The Great San Francisco Quake: 40 incredible photos that teleport you back to the six billion dollar disaster


posted Monday, April 11, 2016 at 4:54 PM EDT


Every now and again, we come across a story which reminds us of the historical importance of photography, something which is all too easily ignored in the age of throwaway photos shared on social media and then just as quickly forgotten. One such piece passed across our desk today, courtesy of The Atlantic's excellent Photo column: An archive of 40 truly spectacular images shot in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

It's a part of US history which, for an event of almost 110 years past, is still fairly well remembered, especially on the west coast. It's one thing to have read or heard of the disaster, though, and another entirely to see it with your own eyes. You could read for hours of the destruction caused when the magnitude 7.8 quake struck, destroying 25,000 buildings, leaving almost two-thirds of the city's population homeless and causing more than six billion dollars of insurance claims in today's money, but mere words somehow still leave you with a feeling of emotional detachment.

Looking Down Sacramento Street, San Francisco.
Public domain image by Arnold Genthe via Wikipedia.

Yet one glance at these photos is a real, visceral gut-punch: It's not just numbers any more when you can see the city aflame, and get a feeling for the many very human stories of tragedy and loss behind those numbers. And that's not the only advantage of this historical record, either. In its photographic form, the incredible scale of the disaster is also much easier to comprehend. When reading of the disaster, a mention of 500 city blocks being leveled sounds horrific, certainly, but it's very hard to visualize. Yet the shot below showing huge swathes of land reduced to smoldering rubble is immediately understood by one and all.

Ruins of San Francisco from Lawrence Captive Airship.
Public domain image by Geo. R. Lawrence Co. via Library of Congress.

And that's just as true of photos shot today as those shot in the early days of photography, way back in 1906. Yet there was a respect for photography back then which has all but disappeared in the digital age: Photos are no longer seen as a permanent record; their capture as a special event. Nowadays, the bulk of our photos are shot not to memorialize and remember, but to share and involve a greater number of people at the moment of capture. Our photographic record should be stronger than ever, but in the age of the throwaway photo, we don't always treat our creations with the reverence with which we should.

Ruins after San Francisco Earthquake.
Public domain image by Arnold Genthe via Library of Congress.

Were there, god forbid, to be another such earthquake today, we'd doubtless be flooded in photos of the aftermath on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but would we take the effort to preserve those very same photos for future generations? Quite likely not, but we very certainly should. It is through these photos, after all, that our ancestors will find their connection with us. Through each image, they'll relive and better understand the epoch-making moments of our lives. Perhaps it is time that we treated our historical images with the reverence they deserve, once more.

San Francisco, April 18, 1906.
Public domain image by Arnold Genthe via Library of Congress.

You can see more images of San Francisco after the quake in The Atlantic's gallery. Next Monday will mark the 110th anniversary of the event. More information on the earthquake and its aftermath can be found on Wikipedia.

(via The Atlantic)

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