In a recent CHS talk, entitled Politicizing Vernacular Photographs of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Carolin Görgen examined a very special photograph album in CHS’s collection. Görgen is associate professor of American Studies at Sorbonne University in Paris where she teaches American history and culture with an emphasis on the history of photography in the American West and photo networks like the California Camera Club. Her work involves extensive research in archives, some of which she has conducted at the California Historical Society.
The album at the center of her presentation, known as album no. 11, was donated to CHS in 1906 and contains a series of amateur photographs of San Francisco in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and fires of that year. What makes the album especially unique are the handwritten captions that range from reflections on loss to biting political commentary. Unlike the official narrative promoted by “city fathers” of San Francisco quickly rising from the ashes, album no. 11 gives us insights into the lived experience of a citizen coping with a historic disaster. I cannot help but think about our contemporary moment, and how we rely on our camera phones to document moments of crisis as they unfold around us.
Görgen’s presentation was based on research she conducted for her dissertation and an article she wrote, which is available via Open Edition Journals. An abstract of the article follows, along with a reading list Görgen shared with CHS.
Everyday Photography? Politicizing a ‘vernacular’ photo album of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 (abstract)
The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, defined as the most-photographed event of the early twentieth century, overlaps with the beginnings of vernacular photography. Drawing on the vast output of the disaster, this article politicizes the notion of the vernacular. As art institutions have championed an aestheticized vernacular, many anonymous photographs have been stripped off their sociopolitical context. A host of related practices, such as amateur or club photography, have thus become marginalized. This perspective has reinforced a narrative of American photography ca. 1900 as either “vernacular” or “high art.” The heterogeneity of sources produced in San Francisco runs counter to this binary reading. They require a historiographical revision and a politicization of photo-collections. Exploring a personal photo album, this article retraces the visual, discursive, and material uses of “everyday” photography in extraordinary conditions. It points out how photo-practices were marked by extreme seismic events and domestic politics. The aim is two-fold: drawing attention to the complexity of archival materials and proposing a counter-narrative to the aestheticized vernacular.
Carolin Görgen’s Reading List
Birt, Rodger C. History’s Anteroom: Photography in San Francisco 1906-1909. Richmond: William Stout Publishers, 2011.
Chen, Yong. Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943. A Trans-Pacific Community. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Daniels, Douglas Henry. Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Davies, Andrea Rees. Saving San Francisco: Relief and Recovery after the 1906 Disaster. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012.
Dyl, Joanna L. Seismic City: An Environmental History of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.
Fradkin, Philip L. The Great Earthquake of Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Hansen, Gladys, and Emmet Condon. Denial of Disaster: The Untold Story and Photographs of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. San Francisco: Cameron, 1989.
Hong, Grace Kyungwon. “Nation and Empire in Arnold Genthe’s Photographs of San
Francisco’s Chinese Quarter, 1895 to 1906.” Journal of the West 43 (2004): 8-14.
Hong Kingston, Maxine. “San Francisco’s Chinatown: A View from the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera.” American Heritage 30 (1978).
Lee, Anthony W. Picturing Chinatown. Art and Orientalism in San Francisco. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2001.
–––. “Photography and Opium in a Nineteenth-century Port City.” In A Companion to American Art, edited by Jennifer A. Greenhill, John Davis, and Jason D. LaFountain. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Press, 2015.
Leikam, Susanne. “Depicting ‘Natural’ Disasters in U.S.-American History and Culture: San Francisco’s City Hall as an Icon of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.” Copas 10 (2009).
–––. Framing Spaces in Motion: Tracing Visualizations of Earthquakes into Twentieth-century San Francisco. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2015.
Marcus, Kenneth H., and Yong Chen. “Inside and Outside Chinatown: Chinese Elites in Exclusion Era California.” Pacific Historical Review 80, no. 3 (2011): 369-400.
Matsumoto, Yoko. “Orientalism in the Cosmopolitan City: Constructing Sanitary Exoticism in San Francisco before World War II.” In San Francisco à l’ouest d’Éden, edited by Sophie
Vallas et al. Aix-en-Provence: Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2012.
Oswald, Maude. “Photographier la catastrophe, témoigner de l’humain. La Nouvelle Orléans
après Katrina.” Image & Narrative 18, no. 2 (2017): 49-61.
Pan, Erica Ying Zi. The Impact of the 1906 Earthquake on San Francisco’s Chinatown. New
York: Peter Lang, 1995.
Sewell, Jessica. Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
University of California Press, 2001.
Tchen, John Kuo Wei. Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown. New York:
Dover Publications, 1984.
Zhou, Xiaojing. Cities of Others: Reimagining Urban Spaces in Asian American Literature.
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.
A recording of Görgen’s talk is available on CHS’s YouTube channel.