Earthquake, Fire and a Photograph


Photograph/Arnold Genthe; Image Source:Wikimedia Commons

This story was originally published in January 2011.

Sacramento Street in San Francisco, USA, was struck by a huge earthquake in the early hours of the morning of 18 April 1906, destroying many buildings and setting fire to others. The story behind this famous picture is best told in the photographer, Arnold Genthe’s own words, as published in his book of memoirs, As I Remember.

“I found that my hand cameras had been so damaged by the falling plaster as to be rendered useless. I went to Montgomery Street to the shop of George Kahn, my dealer, and asked him to lend me a camera. ‘Take anything you want. This place is going to burn up anyway.’ I selected the best small camera, a 3A Kodak Special. I stuffed my pockets with films and started out. Of the pictures I had made during the fire, there are several, I believe, that will be of lasting interest. There is particularly the one scene that I recorded the morning of the first day of the fire (along Sacramento Street, looking toward the Bay) which shows, in a pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people. On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept up close, they would just move up a block. It is hard to believe that such a scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it. Several people upon seeing it have exclaimed, “Oh, is that a still from a Cecil De Mille picture?” To which, the answer has been, “No. The director of this scene was the Lord himself.” A few months ago, in an interview about my work, I had told the story of that fire picture. It appeared in a New York paper with the headline, ‘His pictures posed by the Lord, says photographer.’”

Tags: January 2011, USA, Arnold Genthe, Sacramento Street, San Francisco