An 89 Year Old's Magical Photos of Old San Francisco
Photographer Fred Lyon was born in San Francisco in 1924, and he calls himself a "third or fourth generation native." He grew up around the Peninsula, and got into photography in high school – "because cameras were cool and I thought it would be a good way to get girls," he told me. "Guess how that turned out."
I'd say it turned out very well for Fred – after stints in DC photographing the navy and the White House, and in New York shooting for the big fashion houses, he moved back to SF in 1946 and starting freelancing for such prestigious and popular magazines as Vogue, Glamour, Life, and Seventeen. He captured a city that was captivating the country, and has ventured into everything from food and fashion to wine, news, and architecture as subjects. His work has morphed from print to fine art, as his gorgeous photos hang on the walls of galleries and in collectors' homes. "But I'm still dancing out on the edge," he jokes, "pushing my luck, and living beyond my means."
You'll soon be able to collect Fred's work in hardback book form with the release of San Francisco, Portrait of a City (1940-1960), which comes out this September (you can pre-order a copy now – seems like an awesome gift for any San Franciscan). And you can see his work in person at an upcoming solo show at the Harvey Milk Photo Center on Nov. 8.
These photos are just a little teaser of what's to come in Fred's book, and I took the upcoming release of San Francisco as an opportunityto ask him questions about himself and the city he's so elegantly photographed. It's amazing to see San Francisco and its neighborhoods through his lens.
If you had to describe the San Francisco you captured for your book in a few sentences, what would you say about it?
San Francisco in the 1940s and '50s was exuberantly optimistic as it emerged from the restraints of World War II. Smog hadn’t been invented, so everything seemed bright, perhaps just awaiting a fresh coat of paint. All the same landmarks were in place, just smiling for my camera. It all felt like New Year’s Eve.
What was the one thing that made you fall in love with SF most?
The people, of course. But, as today, they’re set against this bold, graphic backdrop of hills and bridges and water, proclaiming, “We’re different. We’re dancing out on the edge of the continent, the frontier, the Gateway to the Orient.”
What are the threads connecting the San Francisco in your book and the city now?
So many icons are still in place, but perhaps not unchanged. The old ferryboats no longer ply the bay, but there are new ones. Phone booths have disappeared, as have newsboys. Fewer children play in the streets. Still, the fog does its magic and sailboats on the bay look like toys.
Do you follow much of the discussion about changing San Francisco in the media? If so, what is your take on the nature of the change the city is going through now?
Let’s hope the media continues to spotlight the changes. The West has always thrived on diversity and we all need to work to maintain a balance as prosperity strains our resources.
Why did you choose to cap the San Francisco you're collecting in your book to the years 1940-1960?
The book was conceived in black-and-white, the visual language of that era. Photojournalism, particularly for magazines, went almost exclusively to color in the '60s. That made the choice of those two decades obvious and manageable.
Have you always lived in San Francisco since you moved back here? And what neighborhoods have you lived in?
Mostly, Sausalito was home, with its steep hills and views over a jumble of tile roof tops to the ever-changing skyline of the city across the bay. In the 1980s we moved into SF where I had my studio. So it’s been SOMA, Potrero Hill, Pacific Heights, the Marina, and now Cow Hollow.
Do you have much family in SF now?
Well, my wife and I live close to the Presidio; her oldest son is a sports TV producer here and lives in Oakland. My two sons and their wives live in Sausalito.
How would you describe the city now?
As all vibrant cities must be, this one is a work in progress. There’s lots of room for argument, but again the people of imagination are driving progress with that frontier spirit that has dominated life here.
How did you get those stunning aerial shots of Golden Gate Bridge?
Aerials have always been a useful way to position my camera for subjects that need to be explained visually from that position. But I often prefer lower, tight shots for a feeling of intimacy. At any rate, the pilots who fly photographers are very conscious of the 500 foot ceiling over populated areas and refuse to risk their licenses by going lower. Early on I detected a loophole in that restriction and exploited it flagrantly: There’s a seaplane base in Richardson Bay, at the North end of Sausalito, and the float planes have no altitude restrictions over water, since one could be making an approach for a landing. Voila! Simply by staying over water the problem was solved. Sneaky, but effective.
What else are you working on these days?
One of my pet projects has been my collection of black-and-white photos of Paris from the past 50 years. I’m trying to sneak up on some weak-minded publisher to make it a book.
You can see 30 of Fred Lyon's prints on Nov. 8, when an exhibit of his work opens at the Harvey Milk Photo Center, where it will hang for six weeks. There will be a screening of the documentary Fred Lyon, Living Through the Lens on KQED and at the SF Public Library on October 2, with an author Q&A and a book signing. On October 22 – 26th, the San Francisco Fall Antique Show will feature a major collection of prints from the book, plus a talk on Saturday, October 25th and a book signing.
All photos courtesy of Fred Lyon
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