Capturing San Francisco 100 Years Later

According to the New York Times, the Magnitude 7.9 earthquake and fire that destroyed San Francisco on April 18, 1906 was the first widely photographed disaster. Of all the photos documenting the devastation, perhaps none are as striking as George Lawrence’s famous kite aerial photograph, “San Francisco in Ruins,” taken 950-feet above San Francisco Bay.

1906 Photo

George Lawrence's famous photo San Francisco in Ruins

“San Francisco in Ruins,” by George Lawrence, documents the damage caused by the April 18, 1906 M 7.9 earthquake on the San Andreas fault. Photo from the Library of Congress. Ultra high-resolution, zoomable version of this photo from USGS.

A few weeks after the disaster, Chicago-based photographer George Lawrence saw an opportunity to capture a unique image of the sprawling ruins using his “captive airship,” a hand-built, 49-pound panoramic camera suspended from a series of Conyne kites. The result was a negative measuring 22 x 55 inches, capable of being enlarged to wall-sized prints with astonishing detail. Lawrence’s foresight earned him a small fortune of $15,000 (more than $300,000 today) selling copies of his achievement.

thumbnail image of kite and rig

Hasselblad Rig Photo by Ali Fujino

To honor George Lawrence’s feat, and to commemorate the centennial of the 1906 earthquake, Kite Aerial Photographer Scott Haefner and the Drachen Foundation re-shot Lawrence’s panorama using contemporary kite aerial photography techniques in April 2006. The resulting photo, a remarkable achievement in its own right, led the viewer’s eye west down Market Street, just like George Lawrence’s stunning photograph did a century ago. Although it was not shot as close to the city or as high as Lawrence’s photo, it captured the essence of modern day San Francisco, documenting how it has grown and changed since 1906.

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