Peter Fortuna’s Lost Photographs at Tenderloin Museum

by on July 6, 2017

The Tenderloin Museum recovers the lost history of a great American neighborhood. Tonight, it displays the heretofore unseen photography and ephemera of Peter Fortuna, whose remarkable life ultimately brought him to the Tenderloin neighborhood.

“Peter Fortuna: A Tenderloin Story” offers a collaged selection of original photographs, magazine tearsheets, correspondence, and digital photographs by Peter Fortuna spanning 1970-1998. Tonight’s opening show from 6-8pm celebrates Fortuna’s unique photographic legacy along with footage from the 1991 Fortuna produced film, ‘War.’

As I describe in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, the Tenderloin has long been filled with talented people whose connection to the neighborhood went unreported. Science fiction writer Fritz Lieber lived in anonymity in the Hotel Union at 811 Geary for years. Few were aware that Miriam Allen de Ford, one of the leading mystery writers of her time, lived for decades at the Tenderloin’s Ambassador Hotel.

Fortuna’s photography career presents a much darker trajectory.

Born in New Jersey, Fortuna was presented with a camera as a gift from his father at ten years old. Working as a commercial fashion photographer in New York City in the early 1970s, Fortuna found success fueling a vast studio practice in Midtown Manhattan, and a cache of celebrity and artist contemporaries of New York’s thriving art scene. Beyond commercial photography, Fortuna’s instincts for fashion and trend inspired him to create a series of t-shirts branded ‘Fortuna t-shirts’ featuring a simple graphic of a Nikon camera. The t-shirt was wildly popular, featured in magazines internationally and picked up by Bloomingdale’s.

As an American living in Paris in the late 1970s, Fortuna was at the pinnacle of his success. He counted Elle, DePache-Mode, PRIVÉ, Femme Pratique, 20ans, Photo Reporter, Petticoat and Women’s Magazine among his regular clients.

Fortuna moved to San Francisco and struggled with sobriety. He embarked on a ten year odyssey of excruciating events pierced with tragedy. He lost his lease on his apartment, frequented recovering programs only to suffer painful relapses, and made regular trips to various emergency ward and shelters.

Fortuna soon found himself homeless. While living on the street struggling with alcoholism, most of Fortuna’s original photographs and negatives were destroyed in a flood in his friend’s Noe Valley basement. A small selection of photographs have been ‘resurrected’ as digital prints for the purpose of this exhibition, and are displayed along with original photographs, magazine tearsheets, and correspondence.

Fortuna came to the Tenderloin as a resident seeking subsidized housing while dealing with a crippling addiction. The community helped him create a new life for himself. Fortuna currently resides in the Tenderloin and is celebrating seven years of sobriety. He is working on his first nonfiction book, ‘The Myth of the Platonic Orgasm’, and the pre-production of a new film, ‘SRO’ chronicling the agonizing homeless situation in San Francisco.

Peter Fortuna represents what the Tenderloin and the Tenderloin Museum is all about. Don’t miss tonight’s opening. If you must, check out his collection at the museum in the days ahead. It continues through July 31.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and is on the Board of the Tenderloin Museum.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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