1906 + 2010: The Earthquake Blend (Part I)

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After reading San Francisco is Burning, Dennis Smith’s superb book of San Francisco’s reaction to the 1906 earthquake, I got to thinking. What if I could precisely line up photos taken in 1906 with my own and combine the two together? I’ve always been frustrated by typical “then and now” photos because the photographer always seems to do a sloppy job aligning his ‘then’ photos with the ‘now’ photos.

The Project

After sifting through catalogs of library photos of the devastation of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, I picked out a variety of photos taken from April 18, 1906 to 1907 that I felt give a well-rounded depiction of what was going on in the city at the time.

Now comes the fun part. Where was the exact spot the photographer stood? What was the equivalent focal length of his camera’s lens combined with the film medium? How high off the ground was the camera? Where was the sun in the sky? Everything needs to be precise when layering two photos on top of each other. My original idea was to tear away a piece of the modern photo to expose the 1906 photo, but after playing around a bit, everything seemed more interesting when the two were softly blended together.

I found that many of the original photos I planned to use were in fact unusable because the photographer was situated in a place where a building stands today. Others now have trees blocking the view. Oh well.

UPDATE: Many new prints now available and Fade to 1906 (the book) is coming soon.

The Photos

Here the first part of a two-part series of photos:

SF005

The Painted Ladies have escaped fire raging down the street. Mothers rest on the low wall in Alamo Square while their children play on the grass.

SF008

Happy tourists pass by the Fairmont Hotel, which still stands, but is destroyed inside from the fires.

SF009

Passing cable cars offer a view of the destruction of California Street. Old St. Marys Cathedral has escaped destruction.

SF017

A woman opens the door to her Mercedes on Sacramento Street while horses killed by falling rubble lie in the street.

SF018

Men pose in a tent city to house displaced residents while an armored car turns left. Ferry Building repairs have begun.

SF019

Shoppers cross Drumm St on Market St while men busily work at the monumental task of rebuilding a destroyed city.

SF022

Some business people and a young kid face the camera while fire consumes a building on the corner of Franklin St and Hayes St.

SF028

Pedestrians cross Jones St towards a pile of rubble on Market Street. The Hibernia Bank building is burned out, but still standing strong.

SF031

A woman walks dangerously close to a pit of rubble on 5th St by the US Mint. The Mint has done a remarkable job surviving the quake.

SF025

Residents take to the grass at Lafayette Park to get a view of the massive fires engulfing the city while a Muni bus stops below.

SF027

Two girls stand before the partially destroyed Sharon Building in Golden Gate Park while students work on their art projects inside.

SF044

Shocked residents walk by parked cars on California St amidst the devastation.

Swipe left or right to view photos:
Showing 170 comments
  • Eric

    This is fantastic stuff Shawn. I was particularly struck by the photo of the horses on Sacramento, and not just because I used to work at 550 Kearney, visible on the right side of the picture. 

    Was the selection of this photo with the restaurant Palio in the background purposeful? If so, what a masterful selection in keeping with the horse theme. I wonder if the restaurant is even aware of this historical snapshot, just feet from their front door? http://www.paliodasti.com/

  • Eric

    This is fantastic stuff Shawn. I was particularly struck by the photo of the horses on Sacramento, and not just because I used to work at 550 Kearney, visible on the right side of the picture. 

    Was the selection of this photo with the restaurant Palio in the background purposeful? If so, what a masterful selection in keeping with the horse theme. I wonder if the restaurant is even aware of this historical snapshot, just feet from their front door? http://www.paliodasti.com/

  • Shawn Clover

    Thanks Eric. Actually I haven’t even eaten at Palio so I didn’t know about their horse theme. I would bet they don’t even know about the history of the dead horses right out front. One thing I did notice about that restaurant is that their window frames lined up perfectly with what was there in 1906. I don’t think it could possibly be original though.

  • Shawn Clover

    Thanks Eric. Actually I haven’t even eaten at Palio so I didn’t know about their horse theme. I would bet they don’t even know about the history of the dead horses right out front. One thing I did notice about that restaurant is that their window frames lined up perfectly with what was there in 1906. I don’t think it could possibly be original though.

  • Janis

    Any reason you didn’t name the original photographer?

  • Janis

    Any reason you didn’t name the original photographer?

  • cloveman

    I have not found any names to credit. If you have any verified photographer names I will gladly add credit.

  • Shawn Clover

    I have not found any names to credit. If you have any verified photographer names I will gladly add credit.

  • Shawn Clover

    None of the photos I used have any names associated with them. If you have any verified names of photographers for any of these images I will gladly post photo credit.

  • Shawn Clover

    None of the photos I used have any names associated with them. If you have any verified names of photographers for any of these images I will gladly post photo credit.

  • Mike

    Very nice. When I click on photos they appear very narrow compared to the original.

  • Mike

    Very nice. When I click on photos they appear very narrow compared to the original.

  • Frako Loden

    I won’t soon forget the photograph with the dead horses and the Mercedes driver who I imagine as being just ANNOYED that they’re in the way. It’s an inspired image.

  • Frako Loden

    I won’t soon forget the photograph with the dead horses and the Mercedes driver who I imagine as being just ANNOYED that they’re in the way. It’s an inspired image.

  • Tgriffin

    Wonderful work. Thank you.

  • Tgriffin

    Wonderful work. Thank you.

  • Dianne

     I’m one more person that would love to buy a book of your photographs with descriptions.

  • Dianne

     I’m one more person that would love to buy a book of your photographs with descriptions.

  • Steve

    Amazing! Up here in Portland Oregon, we discuss the potential for these same kinds of fires to do damage in the event of the Juan de Fucha fault tearing loose. We (Earthquake Tech) install the  “California” emergency gas shut off valves as part of our seismic retrofitting process. Very cool technology! So simple!

    Thanks for your great images!

    Steve Gemmell
    Earthquake Tech
    Portland OR

  • Steve

    Amazing! Up here in Portland Oregon, we discuss the potential for these same kinds of fires to do damage in the event of the Juan de Fucha fault tearing loose. We (Earthquake Tech) install the  “California” emergency gas shut off valves as part of our seismic retrofitting process. Very cool technology! So simple!

    Thanks for your great images!

    Steve Gemmell
    Earthquake Tech
    Portland OR

  • Jlow2005

    I hope we get Part II soon!  Most entertaining when one tries to identify the locations
    without reading the captions first.

  • Annette

    What a great insight into my beloved city!  The past predicts the future.  Beautiful job, Shawn.

  • Annette

    What a great insight into my beloved city!  The past predicts the future.  Beautiful job, Shawn.

  • Katdndnu

    these give me the chills.. you have blended them to perfection and when I look at the photos I get the feeling of their ghost-like presence still lingering.. so cool!! fantastic job.

  • Katdndnu

    these give me the chills.. you have blended them to perfection and when I look at the photos I get the feeling of their ghost-like presence still lingering.. so cool!! fantastic job.

  • Tynakoski

    Very cool. Love the pictures!

  • Mullsot

    As a scottish guy and never really felt or been touched by the power of an earthquake . These pics really humble me . What a brilliant concept and eye opening . Well done that man . 10/10

  • Mullsot

    As a scottish guy and never really felt or been touched by the power of an earthquake . These pics really humble me . What a brilliant concept and eye opening . Well done that man . 10/10

  • Richard R

    Fantastic work Shawn. I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand. Today (Sep 4th) is our 2 year anniversary of the 6.9 quake which stuck Christchurch. Followed by a 7.1 which leveled a large portion of the city on Feb 2011. These picture really ring home for me. We had similar architecture to San Francisco. Seeing these photo inspires hope for our future, seeing what was once destroyed come back to life. Thank you once again for your amazing Work!

  • Richard R

    Fantastic work Shawn. I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand. Today (Sep 4th) is our 2 year anniversary of the 6.9 quake which stuck Christchurch. Followed by a 7.1 which leveled a large portion of the city on Feb 2011. These picture really ring home for me. We had similar architecture to San Francisco. Seeing these photo inspires hope for our future, seeing what was once destroyed come back to life. Thank you once again for your amazing Work!

  • Rainer Stehr

    I am really impressed by your work, Shawn. I live in Chile and certainly know what an earthquake is! Also I like photography and loved your great idea and admire your work.

  • Rainer Stehr

    I am really impressed by your work, Shawn. I live in Chile and certainly know what an earthquake is! Also I like photography and loved your great idea and admire your work.

  • Mannindrapr

    great record

  • mcinpat

    I was thinking about my great grandparents and all of the overlapped lives…

  • A H

    These are more profound than they seem. You are prophesying the destruction that surely lies ahead for San Francisco, by using the factual photographic archive from the past.  Your work is brilliant and disturbing, not something we should take lightly. The fragility and impermanence of life, the temporal and tenuous city, death; all of these are present in these blended montages. 

  • JKausen

    Fantastic stuff. Well done. Reminds me of the historypin app – you’d dig it, Shawn

  • Aspen

    Very cool!

  • Matt Storms

    Really cool, great job.

  • Alisnickers

    Absolutely incredible imagery! Nicely done! Can’t wait to see more. I’ve shared it with other photographers that I know will appreciate them. 

  • Tiazzi

    Your work is stunning! This is fantastic

  • Phonemann

    amazing really more than amazing i want more btw i think we all want more (:

  • FoxxFire Crump

    Look up local (or otherwise) print shops; check for digital offset printing (I’d recommend looking for a place that has an HP Indigo 5000 or better). A decent sales rep should be able to give you pricing for photobooks.

  • Rodger Birt

    Let me share a recent publication with you that I think you will enjoy looking at; History’s Anteroom is the title, published by William Stout Publishers in August 2011; more rare views of 1906 earthquake; I enjoyed looking at your thoughtful response to historical images./Rodger Birt

  • Tom O'Brien

    That might be me operating that cable car !!!

  • Sandra G.

    Chills…

  • Myresa Hurst

    The fire reflecting in the windows in #11 is beyond brilliant.  So well done! 

  • David Walden

    Thank you so much for your hard work.  Great photos.  As a fan of San Francisco history, I think this is fantastic.

  • Charles

    I LOVE what you’ve done here.  There is a book titled “San Francisco then and now” that has various old and contemporary views of SF juxtaposed next to each other.  It drives me crazy every time I look through it because so little effort was made to replicate the scale, location or direction of the original photograph when making the modern one. I’ve always hoped that one day I’d find a similar collection of new / old photos done by someone competent. Your photos are exact modern views of the old ones and amazing to look at.  You are my new hero.

  • Meggs1483

    Your photographs are absolutely beautiful! The blending of these modern photos with the historical photos from the archives is just amazing. You are truly a fantastic and extremely skilled artist. Bravo! Bravo!!

  • Mike Gilkes

    Great pics but how did you overcome the copyright law for publishing the B/W elements of the finished pics? 

  • Eric

    this is two years old..wow i have got to keep up with this photographer

  • Shawn Clover

    It’s a very complicated issue that I’ve been spending the past month working through now that I’m working on a book. Many of the images here are property of the US Government (the USGS has a great collection–all 100% public domain) which means they are in the public domain and can be modified and reused freely. For other images, according to US Copyright law, any photo published prior to 1923 is in the public domain, but the photo needs to be legally published prior to 1923. If it wasn’t published, there are further rules around when the photographer died, etc. But to complicate things even more, there are ownership claims around the actual scan of the image, even if the image itself is in the public domain. Many of the library collections who have scanned these images have much more stringent print publishing rules that the rules for website publishing. Mainly they want money to print the images commercially and some have rules about modifications to the images. I’m working these issues out with every one of the 100 or so I’m using for the book, including letters of permission, payments, etc.

  • elie

    unbelievable!  You are a true artist.   The shock value is tremendous.  It is also an ode to the people who rebuilt that city.

  • Norm

    Just noticed that the captions are transposed on the two photos with the California St. Cable cars. The photo of Old St. Mary’s has the caption for the Fairmont Hotel and vice versa. Everything else is brilliant. Surprised no one else caught it.

  • Shawn Clover

    Thanks Norm. Fixed. I recently did a complete overhaul of my site that required lots of copying and pasting and I accidentally swapped these captions.

  • Mo

    Fabulous!! This makes you think how fast our world could change in minutes……

  • Mike Bedford

    Shawn, I really enjoyed your work! I know this is tons of fun; I did this in Nashville in 1997:

    http://www.plugsandpixels.com/mikebedford/retroblend.html

  • Shawn Clover

    Mike, very nice! Those are by far the earliest then/now blended photos I’ve seen.

  • Mike Bedford

    Thanks! And mine were inspired by a half-and-half blend image of the fish market in Seattle I saw in a magazine some years earlier. Back in the early to mid-’80s I did the traditional top-and-bottom before and afters in NJ:

    http://plugsandpixels.com/bhs/bhsdays.html

    Please email me through plugsandpixels.com so I can discuss making you a Featured Artist in my digital imaging ezine (http://plugsandpixels.com/ezine.html).

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