Cancer-stricken photographer captures urban grace
Lying in her hospital bed, Nancie Gee gazes out the only window in the room, watching the birds fly by.
Gee remembered a time not long ago when she roamed the city streets, stalking elusive prey — to photograph.
Photos by Nancie Gee
Now 74 years old and diagnosed with Pseudomyxoma peritonea, a rare form of cancer, Gee began taking photographs of San Francisco pigeons during her retirement when she bought and sold stocks to make money.
Gee was fascinated with their different-colored markings and would wander The City every day in the morning and again in the evening hunting for birds with special markings.
Gee told SFBay she never thought to find pigeons in different colors:
“There is beauty all around us if we only take the time to look. You never know what you’re going to find.”
Gee was working on a coffee table book full of pigeon photos when she was diagnosed with cancer in May and given six months to live.
Publishing companies weren’t interested in her pictures. And now she was sick.
Gee knew she had made such unique photographs. When — if ever — would people be able to see them?
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Most pigeons have simple black and white coloring. But Gee hunted through The City for those with unique markings.
She had her favorite places. Sansome and Market. The Castro. 24th and Mission.
Photos by Nancie Gee
Feeding pigeons is illegal in San Francisco, punishable by a $400 fine. But that didn’t stop Gee. She evaded the cops and a ticket. For eight years.
Gee found photographing the birds to be an emotional release from a day spent following the ups and downs of the stock market.
With no 401(k) and no pension to speak of, Gee makes money buying and selling stocks and bonds.
She’s considered a high-risk investor because her portfolio is full of volatile stocks like Facebook, Apple and Southwest. Her investments lack safer mutual funds.
Gee would go walking and bird feeding in the morning and again at night, looking for those elusive birds only she seemed to love.
Raised in the Unity Church, Gee was taught that birds were spiritual messengers; it made her look at the animals in a different way than most people.
Before she died, Gee’s older sister Mary taught her to make the world a better place. Gee hoped that somehow, her photographs would do just that.
Gee saw beauty everywhere, but no one else would see it — unless she took the time to photograph her birds.
She found a bird with orange feathers in Pacific Heights, an albino pigeon in the Civic Center, a blue one in the Mission and one with purple feathers on Sansome Street.
Every one of her photos has a story behind it, like the time one bird followed her home. It hopped along the fence next to her as she walked back to her apartment in the Castro.
She named it Gucci Bird for its distinctive black and white coloring and small brown spot on its side.
Unable to keep a pet inside her apartment, Gee kept the bird as an outside pet, feeding it outside her home for five years.
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Photos by Nancie Gee
Before Gee’s sister died of lung cancer, she promised to return and let her family know she was OK. After her sister’s death, the family found comfort in seeing a Morning dove outside their house.
The birds look similar to pigeons, but are more muted in color than their related cousins. Studying the birds led Gee to her love of pigeons, which, in turn, taught her about life.
When Gee began photographing pigeons, she discovered other people didn’t share her love of the birds.
She was surprised at the cruelty some people exhibited toward the animals. She found birds with their legs tied together; some had their wings spray-painted while others had acupuncture needles forced through their skin.
She tried to learn all she could about the birds, but found a surprising lack of information. Children’s books seemed like they had the most information.
Pigeons were monogamous, she found, and the mating pair took turns caring for their young. Every female produced only two eggs at a time. They’re also one of the few birds able to suck water up like a straw.
Don’t feed the pigeons raw rice, she would tell the tourists, it’s not good for them. But they never listened. So Gee continued to focus on photos for her second coffee table book.
The first came decades earlier in the spring of her life, when she lived in Seattle.
She photographed people sitting outside Pike Place Market, turning her efforts into a black and white photo book named Reflections of Pike Place Markets. It’s still available on Amazon for the savvy collector.
The book didn’t do well and she blames the high cost: $17 from Superior Publishing. A competing photo book by famous photographer Mark Toeby also limited its success.
Gee’s mom told her there was no money in photography, so she forgot about her passion and focused on providing herself with an income instead.
When she finally returned to San Francisco she found work as a legal secretary, but still remembered her love of the visual arts.
After she retired, she kept her pigeon photos near her computer to remind her of what was important.
From her hospital bed, Gee told SFBay her pictures showed the beauty to be found just outside:
“These photos are something people will never see unless they spend the time watching.”