“This is my surveillance drive,” says Malcolm Ryder, hands light on the wheel of a Volkswagen Jetta. He points out Tacos Mi Rancho (“a good food truck”) as we trace the eastern edge of Oakland’s Lake Merritt, then do a loop at East 12th Street, slowing down in front of the boarded-up Double D BBQ. The drive-in restaurant sits in the middle of an empty parking lot, part of a parcel that is for sale—presumably to a developer looking to build pricey housing for Oakland’s tech set. Nearly every inch of the squat building is covered in graffiti. Big, puffy letters declare a street artist’s supremacy: RESTA. “That’s a new name,” Ryder notes.
We head south, onto International Boulevard, a thoroughfare he says he likes for “its mix of stuff that has deteriorated, or is new or newly renovated.” He points to a tienda: “Look at that skeleton stuff!” About another mural, he notes, “That wasn’t tagged at all three weeks ago.”
The patter is constant, but I’ve asked for it, urging Ryder to take me along and inviting him to think out loud. Half an hour earlier, we’d donned masks and left his Victorian cottage in the Dimond district, taking back streets and a bit of freeway before reaching his scouting route. “We are constantly taking this in, constantly processing,” he says, sweeping his hand above the dashboard at the endless storefronts on the other side of the windshield. “But its impact is subliminal.”
“I might take two or three round trips before I decide where to stop,” Ryder says. At Fruitvale Avenue, he points out an edifice built in 1930 as a stately bank. In 2015, Ryder shot the burned-out building, its columns covered in smoke. Today, in June 2020, block letters spell out RED BAY COFFEE, a Black-owned specialty coffee company. “It’s the phoenix in the neighborhood,” he notes.
Ryder was a professional photographer before he moved to California 30 years ago and joined a tech company, eventually making Oakland his home. He became unsettled by the disconnect between media portrayals of a violent, crime-torn city and the urban landscape he encountered, with its distinctive architecture, exuberant ethnic neighborhoods, and traces of a long struggle for racial justice. In about 2013, he started to document the Oakland he saw around him. Race, in particular, is not always at the center of his frame, but it informs his vision and motivates his picture taking. And there’s another force at play: the Bay Area’s recent tech boom—of which he has been a part—and the gentrification it has wrought. Ironically, his camera of choice, the smartphone, has allowed him the freedom to shoot the things that capture his imagination—and are suddenly disappearing.
Ryder’s diction is precise, his voice soft, his mind alert. At 66, he still looks like the rangy athlete he was in 1976, when I would see him playing volleyball in courtyards at our college, Princeton, or photographing games for the campus paper. (Today his sport of choice is soccer; he participates in a senior league.) Tall and lean, with wire-rimmed glasses and a tight, graying Afro, he wears black athletic pants, black-and-white Nikes, a black fleece over a white wicking T-shirt, and a giant vintage Casio watch. (“It started out clear as Lucite but has tanned to an amber color. It metamorphed along with me .”)
A more important item is tucked into the left pocket of his pants: his Samsung Galaxy S9 phone.
At 60th Avenue, we drive past a low-slung wood building that is a riot of violet and gold. He takes it in with quick, birdlike glances. “I might have to come back for that.”
After a few “not that interesting” stretches, we do a U-turn, go another 10 blocks, and park. I chase after him as he crosses the street, turns toward International Boulevard, and fishes out the Samsung. I catch up and see what he sees: Fat, wood telephone poles jut up from the plane of the concrete sidewalk opposite a gunmetal-gray fence with fleurs-de-lis finials. Behind the rigid sentries, an abandoned edifice, Saints Rest Missionary Baptist Church. The boxy building, with its vertical sanctuary windows and gently sloping roof, is topped by a plain cross, standing stark against a blank blue sky. And curving above it all, droopy telephone wires.
“This is the best moment of the day,” Ryder says. “The cross woke up and can do its thing. Brightly lit, no clouds behind it. Pure rectilinearity. It’s graphical. But it’s also cultural. It’s symbolic.” He snaps a few images.
We walk back to International, his energy jittery and jazzy. “See all that yellow over there?” He points to his quarry, a funky wooden building on the corner, violet edged in daffodil yellow, with a yellow side door and a manufactured sign over the sidewalk that reads, “Perfecting Center.” Behind it rises a two-story, straw-colored house. Next door, a faded yellow bungalow oversees a crowded driveway. A gold cylindrical balloon stationed on the sidewalk in front of Oro Mex, crimped by the breeze, barks, “WE BUY GOLD.”
Ryder snaps photos while I wander up to a window of the Perfecting Center, curious about what, exactly, it offers. Behind yellow-painted bars, a black velvet board with white stick-on letters lays out the path to perfection:
SUN SCHOOL 10 AM
11 AM & 6 PM
THURS 730 PM
In the meantime, Ryder has become intrigued by a place across the street with a striped awning and barbed wire. “That blue is going to come alive when the afternoon sun hits it.”
I can only imagine the pictures soon to be posted on Facebook.
One such photograph, in a series he calls Oaktown, shows an abandoned warehouse on Treasure Island, its roof sheared off and its metal rafters forming a grid against a stone-blue sky. Its windows had been punctured by wind, flying objects, fierce fists. Its remaining walls were mere surfaces covered with clouds of pink paint, purple balloon letters, charcoal screeds.
I’m a sucker for ruins, and Malcolm Ryder shoots a lot of them: Alameda Naval Air Station mess halls, Donut Corner, and Glenn’s Hot Dogs, all decommissioned. He also photographs cemeteries, old cars, front yards, dying trees, and anything else that catches his fancy. But buildings are a favorite subject, especially edifices built for one use, repurposed for another, then altered again by the forces of nature, the ravages of poverty, or the incessant hand of man—whether eager gentrifiers or urban artists with small cans of paint and a big batches of attitude.
Curious about the Oaktown series, I invited Ryder to lunch this summer. It had been four decades since we were friends at Princeton. We sat at La Boulangerie on College Avenue for hours. There were years to catch up on, and a sui generis history.
Malcolm Eliot Ryder grew up in segregated Norfolk, Virginia, the child of musicians and civil rights activists. After his father died and his mother moved to Manhattan to get a PhD, he received a scholarship to help integrate the Westminster Schools, an elite private high school in Atlanta. That wasn’t easy. Ryder was one of 50 boys who boarded there. “I was the only Black student in the dorm,” he says calmly. “But I was not the first. The school had been evolving. The dormitory had not.”
The young Ryder retreated into himself, but he joined music and theater groups. That got him access to the auditorium, where he was allowed to use the grand piano in the orchestra pit. “Everyone knew that’s where I was when I wasn’t in class,” he recalls. One day, a classmate walked up and handed him some black-and-white prints. “He had snuck onto the stage and was photographing me, secretly, while I was playing the piano. I was immediately intrigued; I was looking at myself from earlier that same day. The next day, he showed me how to use the darkroom. I started taking pictures of my friends and tried to surprise them the way he had surprised me. That led to shooting school events. Some of those images wound up in the school newspaper and, eventually, the yearbook.
“I fell in love with being a picture taker.”
Ryder attended Princeton on a scholarship. He shot one roll of film every two days (“a self-imposed allowance”) and was a bit of a wunderkind, studying under the photographer Emmet Gowin and creating an independent major in visual studies—photography with a heavy dose of film and art criticism. He graduated with what he calls “a small, brutally edited portfolio” of the Black neighborhood across Nassau Street, just beyond the university’s walls.
Someone who has watched Ryder as a friend and fellow photographer since that time is Everett Scott, who continues to work as a photographer today. (He is also a painter and poet.)
“The fact that Malcolm was an African American at Princeton and I was an African American at Princeton gave us some sense of understanding—though I was coming from Trenton, [New Jersey],” Scott says. “We had a commonality—built around our photography, not our Blackness. To dare to think what you see from behind the camera is worth other people paying attention to, to have someone else have that same daring…,” he trails off, adding that together they piled up time in the darkroom. “Malcolm and I were busy putting in those 10,000 hours.” Scott later gained renown for photography of gardens.
After graduating from Princeton, Ryder launched a photography business in New Jersey and New York, including what he calls “a hit-and-run in fashion.” Then, over the next 12 years, he did stints evaluating photography for the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts, which he likened to getting a PhD in the craft.
In 1989, he and his wife, Kiki Bradley, relocated to San Francisco. He did not move his photography studio. He learned to code, took a job in a startup, and rose to vice president of a software company. For her part, Bradley worked in the restaurant industry.
Seven years later, the couple bought a restored Victorian cottage in Oakland and started a family. (They have two college-age children.) Ryder began consulting for tech startups and found himself freer. In 2013, he realized that his smartphone could take “decent to good” photographs, and he pledged to snap one good shot each day. “I wasn’t going to go to sleep if there wasn’t a new picture,” he says. “Some days there were 30. Some days there was just one.”
The Samsung allowed for less planning, more experiments, a jazzier rhythm. “It was explicitly expansive,” he notes, “and extremely affordable. It made me less of a professional photographer and more of a photographer. I count that as a rebirth.”
He was motivated by what might be called a mild strain of righteous indignation, a reaction to the “broad-scale hostility” to Oakland he perceived in media coverage. He knew the city for its contribution to the music world and civil rights and for its cultural richness. “I’m living in this place, and I thought, ‘People should really know what this place looks like.’ ”
He sought to document the authentic Oakland, free of “anybody else’s agenda,” he says. “I just keep running into cool stuff.”
Paradoxically—or not—that cool stuff is disappearing before his very eyes. “There’s going to be a moment in the future,” he says, “where there’s this book of photos, by me, called Oakland, and people are going to see a bunch of stuff that doesn’t even exist anymore.”
Ryder articulates his approach to making pictures as a painter might describe the craft: “I start out with a blank screen, and I’m putting stuff on that blank screen. The technique is one of drawing or collage. I’m arranging things on that blank screen.
“I always look at what I’m shooting as though it’s animate, not inanimate,” he adds. “I’m sensitive to when something is showing me its ‘lines’ and offering them to me to use.
“But things look the way they do because people made them look that way. I like seeing and feeling the influence of people.”
I’m reminded, when talking to Ryder, of the way Scott describes his friend: “He has an infinite capacity to find new things to see—things that are worth looking at.”
Oakland’s buildings challenge Ryder to find new meaning in the old and ravaged. He might discover that meaning in Treasure Island’s broken windows, made lyrical with pastel-colored graffiti; the sidewalk altar in front of the Ghost Ship warehouse (the art collective that burned in a notorious fire, killing 36); the many painted faces of Kasper’s Hot Dogs, a triangular building in my own neighborhood; a backyard barbershop wedged among highrises; or the “Gingerbread House” once visible from BART in West Oakland. “A lot of property is inhabited by people in their 70s and 80s,” he says. “They’re not going to change the way it looks. But when they leave, all bets are off.”
The absence of people is notable in most of his photos, which allows them to work as both documentaries and abstractions. “I intentionally leave people out. These pictures are about the place, and evidence of people, but not about particular people.”
Graffiti, for Ryder, is a kind of threefer: it is evidence of people who aggressively (“and sometimes affectionately”) claim turf, it’s raw political expression (“they are taking over the location”), and it’s fodder for his own composition (“I’m making a drawing about their drawing”).
“He’s made me see graffiti in a new way,” said the late Matt Herron, a renowned photographer of the civil rights movement who was based in Marin. (Herron passed away in August, after I reported this story.) He noted Ryder’s sensitivity to cityscapes and the aliveness of the urban artifact. “He’s a modern-day Lee Friedlander.”
Indeed, Ryder’s Oaktown series puts him squarely in the tradition of American street photographers, even if few of them considered graffiti, for example, as a chance to see a canvas through the viewfinder. Drew Johnson, curator of photography and visual culture at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) and a native of the East Bay city, notes that many street photographers have, like Ryder, been fascinated by Oakland, including Dorothea Lange in the 1940s and ’50s, Joanne Leonard in the 1960s and ’70s, and Lewis Watts since then.
Johnson finds Ryder’s work distinct, especially his choice to leave people largely out of the frame while making humans his very subject. “His decision and commitment to photographing spaces without people, and the way he does it,” Johnson says, gives a true “feeling for the city and the city’s people.”
EYES OF THE BEHOLDERS
After our reconnaissance mission at the corner of 60th and International, Ryder and I duck under the shade of an awning and talk about the quiet way that race plays out in his photos.
“I am the child of Black Norfolk,” Ryder says. “It was a segregated neighborhood. We lived on a street where everyone was like us. I went to a school where everyone was like me. My parents taught at a Black college. That was our world. The first time I stepped foot in Manhattan, at 14, I might as well have landed on another planet in another planetary system in another universe. I remember standing on the sidewalk and hearing probably six different languages and seeing people from God knows where. There are these Norwegians over here and Ethiopians over there. I wanted to be at home in that big world, to be confident and plugged in.”
Before that moment, Ryder says, it never occurred to him to think about being Black as something that needed special attention. Afterward, he came to see Blackness itself as infinitely varied and endlessly interesting.
“In Oakland,” he says, “there is a kaleidoscope of Blackness. But money isn’t distributed equally. The first question that comes to my mind when I’m looking at neighborhoods is, How much money do these people have and how do they use it? My usual reaction is unjudgmental. Somebody was here and this is what they had to work with, and this is what they made with it. It’s all intentional.
“I like to think I’m distilling the places to some essential version of themselves.”
Soon we are back in the Volkswagen Jetta, a car he shares with his daughter, reversing course and ending up back at his house. Built in 1870 as a two-bedroom cottage, the dwelling was expanded with a modern attic suite before Ryder and Bradley moved in. The house is flooded with light and painted in shades of white and cream, with bleached wood floors. The furnishings might be called casual chic: metal chairs with rush seats in the dining room, orange chairs in the parlor facing a mantel, art ranging from molded canvas covered in liquid graphite to a Louisiana wedding scene painted on corrugated tin with glass shards and rope to a small dog sculpted in metal. Off the gleaming kitchen is a swank deck that takes in a sweeping view of Alameda, Oakland, and the bay.
If the house proper is a place of light, its remodeled basement is a place of dark. Ryder is close to his family—Kiki Bradley says his “Virgo personality” and deeply ingrained sense of diplomacy help him get along with everyone, including his two very different kids. But Ryder spends a lot of time here alone. This is where he runs his consultancy business with a partner in Austin, this is where his computers are, this is where his giant TV is. This is where he hangs out when he can’t sleep, often watching his favorite movies: Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (“the photography is completely fused with the text”), Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (“noir in color”), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (“he’s a visual genius on his own”), Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (“the highlight experience in photography during the last three or so years”).
And, over and over, the Perry Mason TV series from the late 1950s and early ’60s. He sometimes hits Pause and freezes the image so he can admire the framing. “You’re cruising around Southern California suburbs, city streets at night. The light from the streetlight coming in through the open door, breaking over the furnishings. I see thousands and thousands of amazing pictures that way. I could fill up an entire floor at SFMOMA with landscape, fashion, interiors, tech, all from that show. I would love to do that, to send up a flare—go look at these shows and see them differently.”
As with Perry Mason himself, or the paintings of Edward Hopper, there is a loneliness in Ryder’s work—the eerie landscapes, the scenes without protagonists, the melancholy buildings whose builders have disappeared. And yet, unlike Mason or Hopper, Ryder also captures a sense of blooming life. “The photographs are inhabited even though there is not anybody there,” says OMCA’s Johnson. “I would detect a note of affection.”
BLACK LIVES MURALS
I see both the eerie quietude and the teeming humanity in a series Ryder is curating at the time of our “surveillance drive” along International, shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests of early June. In downtown Oakland, when shopkeepers boarded up their stores, muralists and graffiti artists found the plywood canvases irresistible. Because of concerns about COVID-19, Ryder avoided the crowds, but a neighbor told him about the wall art near 20th and Broadway, and he went on what he calls a “documentary jag.”
“There was a time when, if there was a protest, I would be there,” Ryder says. “The crowd behavior; the drama. But this time, I didn’t need to go and shoot, and I wasn’t going to get sick. But when the streets cleared out, I wanted to see what condition they were left in. I wanted to bear witness .”
He found the streets virtually empty. “Nobody was there. I got to see all the art, slowly.”
Ryder made 100 pictures of the wall art, a series he has yet to give a title to. Because he works digitally, we wouldn’t have looked at them the old-fashioned way, in the darkroom or through a loupe. But COVID-19 also prevented us from sitting side by side in front of his computer screen. To show me the images, he put them in a Google Photos album and shared it with me, and we met on Zoom to click through the series together.
My favorite might be one of the boarded-up Tay Ho restaurant, painted with a giant portrait of Angela Davis, a rainbow flag, a lotus, a crowd, and lots of yellow and blue. “The gate is blue, the fake columns are blue, the bricks are blue, the awning is blue,” Ryder muses. “I felt that that was the sky and all these other things are in midair, hovering like thoughts. And then I saw that the art on the wall was a picture of people holding up their signs. The artwork is documenting the reality, but the reality created the artwork. It was a wonderful connection. Uncomplicated and strong.”
One of his favorites shows a Comerica Bank ATM with lettering that reads, “Yellow Peril for Black Power,” a version of a slogan from the ‘60s. He says, “It’s traditional and supermodern at the same time. I love the artist’s attention to symmetry. For this entire event, it wasn’t just Black people portraying Black issues, or white people portraying Black issues. It was brown people and yellow people. It was really multicultural.
“That phrase ‘yellow peril’ is co-opted and repurposed. Black Power was 50 years ago. This artist took both things and dragged them way into the present moment. Out of all the pieces in here, this is one of the most successful souvenirs. It’s one of the most inclusive. It’s timeless.
“But it’s also beautiful. The colors, the laciness of how this was painted and drawn. This expresses that beauty comes from pain; celebration comes from struggle. You can keep stepping on us, but we’re gonna come back, and when we do come back, we’re gonna be looking good. I feel so much positivity coming out of this.”
At the end of our day together, as I get back into my own car and head home to North Oakland, I trace some of the route we started that morning. Right there on MacArthur, in the commercial center of the Dimond district, I notice something that, of course, I hadn’t seen earlier, before my old friend’s tutorial on how to look at the city I’ve lived in as long as he has. It’s a tag, high up on an apartment building in mid-refurbishment. And not any tag. Here is RESTA, again, the name both fleeting and insistent, painted today, repainted tomorrow, all over Oakland—and captured, perhaps here, perhaps there, by one man’s smartphone.
Then, as I barrel along I-580, I realize that the fringed scarf with the black-and-white geometric design that I wore today as my mask is not with me. It must have fallen in the driveway of Ryder’s house. A month later, it returns to me via Facebook Messenger. It’s the centerpiece of a black-and-white composition that, perhaps, was Malcolm Ryder’s one good picture that day. In a text, he says he’s been treating it “as a magical object to help draw this distancing thing to a close.”
To view more of Malcolm Ryder’s photography and read his essays about the craft, visit artdotdot.com.
Constance Hale is a California journalist and the author of six books, including the writing primer Sin and Syntax. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Wired, the Atlantic, Honolulu, National Geographic Adventure, Smithsonian, and many other venues.