Capturing Every Muni Photo Op: Q&A with Mike Dillon

F-Market 1053
All Photos by Mike Dillon

We’ve been enjoying Mike Dillon’s Muni photographs here on Muni Diaries for some time. I love that almost every photo that Mike takes comes with a short anecdote that lets us in on some behind-the-scenes details. He takes time to describe details like the light and shadow on a throng of shoppers on Clement Street heading toward the 2, or his love-hate relationship with the 33, which stars in many of his photos. We sat down with Mike to find out more about him.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography.

I’m just your friendly neighborhood microbiologist by day, and that guy who won’t stop taking pictures of everything the rest of the time. Originally from Washington State (the side that no one has ever heard of, where it doesn’t rain), I’ve been in the Bay Area for about five years now because, well, this is kinda the place you go if you’re a microbiologist. Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in San Francisco?

In the last few years, I’ve been itching to find an artistic outlet. I spent some time toying around with photography using a couple cheap point and shoot cameras, but never really got into it. I’m the type of person who, once I commit to something, will go all out on it, but I need to really commit to it first. So one day a bit over a year ago, I finally just went for it and picked up a dSLR and hit the streets with it.

Let’s just say there was a bit of a learning curve: I think I got two to five photos I actually liked out of the first six months. Over the last year or so, I’ve gradually learned the settings and received a ton of inspiration from a number of great local photographers, many of whom have had photos featured on Muni Diaries before me. I’m still new to this with a lot to learn, but I’m working on it by just getting my camera out to take photos every day and doing my best to meet and learn from members of the amazing San Francisco photography community.

Classic Muni


What is it about Muni that inspires you to take photos of buses and streetcars?

My friends will laugh at me when they see this, since I’ve done more complaining about Muni over the last few years than anyone I know. I suppose having to walk 20 minutes to the bus stop from my house in the Presidio only to have the bus not show up half the time left me a little bitter toward the system. We’ve since come to terms, though, and Muni has made it up to me by posing for some interesting photos.

I never really set out to photograph Muni, but have managed to build a little collection of photos anyway. Something about them just always catches my eye. I mostly take photos just because I enjoy the process, but it’s always an extra special treat when my photos trigger an emotional reaction or bring out a great story from a viewer.

I’ve found that, more than almost anything else I’ve ever photographed, Muni has a way of drawing people in. The “Muni Experience” is universal, and resonates with nearly any San Francisco resident. For better or worse, we’re all subject to the whims of Muni, and anyone who has had the chance to ride probably has their own story to tell about that crazy thing that happened to them one day on the bus. I think it’s rare to find a subject that so many different people can connect with.

There’s also a certain timeless quality to a Muni that I love in a subject. While the buses change and become more modern over time, a bus always looks like a bus. It doesn’t seem to matter if a person last rode Muni 30 years ago or yesterday, I’ve found that a Muni shot always manages to bring back those old memories.

21-Hayes

But really, all that happy idealistic stuff I just said sounds nice, but it’s a fairly recent discovery. I think I really started shooting Muni mostly because I learn through experimentation, and Muni is fairly ubiquitous. It’s actually much easier to find a bus for a photo than it is to find the one you want to ride, so it turns out to be a really easy subject to play around with.

It’s pretty common for me to be out wandering the city and come across an interesting backdrop (a street, some buildings, whatever) that just needs a little something extra for a main subject to make the photo. More often than not in these situations, it’s just a matter of waiting around a bit until Muni comes by for a photo op. Also, since I tend to be out fairly often at night, I’ve found that the super-bright cabin lights that everyone complains about on the buses happen to make them excellent targets for low-light photos.

Focus?! You Don't Need No Stinkin' Focus

These days, the corner of Market and Clayton has become my favorite place to stop for a Muni photo. The 33 and I go way back, and I often walk by the intersection on my way home, so I’m always keeping an eye out for some 33 drama. It’s really a great corner to Muni-watch as the veteran drivers effortlessly navigate the sharp turn, while the newer ones struggle to find their line, often coming off the wires or taking the turn too wide and getting stuck against the wall. Throw in some fog and a few confused car drivers, and there’s always interesting things happening at that intersection.

I Love This Corner

Muni 5405 Here...We've Got A Problem

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened to you on Muni?

Having spent all of my time in SF living either in Presidio or up near Twin Peaks, the 33 has always been my bus, and the source of almost all of my Muni stories. The 33 can be a bit shy at times, seemingly only coming out when it knows I’m not looking for it, but if I’m patient, it will always reward me with something amusing.

About a year ago I had one of my most memorable rides on the 33 when I was going to the San Francisco Marathon Expo from the Presidio. The bus was partially full when a woman gets on the bus carrying a few bags. I’ve been told I have an approachable face; I have a tendency to attract interesting individuals who want to chat with me everywhere I go. Sitting with my headphones and sunglasses on, I saw this woman take a quick look around the bus and make a bee line for me, past all the other empty seats and everyone else on the bus.

She stood in front of the empty seat next to me, bent down and gave the seat a good sniff. Apparently finding fragrance of the seat to her liking, she sat down and squeezed one of her bags in front of my feet. I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was staring at me. Apparently my headphones were not about to prevent us from having a conversation. So, she started talking to me. Well, more accurately, she started yelling at me. Loud enough that half the passengers turned and stared, while the cluster of Girl Scouts nearby quickly made their way to the front of the bus.

The main problem with this conversation was that she wasn’t speaking English. In fact, after hearing her for a few moments, I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a language at all. It sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Undeterred by my lack of understanding, she continued, growing louder and bursting into raucous laughter every now and then.

It seems we were having quite the jovial one-way conversation. After a few more blocks, she stopped talking, quietly got up, and stepped off the bus without another word. I was left for the remainder of my ride wishing I knew what was so funny. In fact, I’m still a bit curious today about the topic of our little conversation.

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See, everyone has a Muni story! Thanks, Mike!

If you have Muni photographs to share, drop them in our Muni Photo Pool on Flickr! Want to be featured in a Q&A on Muni Diaries? Email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com.

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