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San Francisco is a hall of fame city for photographers

The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, WY., by Ansel Adams. photo: National Archives and Records Administration, wikimedia commons

San Francisco has long been a haven for photographers and fine photography. Almost from its Gold Rush beginnings, it has attracted photographers who have documented life in this dramatic region. Last month, we wrote about a few of these earlier artists with cameras — Arnold Genthe and his iconic photos of early San Francisco Chinatown; Eadweard Muybridge, whose sequenced photos of a galloping horse were primitive motion pictures; and Imogen Cunningham, a member of an early group of San Francisco photographers called Group f/64.

In this issue of the Marina Times, we present a few more famed San Francisco photographers.


A founding member of Group f/64, Ansel Adams lived most of his life in San Francisco. He spent his boyhood in an area near the Pacific Ocean, which in those days was mostly sand dunes. At 14, his father bought him his first camera, an inspired gift that started him on a career that made him famous. The family planned to visit Yosemite Valley, popular then as now as a spectacular holiday destination. Young Adams recorded that first trip with his new camera. Soon he and his camera were inseparable. There was a sense of mission and history about Adams, and he grew to adulthood and fashioned a career for himself as a photographic artist.


Annie Leibovitz attended the San Francisco Art Institute and intended to become a painter. But after a while she became hooked on photography. In 1970, she brashly approached Jann Wenner, who was just starting what would become his iconic publication, Rolling Stone. She was hired and given the assignment to shoot photos of John Lennon. Her photo of shaggy-haired Lennon made the magazine’s cover. Then it was onward and upward. She became chief photographer for Rolling Stone and made some of the most memorable images of our time. Later she began shooting photo stories for Vanity Fair. Today, she is probably one of the best known photographers in the world.


Jimo Perini is a San Francisco photographer whose “beat” is the city’s North Beach neighborhood. Definitely an old-school photographer, Perini still shoots with film, rather than giving way to digital photography. Two of his black-and-white photo books are collector’s items — San Francisco Grip (the subject is the city’s cable cars) and To Marci with Love (a photo story on his daughter).


Many years ago when I was reading Life, Look, and Collier’s, I began noticing a photo credit for a photographer named Fred Lyon. His work was sharp, intense, and imaginative.

This was before the days of Google and e-mail, but somehow I found out he lived in Sausalito. So I wrote him a fan letter, and I mailed it to “Fred Lyon, General Delivery, Sausalito, California.” A few weeks later I got a telephone call. It was Fred Lyon. He invited me to visit him in his studio. And that was how our friendship began.

Fred began his professional career at 14 as an apprentice in the Moulin Studio, a well-known photo operation founded by Gabriel Moulin in 1909. Later, he studied at Art Center College in Los Angeles and during World War II served as a Navy photographer in Washington, DC shooting feature stories and covering the White House.

Following his discharge, he moved to New York City and was soon immersed in the high-pressure, artistic world of fashion. He later returned to California and undertook studio and location work in international travel, cuisine, wine, interior design, and whatever else caught his fancy. He soon was submitting photo essay ideas to the big New York-based magazines. “I was re-inventing myself as a magazine photographer,” he recalls. “Here I was based in San Francisco, one of the most attractive and vibrant cities anywhere. After a while I began getting those coveted magazine assignments.”


It was hard to be neutral about Jim Marshall. Most either admired him for his obvious talent, or disliked him for his brash, often arrogant and combative manner. I was an admirer. Marshall photographed all major rock ’n’ roll artists. His photos have appeared on the covers of more than 500 record albums. He was the chief photographer at Woodstock. When the Beatles played their final concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966, he was the only photographer allowed backstage. He shot the famous Monterey Pop Festival and caught Jimi Hendrix on stage setting fire to his guitar. He was also a presence at major jazz events and photographed such jazz stars as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Marshall was mercurial and single-minded about his art.

If you know more famous San Francisco photographers, tell me about them.


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