San Jose Mercury News: Photographer's Vision is of a 'Lost San Jose'

San Jose Mercury News: Photographer’s Vision is of a ‘Lost San Jose’

San Jose Mercury News: Photographer's Vision is of a 'Lost San Jose'

“Lost Childhood” (courtesy of Joshua Marcotte)

Posted by the San Jose Mercury News Aug. 8, 2013.

By Eric Kurhi

SAN JOSE — As a kid, Josh Marcotte couldn’t get enough of his grandfather’s tales of downtown San Jose in the 1940s and ’50s. He would sit in rapt attention, visualizing the stately hotels, bustling night life and neon-bathed breaths of a living urban core.

“A lot of people might have thought, ‘Oh, here we go again with that story,’ but I didn’t mind,” Marcotte said. “My teenage mind could picture it all.”

But while the fourth-generation San Jose native grew up just miles away off Bascom Avenue, he never did much exploring in the downtown area until he enrolled at San Jose State in 1997, and then his grandiose notions were dashed.

“The Montgomery Hotel, this great historic building, had pigeons flying in and out of broken windows,” said Marcotte, 34. “The whole place was a mess. It wasn’t what my grandfather had described. What he described was gone.”

San Jose Mercury News: Photographer's Vision is of a 'Lost San Jose'

“Red Phone” (courtesy of Joshua Marcotte)

So Marcotte embarked on a mission, casting himself as a preserver of past and present, immortalizing fading treasures through photography.

What started more than a decade ago as a humble side project to complement his written personal, unpublished musings on “Lost San Jose,” the photography has since come to the fore. The fruits of excursions aided by “insomnia, trespassing and a camera” have been seen at numerous local gallery shows in recent years. Starting Friday, they’ll be part of a partnered exhibit at the Empire Seven Studio in San Jose.

“A lot of the places that inspired me were being scheduled for demolition, to build more housing, or for another of the three dozen Subway sandwich shops,” said Marcotte, a husband and father of a 6-year-old son. “I started taking the pictures just for me, for proof that they existed.”

In the early days Marcotte armed himself with a disposable Kodak Fun Saver snapper, and he admits the pictures were atrocious. But after realizing that an upgrade to a digital SLR would reap the benefits of not having to buy or process film — enabling Marcotte to “take as many bad photos as I wanted” — he revisited an old photo technique book and kept practicing, day and night.

With an eye for all things nostalgic, photo subjects were easy to find. While he initially targeted some of the most eye-catching images of the town — a larger-than-life lumberjack, say, or prominent tubes of glowing inert gas — lately he’s found more satisfaction in stumbling upon sights on roads less traveled.

“I know it sounds cheesy, but I feel that these buildings and objects have a soul,” Marcotte said. “They were created with a purpose in life brought into them. People went into a business to buy things there that they loved intensely. They were part of the community, part of the family, and there was a reason they were there.”

Once those buildings are abandoned, he said, the inevitable decay begins. The paint peels from storefronts, and plywood siding rots. A once-beloved car gradually becomes a patchwork chassis of rust and holes, not sturdy Detroit steel. Wires fray, bulbs break, and, at some point, that attention-grabbing sign will never light up the night again.

“It’s like they’re dying of cancer, and I’m trying to illustrate that they still have a soul, they still have beauty and they’re still unique,” he said. “I want to document that because once they’re gone, whatever condition they’re in now, they’re never coming back.”

It’s not a yen exclusive to Marcotte, and for reasons aesthetic and otherwise, derelict objects have their share of admirers. Earlier this year Marcotte and about 15 like-minded photographers and artists made a pilgrimage to The Neon Museum in Las Vegas — a tourist attraction better known as the “boneyard,” a final resting place for the city’s catalog of retired glitz.

“You lose signs daily,” said Stefanie Poteet, a San Diego-based photographer who was among those in Vegas. “You’ll see an article, ‘Oh, here’s another sign that went down,’ or, ‘Here’s another sign that the developer said they would save and didn’t.’ It happens all the time. Josh is documenting part of history, part of San Jose that would be lost if it wasn’t for the work that he does.”

The exhibit that opens Friday is called Cross Process and is a collaboration with local artist Kori Thompson. They came up with the idea when they ran into each other at a lucha libre wrestling event at the Shark Tank.

“I think it’s perfect because his work is more urban scenes of what’s going on, what you see at night, and I’m more about painting people,” Thompson said.

Some of the work on display will be Thompson’s paintings, others will be Marcotte’s photos, and the two will mesh in the middle, with life actually injected into the photographed scenes via a paintbrush.

“I thought it was a wonderful way to take the quiet, still images of the landscapes and places I find myself and bring in Kori’s world that’s constantly moving and alive with people,” Marcotte said.

Cherri Lakey, who is a key player in numerous San Jose galleries and cofounded the annual SubZERO underground art festival in downtown’s South First area, said the two collaborators “epitomize the artists we look for.”

“They do it every day,” she said. “It’s not like they wait for the sun to come out and then go and paint flowers. The cool thing about Josh is that he’s out there every day, not necessarily searching for it, but his eyes are always open to capture something that may well be gone tomorrow. We have short attention spans. One minute something’s there and then it’s gone and there’s another beige building going up and nobody remembers what was there before. But the photo keeps the thing alive.”

Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at


What: Cross Process art and photography exhibition
Where: Empire Seven Studios, 525 N. Seventh St., San Jose
When: Opening reception 7 to 11 p.m. Friday. Exhibit runs through Aug. 30. Gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday
Details: For more on Josh Marcotte’s photography, go to