From January 21 through May 30, 2006, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present 1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures to commemorate the centennial of the great earthquake that struck the San Francisco area on April 18, 1906. The earthquake, and the subsequent fires it caused, reduced the city’s majestic architecture to rubble and left thousands of its residents homeless. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many photographers took to Bay Area streets with their cameras, documenting the unfathomable damage the quake had caused, as well as the challenge of resuming normal life in the disaster’s wake. SFMOMA’s exhibition will feature approximately sixty vintage photographs drawn from the Museum’s collection as well as local public and private holdings.
The earthquake coincided with a particularly rich moment in the history of photography, and this exhibition will explore the wide variety of photographic responses to the disaster that resulted. Commercial photography companies dispatched their photographers to San Francisco to make dramatic views for sale as panoramas, stereoviews, and postcards. By 1906, cameras marketed to the mass public put photography within the reach of the many amateur snapshooters who documented their experiences in the ruined city over the following days and weeks. The works in the exhibition will include professional views of the destroyed city, such as spectacular panoramas made with airborne cameras by George Lawrence; atmospheric Pictorialist views by Willard Worden, and glass lantern slides by Arnold Genthe. The exhibition will also include anonymous amateur snapshots, as well as albums, and cyanotypes on fabric (sometimes called photo quilts).
The exhibition is being organized by Corey Keller, SFMOMA assistant curator of photography. According to Keller, “SFMOMA is proud to present this exhibition, which not only bears witness to the resilience and courage of the people of San Francisco, but also honors the rich photographic tradition of the Bay Area.”
1906 Earthquake is part of a Bay Area–wide commemoration of the earthquake’s centennial whose participants include the California Historical Society, the California Science Teachers Association, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Oakland Museum, Stanford University, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Since its founding in 1935, SFMOMA has resolved to build a photography collection of international stature, a fact that distinguishes the institution as one of the first American museums to recognize photography as a legitimate art form. With the advice and support of renowned Bay Area photographer Ansel Adams and a host of local practitioners and patrons, the Museum strengthened its commitment to the medium steadily over the decades, gaining momentum with the appointment of the first dedicated curator of photography in 1958 and the establishment of a distinct Department of Photography in 1980. Since then, SFMOMA’s collection has grown to include nearly fourteen thousand photographs spanning the entire history of the medium, from its invention in the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.
SFMOMA will present an array of public and educational programs to accompany the exhibition. Information is available on the Museum’s Web site at www.sfmoma.org.
The exhibition is sponsored by Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company in tribute to the San Francisco Fire Department and the Bay Area Fire Service. Founded in 1863, Fireman’s Fund was headquartered in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake; despite losing nearly all of its records in the fire, Fireman’s Fund was one of the first companies to pay all of its claims related to the disaster.