Shortly after the end of World War II, photographer Fred Lyon took what he thought would be a quick visit to his hometown of San Francisco. He’d been working in New York City as a fashion photographer following his Navy Press service shooting news in Washington, D.C. Lyon’s trip west soon stretched into months: he was in love with the Bay Area and with taking its picture. After convincing magazine editors back east that his West Coast shots were worth their attention, he soon became known as “San Francisco’s Brassai.“
Lyon’s black and white photographs from this period are compiled in San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960, out now from Princeton Architectural Press. “On even the most humdrum days of its history, San Francisco remains a photographer’s delight, but in the optimistic years following World War II, it had a special aura,” Lyon writes in the introduction. “San Francisco was entering a new golden age. . . . Smog had yet to be invented, so sharp blue skies prevailed.”
Lyon captures the seaside metropolis decades before the dot-coms invaded and rents skyrocketed, documenting everywhere from Chinatown’s fish markets to Telegraph Hill’s gorgeous homes to sailboats near Alcatraz to Union Square flower stands. Most compelling of all are his images of the city’s residents: fishermen, artists, jazz musicians, ballerinas, clowns outside strip clubs, Lion dancers on the Chinese New Year; kids riding makeshift skateboards in the streets.
Instead of millionaire techies, Lyon’s photographs capture the wealthy old guard of midcentury San Francisco, who reveled in the Cotillion Club of the city’s debutante ball, held in the Palace Hotel. Another startling difference? The Golden Gate Bridge is nearly empty of traffic.
Some things haven’t changed, of course, and many of these images look almost contemporary. Parking a car on the city’s steep hills remains difficult; the manually operated cable car system is miraculously still intact; the architecture of Telegraph Hill is just as enchanting as it was in the ’50s; and the Golden Gate Bridge still gets shrouded in mystical-looking fog.
Click the slide show above for a selection of Lyon’s photographs, and complement them with Janet Delaney’s pictures of the same city in the ’80s.
San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960 is available here for $30.