April 15, 2019

Photographing Disaster: Depicting the Aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake

Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco, Collections, , , , , , ,

Photographing Disaster: Depicting the Aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake

This blog post originally appeared in California History Journal, Vol. 96 No. 1, Spring 2019

An earthquake is a visual event. Photographs taken in San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake reveal an almost unrecognizable image of the young city, showing piles of rubble and coils of melted iron swirling serpent-like from the hollow frames of collapsed buildings. One such image shows the charred remains of the Dana Building—the first Art Nouveau building in San Francisco—juxtaposed against the steel skeleton of the unfinished Union League Building. The façade of the Dana Building stands like a ghostly shell, its shattered windows and collapsed walls producing the effect of a building turned inside-out. The building’s sleek white surface is dappled not with light but with ash, a vestigial trace of the flames that had licked its walls and left the building in ruins. The building looks like it was destroyed in a flash.

Stockton Street between Geary and Post Streets. San Francisco Subjects, Photography Collection, PC-SF-EQ (1906), California Historical Society 

What would it be like to wake up and find your city unrecognizable? To find unstable ground not only beneath your feet, but in front of your eyes? The philosopher William James described how in the aftermath of the earthquake, his students at Stanford University slept outdoors in order to “get the full unusualness out of the experience.”1 The photographer Arnold Genthe remarked that the streets “presented a weird appearance . . . many ludicrous sights met the eye: an old lady carrying a large bird cage with four kittens inside . . . a man tenderly holding a pot of calla lilies, muttering to himself; a scrub woman, in one hand a new broom and in the other a large black hat with ostrich plumes; a man in an old-fashioned nightshirt and swallow tails, being startled when a friendly policeman spoke to him, ‘Say, Mister, I guess you better put on some pants.’ ”2

But these “unusual” and “ludicrous” sights were not the visuals that San Francisco’s civic leaders sought to promote. Intent on rebuilding the city as quickly as possible, pol- iticians, boosters, and industrial magnates propagated an image of San Francisco as re- silient and organized—a phoenix worthy of modern development and international investment. Compare the photograph of the Dana Building to an image better aligned with this booster rhetoric, taken by the photographer George Lawrence. Entitled “San Francisco in Ruins,” it is an aerial view of the aftermath, taken from a kite suspended 2,000 feet above the city. Lawrence’s panorama is perhaps most impressive in its ability to show the fire’s devastation not as ruinous, but as a contained event. Buildings may be smoldering, but the city’s roads and ports—symbols of industrial potential—remain. In the upper righthand corner, the clouds part to reveal the sun shining brightly on the city below, symbolizing its ordained rebirth.

By contrast, the photograph of the Dana Building depicts the aftermath as a period of precariousness and uncertainty. If the intact frame of the Union League Building conveys the city’s industrial ambition, the crumbling remains of the Dana—with its Art Nouveau walls standing jagged like loose teeth, ready to fall at any moment—read as a humbling reminder of the city’s fragility. The piles of rubble, brush, and planks lining the street symbolically dis- mantle the city before our eyes. Even the man riding through on his cart evokes a sense of contingency, his blurred face reminding the viewer that this photograph, and the landscape that it depicts, could look completely different if it had been taken in any other moment. The photograph compels the viewer to conceptualize the earthquake not as a propelling and productive force of modernization, but as a harbinger of uncertainty and radical possibility.

San Francisco in Ruins from Lawrence Captive Airship, 2,000 feet above San Francisco Bay. PC-PANO_001
California Historical Society

Reflecting on the 1906 earthquake on its centennial, the writer Rebecca Solnit suggests that images of ruins and decay help us to remember that history is not teleological, but rather an ebb and flowof progress and decline. She writes: [Decay] is the negativeimage of history and a necessary aspectof it. To erase decayor consciousness of decay, decline, entropy, and ruin is to erasethe understanding of the unfolding relation between all things, of darkness to light, of age to youth, of fall to rise.3 Read alongside thisphotograph of theruins of the Dana Building, Solnits description allowsus to see the structure as its ownnegative image of his- tory, itsexterior melding visuallywith the interiorto form a negative image of a building designed to symbolize modern progress and aesthetics.

In this way, the photograph also evokes a different sort of negative: a 35-millimeter film neg- ative, a technology that would be patented in America just two years later. Notice how the empty window frames are stacked neatly in rows resembling a film strip, as if to suggest the myriad ways in which the disaster could have been pictured and remembered. This photo- graph was likely taken by an amateur photographer, newly able to photograph their city after the first affordable snapshot camera was introduced by the Eastman Kodak Company just six years prior. It is through such amateur photographs that we are able to see a different view of the earthquake’s aftermath, one taken not from the point of view of a booster but from that of a citizen processing the realities of the disaster. Looking through the window frames—depicted within the frame of this forgotten photograph—we can crane our necks to imagine what it would have been like to experience the disaster as a citizen, the visual landscape of the city changing before our eyes.

Written by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at California Historical Society