Vacancy voyeur: Matt Fisher's shots of a Treasure Island that waits

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Originally built as an airport for flying boats, Treasure Island's man-made four square kilometers went on to house the Navy, and now is home to wineries, environmental hazards, electronic music from time to time, 2,500 people -- most of them low-income, many of them college students -- and tons of unused, abandoned buildings that capture the imagination of artists (check out this video from Tiny Town Productions we posted last year.)

The latest creative type to get inspired is Matt Fisher, a photographer who captured the isle's luminous creepiness in his shots. Now that there's plans to build more housing on the isle, Fisher is working on turning the images into a book to capture a moment in time and structures that may not be around much longer. We caught up with him about his tangles with pollution, ghosts, and about why he didn't shoot any of Treasure Island's living inhabitants. 

San Francisco Bay Guardian: What inspired you to take on Treasure Island?

Matt Fisher: About six years ago, a friend of mine started working for the Treasure Island Development Authority, which oversees all the properties on the island. Through visits out there and seeing some of the buildings left over from the Navy’s occupation, I became intrigued with the story behind the island. I ended up doing a short-form documentary for Current TV on the island and the location has been lingering with me ever since. I watched it become more populated with residents and businesses, and about two years ago, I finally started taking my camera out there. Current plans for redevelopment to turn Treasure Island into an eco-friendly city had me wondering what would happen to these tarnished old remnants of the island’s past. Would they be forgotten like so many other things? That was when I decided to document the island and the remaining structures as thoroughly as I could.

SFBG: There are thousands of people living out there and I don't see any of them in your shots -- why didn't you shoot the inhabited portions of the island?

MF: I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon when a human is added to the landscape of a picture, whether it is a painting, video, or photo. Immediately, it seems like your attention is directed at the figure. Humans love to look at other humans. Take the human out of the picture and you start realizing elements of the landscape again, the buildings and the objects. I really tried to keep people out of many of these photos for that reason. The landscape on Treasure Island is so bizarre, I really tried to portray that desolate and eerie feeling to the viewers.

SFBG: I know the island is crazy polluted -- did you run into any dicey situations involving waste out there?

MF: I personally didn’t run into any problems out there but most of the pollution problems come from invisible culprits, so maybe I did and just don’t know it yet. Asbestos is running rampant out there and taking out a lot of buildings. Low levels of radiation are also a factor and now the recent news of a botched radiological assessment from the past has the Island’s future looking sketchy again. I really felt like this was a critical time to do this project with all the uncertainties swirling around its growth over the last five years. My hope is that this book can serve as a historical reference to immortalize this mysterious landmass before it's too late.

SFBG: Ghosts?

MF: I am sad to report I experienced no ghosts. The attached Yerba Buena Island may have a few lurking around though. Indian burial artifacts and other human remains have been found out there while building the Bay Bridge back in the late 1930s. They found a mammoth’s tusk as well!