Photographer Fred Lyon Captures Hearts in “San Francisco”

Photo: Foggy night, Land’s End, San Francisco, 1953. 

San Francisco has always been the spot, a bold peninsula jutting out into the Bay, going all the way back to 3,000 BC when the Yelamu tribe of the Ohlone people lived on the land. It’s had quite a history, quickly becoming a popular port during the California Gold Rush that made the town one of the most notorious places on earth. The city soon built up, literally and figuratively, as wealth accumulated and new communities took hold. Then the earthquake of 1906 struck, laying the city to waste.

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But you can’t keep a good city down, and it rebuilt itself to withstand disaster. Not one San Francisco bank failed in the 1929 stock market crash. At the height of the Great Depression, they had the cash and the clout to construct the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge, as well as transform the island of Alcatraz from a military stockade to a federal maximum security prison that was home to no less than Al Capone.

Telegraph Hill from Russian Hill, c. 1940.

Telegraph Hill from Russian Hill, c. 1940.

Talk about showing out. San Francisco did it well, and as the 1930s gave way to the 1940s a new look came into vogue. Film noir brilliantly described the look of high contrast, high drama scenes of daily life. It was the perfect counterpoint to a world at war, a nation fighting on two fronts, neither of which were on home turf. There was an edge, one rendered tenderly, invoking the beauty of black and white film as nothing else ever could.

Photographer Fred Lyon, a fourth generation San Franciscan, has been taking photographs in his city since the early 1940s. He got his start at age fourteen as an assistant at Gabriel Moulin Studios and studied under famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams. When asked why he initially wanted to get into photography, he grinned and explained that, “Cameras were cool and I thought it would be a good way to get the girls. Guess how that went?”

Post & Powell, Union Square, San Francisco, 1947

Post & Powell, Union Square, San Francisco, 1947

You might smile, and nod your head, then think, Where are the photographs? And then the answer comes: On view in Fred Lyon: San Francisco at the Gallery at the Leica Store San Francisco, now through October 21, 2016. The exhibition features more than 45 vintage and modern prints showcasing San Francisco’s post-war transformation.

Lyon has been called “San Francisco’s Brassai.” His work reveals a man who loves his city in such a way as to find the picture-perfect moments of life that exist nowhere but here. The result is a collection of work that is compelling and complex, layered with history, emotion, and beauty. Lyon’s work is a portrait of the city from someone who can hear its heart beat in the sidewalks and on the streets, on its beaches along its hills. With Lyon, vantage points are incredibly seductive and highly pleasurable.

Anne with Riley, Parking on the steep hill just below the Mark Hopkins Hotel, 1940-50's

Anne with Riley, Parking on the steep hill just below the Mark Hopkins Hotel, 1940-50’s

Lyon observes, “San Francisco has always been good to me. It presents its many faces to the eye, and thus to myriad lenses. Isolating the pertinent facets and linking them together is job one for photo storytellers. Somehow this has always seemed obvious and therefore unremarkable to me. But it’s the visual feast, The Grand Buffet that continues to wake up the camera. I need another lifetime to document the changes in this magical city.”   

All photos: © Fred Lyon, Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.