Summer 2022

In the arms of the cold cold ground

Photographer Robert Gumpert tells the stories of San Francisco’s homeless. By Martin Colyer [EXTRACT]


In 1977 Carl Sagan and his team chose blues musician Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 song, ‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground’, as one of 27 pieces of music on the Voyager probe being sent into deep space in the hope that it would explain Earth to other life forms in the universe. The song was included, according to Sagan, because ‘Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.’

On the title page of his new book on San Francisco’s unhoused, Division Street, photographer Robert Gumpert includes the song’s title as a kind of marker, a reminder that even one of Earth’s richest societies cannot solve the issue of homelessness.

The aptly named Division Street, Gumpert says, ‘dead-ends in the city’s famous tech development district, and it serves as a metaphor for the disparity between the wealthy few and the expendable many. It’s a story,’ he continues, ‘of lives lived on hard streets, amidst staggering wealth and empty promises’. A long-time resident of the city, his eye sees the streets of San Francisco as a place far from the beautiful ‘city by the bay’ of popular imagination. …

Martin Colyer, freelance art director, writer, London

Read the full article in Eye no. 103 vol. 26, 2022

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