A selfie in front of the Golden Gate Bridge… a profile shot of yourself gazing pensively out from Coit Tower… a casual wave as you hang off the side of a cable car… there are countless classic photo-ops all over San Francisco. But even the classics can get tired, especially in a city whose architecture and landscapes have been scrapbook staples for years.
Luckily, these days, there's no need to settle for a cliché tourist snapshot in order to remember your visit to the City by the Bay. Because for every picture-postcard view in this city, there are countless other settings full of weird, wonderful, only-in-SF beauty.
On your next visit, try livening up your vacation photos – and making your Facebook friends jealous – by posing in front of these six works of public art that say "I'm off the beaten path San Francisco."
What: A 60-foot-high bow and arrow sprouting from a large lawn on the city's eastern waterfront, Cupid's Span was a 2002 gift to San Francisco from the founders of local outfitter The Gap. The whimsical work is meant to change with your perspective as you walk around it: from one angle, its arc frames the city skyline; from another, it outlines the water and the Bay Bridge. Its shape mimics both a boat on the water and a delicate suspension bridge; its name invokes a love letter to the city.
The artists, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, are known for their fanciful, oversized interpretations of everyday objects (including clothespins, garden hoses, and bicycles), which can be found on display at institutions and parks all over the world.
Where: Rincon Park, on the Embarcadero between Folsom and Howard Streets.
Why it's an awesome photo op: This sculpture adds the fun to any scene you're capturing, whether it's the skyscrapers of the Financial District or the nighttime lights of the Bay Bridge. Plus, it makes you look positively Lilliputian when you pose next to it.
What: The first piece of public art commissioned for installation along the Embarcadero, sculptor Roger Barr's 1985 Skygate is a shimmering, twirling arch of polished stainless steel reaching 26 feet into the air. Dedicated to San Francisco longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer, Skygate is a tribute to a local legend by a local artist: While Barr's works appear in museum collections across the country and the world, it was the SF Bay Area that he called home.
Where: On the Embarcadero, near Pier 35.
Why it's an awesome photo op: Skygate's been called "a shining link between sea and sky," which is also an apt description for photo effects of the piece. The mirror-polished shine blurs clouds, sunshine, and reflections from the water together, and creates a sunburst at the top when the light's just right. Depending on your vantage point, you can capture everything from yachts in the Bay to Coit Tower in the distance under the sparkling arch.
The Vaillancourt Fountain
What: Designed in 1971 by Québécois artist Armand Vaillancourt, this mammoth fountain in SF's Justin Herman Plaza has been sparking debates over beauty and public art for decades. The 40-foot-high network of boxy, concrete tubes was intended to mimic the lines of the elevated Embarcadero Freeway, which served as a backdrop when the fountain was erected. But the freeway was demolished after the city's 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, leaving many San Franciscans to opine that the fountain wasn't visually pleasing enough to leave standing on its own.
But despite the best efforts of its opponents, the Vaillancourt Fountain's still a solid presence today, and remains as iconic as ever.
Where: Justin Herman Plaza, across from the Embarcadero near the SF Ferry Building.
Why it's an awesome photo op: Because this fountain's history of controversy isn't limited to its reputation with local aesthetes. In 1987, U2 played a free concert in front of the fountain, during which Bono spontaneously spray painted the words "Rock 'n roll stops the traffic" on one of its columns. Though the graffiti was later removed (after much public debate), the act remains an apt reminder of the whole work's against-the-grain status.
Mark di Suvero at Crissy Field
What: World-renowned artist Mark di Suvero's eight monumentally sized sculptures on Crissy Field have quickly become as popular as they are temporary. A partnership between the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the National Park Service, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy brought the works together from across the country in 2013, but the pieces will be returning to their respective homes at the end of May 2014.
Di Suvero has long had a fascination with bridges, and with the Golden Gate in particular: he emigrated to San Francisco from Shanghai as a small child, and the impression our city's elegant, tangerine-hued span must have had on him is evident in the works now on display at Crissy Field. Constructed with tough materials including giant buoys, cables, and steel I-beams, each work fits in perfectly when set against the San Francisco Bay and the famous bridge that straddles it.
To get the full story on these graceful steel giants, make your way to Crissy Field at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday for a free, docent-led tour of the exhibition. You can also tour the works, and listen to commentary by di Suvero himself, using your mobile phone as a guide.
Where: Crissy Field, a beautiful, waterfront stroll away from HI-SF Fisherman's Wharf.
Why it's an awesome photo op: Everyone takes their picture in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. But how many of your friends have snapped their photo in front of structures so outrageously beautiful, they put the bridge in the background? Bonus: a few months from now, this photo op will no longer exist. This special exhibition ends on May 26, 2014, and so does your chance to capture di Suvero's works alongside the Bay and the bridge.
What: Can't make it to the Burning Man music festival this year? Then you'd better make it out to San Francisco's Treasure Island instead. Just a few minutes on the #108 bus from downtown gets you across the Bay Bridge and over to this little community in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, where urban wineries pour, artisans craft, and skyline views go panoramic. For the best view on the island, track down Bliss Dance, a 40-foot-tall masterpiece of steel and metal mesh originally created for Burning Man in 2010. Now set along Treasure Island's waterfront, the piece looks poised to prance right down Avenue of the Palms, with the water, the hills, and even mainland landmarks like the Transamerica Pyramid as her backdrop.
Bliss Dance was created right here on Treasure Island by artist Marco Cochrane; you can stop by his studio to see other works in progress by following a map posted near the piece.
Where: On Treasure Island's Avenue of the Palms. Hop on the #108 Muni bus downtown and take it to the Treasure Island Road/Guard Station stop (the first stop on the island). Make a right on Avenue of the Palms and you're there!
Why it's an awesome photo op: Where do we even begin? It's a unique vantage point from which to capture the city skyline on film. It gets illuminated by the sunset in the evening, and illuminated by multi-colored internal lights at night. It invites endless leaping, frolicking, pirouetting picture poses. And, oh yeah: it's an undeniable visual ode to the pure, unrestrained joy of simply being in San Francisco.
What's your favorite piece of public art for an only-in-SF pic? Tweet us your selfies at @HIUSANorCal #SculptureSelfies ! Just remember: look, snap, and post to your heart's content, but please don't touch these and other works of public art. We want to keep them around for years of visitors and locals to come!
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