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I learnt about Bill Washburn‘s series Taxi years ago (on a recommendation from Blake Andrews). The pictures stuck with me, especially during a recent two-year stint living in San Francisco. Now I’m back in Portland and Bill Washburn is my neighbour and I’m so happy to have been able to write about Taxi for Timeline: These vivid 1980s photos show gritty San Francisco cab life in the days before Uber.

“As a taxi driver, I had a very privileged viewpoint,” says Washburn who drove a cab between 1982 and 1986 to supplement his income during art school. “It was an opportunity to get to know San Francisco intensely. It was a dynamic city, I worked it all, not just downtown.”

Washburn’s unorthodox portraits are strange nostalgic triggers for a city we may not have known then but know now, through daily headlines, of a city drastically changed by decades of housing market spikes, mass displacement and gentrification. There’s loss as well as discovery in these photos.

I asked Kelly Dessaint, cab-driver, San Francisco Examiner columnist and author of I Drive SF, what he thought of Washburn’s images.

“It’s always a mystery who’s going to climb in the back of your taxi,” says Dessaint. “The uncertainty of where a ride will take you can be exhilarating and terrifying. Sometimes simultaneously. These photos really capture the randomness of taxi driving, as well as the awkward intimacy that comes from sharing an enclosed space with a stranger for a prolonged period of time.”

Dessaint, who drove for both Uber and Lyft before signing up with City Cabs, laments the loss of spontaneity and unpredictability brought on by ridesharing

“With app-based transportation,” he explains, “the pick up and drop off points, along with the route, are recorded. You know the passenger’s name before they get in the car. They know yours. It’s not a random encounter like when someone flags you on the street. And with the rating system, the passenger is always in control. Drivers know that if they step out of line, they can easily get deactivated. Which limits spontaneity and creates a passive experience for the driver. As a taxi driver, you’re always in control.”

The power of these photos may lie in the fact that they show conversation not merely transaction; that they depict a time before profiles, stars and likes. For Washburn, now in his seventies, the differences and decisions are obvious.

“I’ll never take an Uber or a Lyft. I’d feel like a traitor,” says Washburn.

See more and read more here.

 

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