Finding old photographs to mark the centennial of California’s 1906 “Great Quake” and fire was the easy part of Corey Keller’s job as an assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
She had a much harder time deciding which ones to include in the museum’s “1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures.”
Thousands of black-and-white images were available for the asking _ pictures taken for insurance companies and souvenir postcards, work by portrait photographers who smelled money in the ashes, some of the earliest aerial photos and fuzzy family snapshots still in scrapbooks.
“The taste for disaster or pictures of catastrophes is by no means new,” Keller mused.
After nearly two years of considering candidates from public sources and private collections, she eventually whittled the treasure trove down to 100 selections. The number of possibilities illustrates the theme of the exhibit: as the first disaster to be documented on both a commercial scale and at a personal level, April 18, 1906, caught the public’s imagination largely because it was caught on camera.
The point is proven by the half-dozen other shows on display in and around San Francisco that use photography as the lens for exploring the lessons of the quake and firestorms that leveled 28,000 buildings and left 225,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents homeless.
From the Historical Society of California’s photos shot by author Jack London and his wife, to the then-and-now series by Arizona photographer Mark Klett at the Legion of Honor, vintage photography appears front and center as the centennial approaches.
Harvard University photography historian Robin Kelsey attributes the extensive photographic record of the city’s destruction to what he calls “the Kodak moment,” when technological advances made photography available to the masses at the turn of the 20th century.
These innovations included the introduction of the cardboard Kodak Brownie in 1903, the availability of film so flexible even a novice could load it, and printing improvements that let newspapers put photos on the same pages as words.
“The way all these different types of taking photographs were brought to bear on a single event, all these different ways of making it into a visual record but also a spectacular form of visual interest, was historically unusual,” Kelsey said.
For the Museum of Modern Art exhibit, Keller picked examples of work by both commercial photographers and amateurs. Sweeping panoramic views and double-imaged “stereo” shots that presaged the modern Viewmaster hang next to the unskilled efforts of tourists and building shots purposely composed to evoke classical ruins.
While professional work comprises about 80 percent of the exhibit, the entries by lay people, sometimes unfocused or taken at odd angles, “are more spontaneous and help flesh out the scene,” Keller said. One of her favorites captures a woman in formal dress looking down into her Brownie against a backdrop of debris.
“One of the things that is so wonderful is they are not trained photographers, so they are not looking to make a certain kind of pictures or adhere to certain kinds of rules about what a good picture is,” she said.
At the other end of the spectrum is a birds-eye view of the wreckage by George R. Lawrence, a Chicago photographer who rigged a camera to a series of kites he sent 2,000 feet above San Francisco Bay.
The exhibit also exposes the way cameras can deceive, if not lie. A series taken at the direction of the California Promotion Committee depicts tents at a refugee camp, lined up with military precision, and stacks of lumber used in the rebuilding. Yet in all her research, Keller saw only one photograph of a dead person, even though estimates of the dead range from 3,000 to over 5,000.
“Photography was a good way to repair the image of San Francisco as a city that was going to rise again and not one that one had to lose hope in,” Keller said.
The Historical Society’s Jack London exhibit, meanwhile, aims to shed light on previously unknown aspects of both the “Call of the Wild” author and the scope of the destruction.
Within hours of the earthquake, London and his new wife, Charmain, traveled by train, ferry and horseback from their ranch in Sonoma County through Oakland and the counties north of San Francisco.
The couple’s photographs provide one of the only historical records of the earthquake’s damage outside San Francisco, according to director Stephen Becker. Using original negatives, the museum had several dozen reproduced by a master developer to bring out the detail and depth that weren’t previously visible.
“We certainly know about (London) as a writer, but what we didn’t know about him as much was as a photographer,” Becker said. “We now know that as a photographer, he was pretty good.”
In coming weeks, the San Francisco Public Library plans to honor the earthquake’s survivors by displaying never-before-seen personal photo albums from its collection, while the Chinese Historical Society of America will unveil an exhibit of photographs and newspapers documenting how Chinese immigrants fared after the earthquake. Wells Fargo Bank has its own offering — “San Francisco is in Ashes” — based on photos and other artifacts from its archives.
The overlapping photo exhibits do not surprise Keller.
“I had a lot of very sweet people call me to say, ‘I have these incredibly rare earthquake pictures I want to sell to the museum,'” Keller said. “I have always had to break it to them very gently that their pictures are actually not rare.”
Was this article valuable?
Here are more articles you may enjoy.