1906 Earthquake Photos Merged with Modern San Francisco

Dec 20, 2013 at 12pm

Thanks to Facebook postings, I recently stumbled upon some incredible photos perfectly melding scenes of San Francisco in the ruins of the 1906 earthquake with the modern view of the exact location. They were such meticulous mashups of the rubble and the rebuilt that I tracked down the photographer behind the images, Shawn Clover, to get the story behind the work. I found out the pieces I saw are part of a larger collection called Fade to 1906 that he's hoping to turn into a book (hint: he's looking for a publisher!) and that there's a ton of historical research that goes into each then and now combination.  

Shawn has lived between San Francisco and the larger Bay Area since the mid-'70s, and he's permanently called this city home for the last six years. He tells me he first became obsessed with the city's history as a kid. "I was fascinated by Playland, which was demolished a year after I was born," he says. "Also, my dad would frequently take me down to the Sutro Baths ruins, which was always my favorite place in the city to go explore (there was a lot more to explore in the '70s than today)."

I've posted photos from Shawn's collection below, and asked him more about this concept as well. 

What are some of the most interesting facts you've learned about SF? 

By working on these photos, I always look for "then" photos that have existing elements left today so I can incorporate them into my "now" portion of the photo. I can go around the city now and point to many pre-1906 buildings now as a result, and even little details like a fence post that still remains today. An exception to this rule is that I just had to incorporate the old city hall into my book, which has nothing remaining above ground today. To do this, I had to get the exact footprint of the old city hall exactly right. I had an engineer contact me who was an expert on the old city hall and had tons of blueprints of it. As a result, I became fascinated by the old city hall and I always picture exactly how it stood whenever I'm in the area (where the main library stands today).

How did the idea for the 1906 project come about? 

There's a photographer named Sergei Larenkov who was a pioneer of the technique and did a series of photos in Russia with then and now elements. I never really thought of trying it myself until I read the book San Francisco is Burning by Dennis Smith and started thinking about it. I had to read the book a second time to focus on the book.

How long does each of the Fade to 1906 prints take to create? 

I'm spending much more time on the latest photos I'm working on for the book. The first two sets I published in 2010 and 2012 were done rather quickly and carelessly. Most of the time I spend is up-front work: searching for historic photos, working out permissions/payments, scouting out the location, and getting "now" shots in the right conditions (lighting, time of day, etc.). I've spent entire days in the SF Library going through all the thousands of historic photos. Once everything is ready, the Photoshop work is the easiest part and takes about 2-4 hours per photo. All together with all the prep work, I probably average 12 hours per photo.

Which of the photos is your favorite in the series? 

I have two of the old Mint on 5th Street that I really like. I became really interested in the Mint's history and read stacks of books about it to learn all the details of the battle to save the mint (and the US economy) during the ferocious fires.

Has the project let you to meet any of the 1906 earthquake/fire survivors? If so, what was that experience like? 

I haven't met any survivors due to the project. I've met some in the past when they were younger at the annual earthquake gatherings at Lotta's Fountain. There are only a few survivors left after I began this project. However, I've heard from plenty of family members of survivors who have contacted me after seeing the photos, all with very interesting stories to tell.

What's happening with your Fade to 1906 book idea now? 

I'm working on it on and off when I have time. I've got about 120 new photos done or almost done and most of the narrative written. I'm working on the layout, typography, and all that stuff now. I also have quite a few pending photo permissions for photos I really want to use. The biggest challenge is to keep the cost down because self-publishing is very expensive. I will likely end up selling it with no profit. Who knows, maybe a publisher will come along one day.

What's the next San Francisco related project that you're working on? 

I'm trying to document Treasure Island as much as possible before all the old buildings are gone (including inside the old buildings).

The Clockograph is another great concept. (For those who haven't seen it, it's an online clock that shows you a photo of a time piece correlated to the exact minute in time). It reminds me of the Christian Marclay's The Clock. Where did the idea for the Clockograph come from? 

The idea came from Christian Marclay's The Clock of course! I took my dad to see some of it and it was sort of a lightbulb-clicking-on moment when we walked out discussing it. He claims he thought of it first, so I'll give him credit. I said, "I hope I don't actually start working on this" and here I am eight months later completely dedicated to finishing it. It's become almost an obsession now looking for clocks whenever I'm out with my camera. As I originally predicted, it's no simple project.

And are there any other mashup style photo projects you're working on next? 

I've had people contact me asking me to come do New Orleans, Chicago (great fire), London (WWII), Christchurch (earthquake), and a few others. The problem is it's not something I can really just fly out to and get done in a week. It really takes living in a city to have the experience to get it right. There are plenty of other historic pre-1906 and post-1906 San Francisco photos that may be interesting to blend. I may also work on some "interactive" blending so someone in front of their computer can play around with revealing the "then" photo under the "now" photo. I worked with a company pitching a new show for the Travel Channel called "Disaster City" which used animated blending of my photos, but unfortunately the Travel Channel passed on the show. There are some other documentary-type projects that may be announced soon that other groups are working on, but I'm sworn to secrecy on those.

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