975 and began a long and distinguished career that has included the building of odd musical instruments and the making of unusual sounds. Years after he first arrived in the city, he began, on foot, to explore Treasure Island, the man-made 400-acre parcel of land and an invaluable piece of property in San Francisco Bay. Between 2017-2020, Whitehead took more than 3,000 color photos as he wandered across the island. Now, 170 of them grace the pages of his new book, Treasure Land, (Blurb and Amazon; $75) which depict the “awkward beauty” he found in the midst of “collapse and decay” and that portray what he calls a “particular time in San Francisco history.”

Indeed, Treasure Island is a testament to the transitory nature of the city and its environs and where the past thrives in the midst of the present, and the old exists side by side with the new. Something is always coming down, something else going up.

“Sites such as Treasure Island provide an opportunity to observe the long term effects of time and weathering on the man-made world,” Whitehead told me. “My camera frames small areas and attempts to make some kind of visual sense of it all.” No small feat though Whitehead is an accomplished photographer who sees what others neglect or refuse to see. Treasure Island provided an ideal place for him to work his magic.

Built in 1936 and 1937 from rock and sand dredged from the Bay and deposited adjacent to Yerba Buena Island, Treasure Island was originally intended to provide the city with its second airport. In 1939 and 1940, it served as the home for the Golden Gate International Exhibition. The Navy took it over at the start of World War II, used it throughout the wars in Korea and Vietnam and abandoned it in 1997, leaving vast quantities of contaminated dirt and radiation levels dangerous to humans and all living things.

Whitehead’s first walking tour of the island took place not long after Navy contractors removed tons of polluted soil, though nearly everywhere he turned he saw signs that read “danger” and “keep out.” He paid no attention, but rather continued to explore, to look and see without blinders.

Like millions of commuters who cross the Bay Bridge every year, Whitehead first viewed Treasure Island fleetingly and from a distance. Next, he took the bus there from the City, wandered around for a day and, as he explained, “In every direction I looked there was something worth a picture.” Though he felt a “sense of doom,” he went back dozens of times until the island felt like home. His photos depict battered buildings, broken skateboards, abandoned and mysterious structures, isolated picnic tables and benches, rocks along the shore, large white clouds in the sky and spectacular views of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and the Bay itself.

In the essay that introduces his photos, Whitehead explains, “I’m mostly drawn to urban situations and derelict post-industrial sites.” He adds that most of the sites he photographed on Treasure Island from 2007 to 2020 no longer exist. So his book offers a document of a lost time and a lost place, though from his perspective, “Nothing is Lost, Nothing is Created, Everything is Transformed.”

Those nine words provide the title for Whitehead’s first book which contains the journals he kept from 1982 to 2015, and that are made up of bits and pieces, words and images – a collage of sorts—that record his life and times as an artist who has salvaged trash and transformed the ugly into something elegant. “Where I see colors and shapes and get excited about a collapsing fence, many, if not most, would find it depressing and want to replace it with a new one,” Whitehead told me. “To them I say ‘open your eyes. There’s beauty and richness everywhere, even in the most derelict situations.’”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.