Today is the one hundred and sixth anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which “ranks as one of the most significant earthquakes of all time”. One of the iconic images of the city is this:
Taken in May 1906 by George R. Lawrence, the photograph is from a large celluloid-plate film camera, which itself was suspended from a train of kites stabilised by a set of booms- what Lawrence called a “captive airship”.
Lawrence sold prints of this photograph for $125- not less than $3000* in 2010 dollars. He made “at least $15,000” from this one photograph. If you want a closer look, the USGS has a zoomable, reduced-contrast version.
Unsurprisingly, as the centenary came around six years ago, there were attempts to reproduce the iconic shot; two, in fact. The Drachen Foundation, which works with kite photographers, enlisted Scott Haefner and the USGS to take a panorama, flown with a similar kite airship method to Lawrence’s image:
Another group, led by Ron Klein, used a replica camera of the same size and type, but mounted in a helicopter. (As the kite group notes, FAA regulations limit their altitude to 500 feet, while Lawrence’s original was taken from somewhere around 1000 feet, although some sources say it was even higher).
Unsurprisingly, a great deal has changed in the hundred years between the two- the sksyscrapers, the bridges, and Sutro Tower being obvious. On the other hand, while the harbour has changed, the feel of the Embarcadero is remarkably similar.
In any case, these are all fascinating, not just for the depiction of the city, but for the technology - both in terms of aviation and of cameras - involved.
* in purchasing power- more on comparing old currency values at Measuring Worth.