Portrait of "The City": San Francisco, 1940-1960

Jon Foro on September 16, 2014
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ABR_SFAs a fourth-generation San Franciscan, few are as familiar with the City by the Bay as photographer Fred Lyon. His new book, San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960, not only captures it iconic sights and sites--the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, cable cars, the hills and the fog--but also the iconoclastic, if sometimes off-beat geniuses that made it great--a group to which Lyon firmly belongs. We're thrilled to present dozen incredible images from the book, accompanied by Lyon's own captions.

Learn more about Fred Lyon in the "Living Through the Lens" trailer at the bottom of this page.


San Francisco in the 1940s was irresistible. It still is, but for a brash young photographer recovering from New York’s fashion world, it was feast. Two bridges, steep hills with tiny cable cars, fog, Chinatown, plus a booming postwar optimism, all fed my hungry camera. It seldom had a chance to cool off.

In those headlong days it was impossible to imagine living past thirty.  Anyhow, who would want to hang around when life’s over?  Now however, as I turn 90, Princeton Architectural Press has given these San Francisco images a new life in our book San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940 – 1960. What a birthday present!  

Seen again, from this distance and in the context of change, the content displays a relevance  beyond nostalgia. The City isn’t static, it’s a work in progress.  Still, as we plunge forward, our recent history can guide us, perhaps soothing and even providing an occasional chuckle.

Notes on a handful of images:

Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, seen from atop Russian Hill, framed by the windshield of my Riley drophead coupe (separate fenders and headlights!).
 
Cityscape looking south from a plane over the bay.  In the foreground, Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, while downtown fills the distance with newer buildings and the south waterfront.
 
Above the Golden Gate Bridge:  The pilots of the small seaplanes I used for aerial photography never wanted to go as low as I did during our flyovers of the Golden Gate Bridge, but this viewpoint has an immediacy that excites me.  Old Fort Point nestles under the South Anchorage (at top).  And just look at that traffic.  It hasn’t been that sparse in decades.
 
The crew that paints the Golden Gate Bridge works from one end to the other and then starts all over again.  During the weeks of shooting this story my role  changed from a curiosity and the painters became protective, averting several reckless moves of the demented “camera guy”.
 
This display of laundry was a familiar sight in North Beach, traditionally an enclave of Italian immigrants and Chinese, in the days before automatic appliances.
 
Seen through a telephoto lens from Telegraph hill, the Lombard Street grapevine zig-zags down Russian Hill.  Headlights trace autos’ wiggly brick path.
 
Small boys at play on a steep hill above Broadway in North Beach.  This vertical city encourages imaginative vehicles for a swoop down the slope.
 
A pair of old skates and a couple of young buddies often equaled two “coasters” for the steep sidewalks of North Beach.  Daring races often ended abruptly, with a scrape or two.
 
A cable car at the foot of California Street prepares for its crawl up from the waterfront and the financial district to the top of Nob Hill.
 
On Grant Avenue in Chinatown, a street lamp is readied for the annual festivities of Chinese New Year.
 
Castle Street, on the south slope of Telegraph Hill, frames Coit Tower and epitomizes San Francisco’s reputation as the capital of film noir.
 
A foggy night at Land’s End, above Sutro Baths.
 


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