May 23, 2022

The Fourthny

Art is beauty

SF photographer takes vivid portraits of everyday residents

7 min read


Harry Williams Jr. hopes his photographs create a human connection to the many faces we often pass by without a glance on the street of San Francisco.

“I want people to see the people that they might overlook every day they walk by without acknowledging,” he explained. “I want my photos to feel like they are going to breathe on you, that tactile feel like you can touch them and they can touch you.”

One of Harry Williams' street portraits.

One of Harry Williams’ street portraits.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

Williams shares his vivid street photography portraits on his Instagram page hwilliamsjrphoto.

Walking the streets of SF, Williams travels light, only carrying a camera with either a 50 or 60 mm lens. Like any great portrait, his images capture the faces of his subjects and their personality.

One of Harry Williams' street portraits.

One of Harry Williams’ street portraits.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

“Social realism would best describe my work, I like to interact with my subjects, so I get these intimate close-up shots,” Williams noted. “I love seeing this beautiful catch light in people’s eyes that makes them shine.”

One of Harry Williams' street portraits.

One of Harry Williams’ street portraits.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

Williams grew up in rural Ohio and found his love for photography by taking a class in college. “As soon as I saw my images in the darkroom, I was hooked,” he said. “I graduated with a BA in photography from the Ohio State University.”

After graduating, Williams sold everything he owned besides his camera and traveled extensively through Southeast Asia for a year.

“I started doing street photography when I traveled to Southeast Asia. The more I traveled, the more I was drawn to people and items that were discarded that look like they had a soul or life to them,” he said.

One of Harry Williams' street photographs.

One of Harry Williams’ street photographs.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

When Williams finished his travels in 2002, he moved to the Bay Area.

“When I moved to San Francisco, it was so expensive that I really couldn’t travel anymore, so I decided to focus on a body of work walking the streets of San Francisco,” he explained. “I have been here for around 20 years now but really started focusing on San Francisco streets four years ago.”

Williams found that every time he photographed the streets of San Francisco, he discovered something new.

One of Harry Williams' street portraits.

One of Harry Williams’ street portraits.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

“I find that I am so much more aware of everything that is going on around me when I am walking. I kind of go into another zone,” Williams said. “A lot of times, I might only take a couple shots and then maybe three or four portraits, but when it all lines up with beautiful light and say a person’s hands that looks like a sculpture, I am so stoked to get home and start to edit.”

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto


Harry J Williams / Instagram

Williams said that his photography style is influenced by Dorothea Lange, particularly her sensitivity to her subjects, as well as Frank Capra.

“Capra because I love his quote that if a photo is not good enough, you are not close enough,” he notes. “I love finding and seeing items that are discarded and bringing a new life to them by photographing them. I think that’s why I love to photograph people that are overlooked.”

One of Harry Williams' street portraits.

One of Harry Williams’ street portraits.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

While walking the streets of San Francisco, Williams finds that carrying only a camera with a small lens makes it much easier to approach the people he wants to photograph.

“If I see someone interesting I want to photograph, I just say hi or give them a compliment about how great they look in the light,” Williams explained. “It’s really very organic, and a lot of people just feel comfortable with me, I think in part because I just look like a tourist. I don’t carry multiple lenses or a telephoto and stand across the street and try to sneak a photo. My approach is to get to know them a little then maybe get a portrait if they are comfortable.”

Williams often has to be within a few feet of his subject to create his intimate portraits. “This means that to get the images I get, I have to talk to people to get as close as I can get, as well the people need to feel comfortable with me being that close,” he said. “Almost all of my photos are not cropped, and I am always getting closer and closer.”

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto


Harry J Williams / Instagram

After he takes the photos, Williams often finds his subject is usually very grateful and happy to be acknowledged.

“Some people will tell me that I am the first person that has actually stopped and talked to them in days, or others have said they have not had a photo taken of them since grade school,” Williams said.

Besides his intimate portraits of people’s faces, Williams also concentrates on their hands, inspired by a childhood memory of his grandfather.

One of Harry Williams' street portraits.

One of Harry Williams’ street portraits.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

“I feel like hands are like portraits; they say so much about a person without even seeing their faces,” he explained. “When my grandfather was dying, I remember seeing his hands tied to the bed so they wouldn’t fall off. I was little, and they were at eye level to me. They were swollen with all kinds of wrinkles, and deep healed cut marks. He was a World War II veteran, and I remember that sight of these huge strong lifeless hands that I just stared at and told his whole life story. I will never forget that image of his hands.”

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto


Harry J Williams / Instagram

Although many of the people in William’s photos may live on the streets of San Francisco, he has found out many end up hanging out on the streets because of boredom.

“When I go out to do photography, I am not just looking to photograph homeless people. I really just let it be organic,” he said. “I think probably most homeless people are sitting in a particular spot whereas it’s hard to engage with someone if they are walking by you. I have stopped people if I really want to photograph them, but usually, it has to be in the right light and background.”

One of Harry Williams' street portraits.

One of Harry Williams’ street portraits.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

After walking the streets for four years, Williams often runs into the same people and sometimes retakes their portraits.

“Once a homeless man asked me why I wanted to photograph him. He said, ‘Look at me.’ I answered that, ‘You just look beautiful in this light. Your eyes just light up.’ He then asked how much money I make from taking photos, and I said I do it for the sake of art, and when I see a beautiful subject, I just want to capture it,” Williams said. “The man started to cry. He was probably in his late 60s. It was a very touching moment for me.”

Besides his portrait work, Williams also captures more traditional candid street photographs.

“San Francisco is so awesome for that. I love walking from the Mission to Chinatown. One moment might be a lowrider show, then next maybe a drag show in the middle of the Tenderloin,” Williams said.

One of Harry Williams' street photographs.

One of Harry Williams’ street photographs.

Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

“It’s really an amazing place because you never really know what you’re going to see, but you are always going to see something interesting,” he added.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto

A street photography image from Harry J Williams.

A street photography image from Harry J Williams.


Harry J Williams / Instagram

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.

Harry Williams captures vivid, intimate street photography portraits on the street of San Francisco.


Instagram / hwilliamsjrphoto


Harry J Williams / Instagram

Williams also has a photo show called “Serendipity” at the Foreign Lens in North Beach for First Friday on May 6. “The show is not about street photography. It’s more simple abstract organic forms that I find on the beach after I am done surfing,” he said. “I always wonder if the pieces find me or if I find them. I have always thought of myself as an artist and not really a photographer. The camera is just a tool. Before I moved to San Francisco, I did a lot of mixed media work, printing images in the darkroom on beer cans.”

As for his street photography, Williams is also currently working on compiling his images into a book entitled “Eye See You” that he plans to release in the fall. “So currently, I am looking for a gallery or space to partner with. Some proceeds of the book will go back to a local charity.”

You can follow Harry Williams Jr. on Instagram, and see more of his work on his website: harrywphoto.com 





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