From the Ashes

One of the most famous photographic images of San Francisco is Eadweard Muybridge’s 360-degree panorama taken from the top of Nob Hill in 1878. With the San Francisco Bay glittering in the distance, and sparkling new mansions and vacant lots readied for building in the foreground, it portrays a city on the make—the glorious burgeoning capital of the American West, where anything is possible and the future is limitless.

It didn’t look that way for long, of course. A hundred years ago this spring, on April 18, 1906, a 7.9 earthquake shook San Francisco, destroying buildings up and down the coast and sparking a fire that consumed nearly five square miles of the city. And yet—as a centennial exhibition of photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reveals—even in this moment of physical destruction, San Francisco’s enterprising sense of itself emerged unscathed. 1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures shows that in the face of urban disaster, photography can be the first step toward rebuilding.

Many of the photographs show San Francisco’s destroyed buildings in silhouette, echoing the sublime aesthetic of depicting ancient ruins (as well as recalling photos of the World Trade Center’s shards). Others reveal an atmosphere of calm verging on celebration, with well-dressed ladies strolling the city’s charred streets, sometimes posing giddily in front of raging fires. An updated version of Muybridge’s panorama—taken from a camera hoisted into the sky on a kite contraption—shows a ruined city, albeit with the same glitteringly transcendent surroundings. The message is clear: San Francisco was down but not out.

This not-so-subtle boosterism surprised Corey Keller, SFMoMA’s assistant curator of photography, when she sorted through thousands of photographs of the quake—particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “It was interesting to see how quickly the spin machine went into action,” she says. From the time of its Gold Rush ascendancy, pictures portrayed San Francisco as a beautiful and civilized place rather than a rough-and-tumble outpost. When the earthquake struck, photographers readily seized the ruins as further proof of the city’s significance—and they assured that it would be rebuilt, with images showing new construction under way approved and disseminated by the California Promotion Committee.

Strangely, the photographs of the destruction are, in a way, still serving the California economy. Like many among the vast array of events planned to commemorate the 1906 quake, SFMoMA’s exhibit is sponsored by an insurance company.

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