Although writing a blog is a lonely and largely unrewarding endeavor, one of its greatest satisfactions is the chance to meet extraordinary people thanks to it. It can also be intimidating, since it’s one thing to post some links sitting at home in pajamas and a very different thing to be confronted with people who actually know what they’re talking about. And when we’re talking about the Tenderloin/mid-Market area, one such person is photographer/historian Mark Ellinger. Some of you might know his blog Up from the Deep, where he publishes some his photography and historical research about the neighborhood. That site is such an amazing treasure trove of information about the Tenderloin, that it demands everyone to run and check it out (the site is currently being re-organized, so take your time to browse it).

The title Up from the deep is an adaptation of the Latin phrase De Profundis, “Up from the depths (of misery),” the incipient of the 130th Psalm and the title of numerous musical settings and works of literature that include a letter by Oscar Wilde, written while he was imprisoned. It is also a reference to his own life journey that took him to the depths of “fucking death and destruction”:

Between 1985 and 1995 I lost most all that was dear to me: friends, family, business, home, and possessions. Crushed by mortification and grief, I turned to heroin to numb my pain, but my suffering was only increased by physical dependence on the drug. For six years I wandered the mean streets of San Francisco and found out exactly how low I could sink.

Mark loves to photograph skies, and buildings in the Tenderloin

After spending 6 years living in the streets experiencing “the dark night of the soul”, predictably he lost everything, including himself. Also, his leg was nearly amputated and yes, you’ve probably guessed it: he nearly died in the process. Then he had an epiphany, but fortunately it wasn’t one of those finding Jesus type of epiphanies. Mark found that life was sweet, simple as that. After a couple of months in the hospital and 5 surgeries later, he finally managed to get a roof over his head for the first time in many years. That’s when he realized that having a roof over your head is “what makes it possible to engage with the rest of the world and accomplish anything”. And engage he did, drawing, painting and making friends. Like a Hungarian fellow named Josef who gave him his first camera at the beginning of 2003.

It was a cheap camera with a bad resolution, and he always took it with him and took photos of everything all day long. When he finally managed to download them into a computer he almost threw the camera out of the window. The photos were so bad, he says, that if a friend hadn’t been with him that day and convinced him to continue taking pictures, he would have given up.

Joy of life

When I asked Mark about his favorite pictures, the first one that came to mind was “Joy of life” (above). Perhaps because Mark loves brick buildings? (I love them too).


Another favorite of his is the one above, which he has on his business cards. This is what he wrote about the picture:

This image exemplifies why I love San Francisco so much. Fiery sunsets such as this set my mind and emotions ablaze, making life’s problems seem mere trifles; elevating me to some higher plane of awareness by making me conscious of what a tiny cog I am in the vast machinery of the Universe.

Ironically and unbeknown to me, around the time I took this photograph, the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist was condemned by the City and will most likely be demolished.

Personally, I like it because it clearly shows that the Tenderloin does have a golden hour, but also because it’s so dreamy and surreal it almost looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie.

Another personal favorite of mine is the one above of the Hotel Mentone, mainly due to the dominant red color tone – and I love red. But be warned: it’s extremely hard to pick favorites amongst Mark’s photos, since they all show the love and passion, the gratefulness and admiration he feels for the neighborhood.

All of his hotel photographs are extremely beautiful, some of them even look like paintings. Particularly the vintage signs are the reason why the Tenderloin is the most awesome neighborhood in San Francisco, hands down. Like this one of the Columbia hotel, at 411 O’Farrell.

Mark has been living in San Francisco for over 40 years, since he was a teenager coming from Ohio to study at the San Francisco Art Institute as a painting major. During all these years he’s worked as a sound engineer, he’s been a music composer for an animation film in which Orson Welles read a poem by Coleridge, he’s traveled the world, and he’s even worked as dog kennel driver. But it was the experience of living in the streets with nothing to live for that brought him closer to this neighborhood and made him want to photograph it to show the world its beauty.