CAPTURING SAN FRANCISCO 100 YEARS LATER
RECREATING GEORGE LAWRENCE’S PHOTOGRAPHIC FEAT
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.
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.
POSITIONING THE CAMERA
In typical re-shoot photography, a photographer can compare the original photo to the camera’s viewfinder and continually shift the camera to obtain a similar view. Because our camera was hanging from a kite, we did not have the luxury of looking through the viewfinder and comparing the view to Lawrence’s photograph. Instead, we had to rely on computer software to pinpoint the exact location before going out to shoot.
Although it is possible to determine where George Lawrence positioned his camera 100 years ago, this would not be sufficient because we were not using the same camera and lens. George Lawrence shot his panorama using a 19-inch lens and a 55” wide negative, yielding a field of view of approximately 145 degrees. We shot the contemporary photo using a Hasselblad XPan II 35mm film-based panoramic camera with a 30mm lens, which yielded a field of view of 94 degrees. Therefore, to obtain a similar view of the city, we would have to shoot the photo from further away.
One of the defining characteristics of Lawrence’s photo is that his camera was positioned so that the viewer can look past the Ferry Building, straight down Market Street. Our aim was to capture this same awe-inspiring view of the city. While it is fairly straightforward to key in GPS coordinates and position the boat on top of the shooting location, we had the additional challenge of estimating the camera’s position, which was several hundred feet from the boat. Malcolm Johnston, USGS scientist and boat captain, did a marvelous job of putting the camera in the correct position.
Using a custom-built rig from Brooks Leffler, who designed a kit-based system that almost anyone can assemble, we lifted the camera to a height of approximately 300-feet in light winds under a single Dopero kite based on KAPer Ralf Buetnagel’s design. Although the tilt angle had to be set before launching the camera, the rig allowed me to pan the camera and trip the shutter remotely from the bow of the boat. The rig and camera weighed approximately 3 pounds.
The resulting photo, a remarkable achievement in its own right, leads 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 captures the essence of modern day San Francisco, documenting how it has grown and changed since 1906.