Rfotofolio has had the privilege of interviewing photographer Fred Lyon. Today on Fred’s 93 birthday we are reposting our interviews. Thank you Fred.
Fred Lyon Photographer Part l
We are honored to share the first in a series featuring the work and words of Fred Lyon.
Could you tell us about yourself and your photographic work?
I’m a fourth generation San Franciscan, surprised to be here. Took up photography in High School, since it seemed like a good way to get girls (Don’t ask) and have been lurching forward ever since.
Apprenticed at fourteen to the city’s largest commercial studio. Studied at Art Center in Los Angeles. Navy Press during WWII covering the White House. Fashion photographer in New York. Back to SF in late 1940s. Magazine editorial: Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated. Vogue, House & Garden, Glamour, plus books, advertising. Studios in Sausalito and SF.
Married a New York fashion model, raised two great sons, both good image makers. As I became older and crankier, I decided to focus on areas that appealed to me: Wine, Food, and Travel. The wine and food world has never been the same. Too bad for them. Toward that end, I raised wine grapes in the Napa Valley for thirty years. Often I’d climb down from my tractor to prowl vineyards all over the world with my camera.
Early on, in the 1940s, I lived in Sausalito and daily crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, a dramatic steel sculpture in a theatrical setting. Often it demanded that I unsheathe my camera, extending the crossing for an hour or two. The bridge, aided by my romantic and naïve world view, launched my lifelong affair with the city it serves. Whenever my schedule slowed and the rent was due, my story suggestions spewed forth. Some long forgotten magazine buckled under to my nagging and around 1950 assigned a story about the bridge painters whose work started at one end, went to the other and started all over again.
Looking at these images after all these years, I still have all the sensations that came to me when I was crawling around the steel work of the Golden Gate Bridge. I feel the brisk morning air, the stillness that gives way to strong breezes and howling fog. Plus apprehension from the knowledge that a careless step could result in a long plunge to San Francisco Bay. But the dramatic elements demanded prompt action. Plenty of time later to sweat over risk and anyway, in my mid-twenties it never occurred to me that I’d live beyond thirty.
The 1940s and 50s saw the end of the deprivation of World War II. There was a great nationwide sigh of relief. Optimism was rampant, as much of the population entered the peacetime workplace in new roles. The promise of new ventures, new technology, and new materials was heady stuff for young people, even for wary oldsters. Meanwhile, San Francisco reveled in its role of Gateway to the Pacific, with shipping and the rebuilding of an ocean travel fleet. It all felt like New Year’s Eve.
For a young photographer, it was an intoxicating time. The bay, the bridges, and the City, with its steep hills, fog, and cable cars were a delicious kaleidoscope parading before my lens. Curiosity and passion for the impressionism of nature drove me on, barely ever letting my camera cool.
Of course there are myriad changes: There is still a backbone of wealthy Old Guard, but they are contrasted and challenged by young creatives and techies from Silicone Valley. Still, the look of the landmarks is unchanged, as is the attitude of the people, who have always embraced the frontier view that daily risk is healthy. It’s a slightly rakish notion that projects a certain zest. There are sounds and smells—foghorns and steaming sidewalk crab pots—to awaken fond memories. It’s easy to become sentimental about early days, but the City is very much a work in progress.
What you really wanted to know: This is my 89th year. Widowed after 30 years, now blissfully married to a smashing interior designer. Still dancing out on the edge, pushing my luck, and living beyond my means.
Over the years what have been your favorite cameras to shoot with?
Nuts and bolts: When I first returned to SF I brought every fashion photographer’s workhorse camera, the Rolleiflex and it liked what it saw. Subsequently, there were Leicas, Canons, Nikons, Hassleblads, Sinars, and a battery of special cameras from aerial and panoramic to underwater. The last of my film equipment has recently gone away, being untouched for about the last eight years. I miss moving slides around on the light table, but I have a wall of file cabinets bulging with slides and negatives. Today I’m not tempted by film. The digital tools allow me to produce images I could only dream of a few years ago. Now it’s all digital (Nikons) and recently in a return to where I started, I’m enjoying a Fuji X100s, which features a non-zoom non-interchangeable lens.
Which photographers have influenced your work?
The graphic qualities of black-and-white and its possibilities for abstraction have fascinated me from the first. Rich, velvety blacks are infatuation. So it’s not surprising that a critic recognized a Bauhaus look in some of my work. And I fully credit the photographers’ friend, Rene Magritte, with feeding my voracious need to make fresh images.
Arnold Genthe was my first hero and it’s easy to see his vision in my Chinatown pictures. Brassai, Robert Doisneau, and Jacques-Henri Lartigue were men I admired and knew slightly. Bill Brandt, Andre Kertesz,Eisenstadt, and Henri Cartier-Bresson have been influences on my work. Jacques-Henri Lartigue had a lifelong innocence and exuberance that shone through all his images. To the end, he was a delightful optimist, and he always had a beautiful French charmer on his arm.
What have you enjoyed most about being a photographer?
Latest excitement: The 1940s and 50s were an exhilarating time and most photography was still black and white, but the demand for color eclipsed monochrome by the 60s. So when a San Francisco book was suggested I jumped at the opportunity to revisit classic photography from this period. In September of 2014 the collection will appear as “ San Francisco: Portrait of a City, 1940 – 1960”, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Photography has constantly provided me with fresh opportunities. It is truly the ideal occupation for someone who is inherently snoopy. The places that photography has taken me have been eye-popping. But the really unique experiences have been with the people I’ve encountered and with whom I’ve worked. I’ve learned from them and they have provided inspiration for a lifetime.
If I were asked for basic advice I’d say:
Attack each day with zest, optimism, grit, self-control, and don’t forget gratitude. Hard work doesn’t hurt, either. Wear comfortable shoes.
Of course you need technique. But that’s merely the affairs of craftsmanship. So don’t let it show too much in your images. It could get in the way of the content.
Be enthusiastic. Your clients will love you and you’ll be better able to handle the inevitable drudge parts of photography.
Would you tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
Nude © Bill Brandt
Bill Brandt’s nude, London, March 1952. For a photographer who had shot a startling range of subjects, from documentary of extremes of the British social scale to wartime London during the blitz, the leap to nudes seemed unlikely. But it was really a continuation of his examination of his own progress. The wide-angle lens was a shock to the classic tradition of figure work. And he seemed immersed in exploring as many variations as possible. Eventually this process distilled the imagery to pure graphic design expression, a design triumph.
Would you be kind enough to select ten photos that you have taken over the years and tell our readers about them?
The cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets has always fascinated passersby and they often join the crew in pushing the car back on the tracks. One woman, upon viewing this image, blurted out, “Why that man in the fedora is my father! You know, one day he took the family Cadillac and his secretary and they were never seen again.”
Kids have always done wild things for my camera. They sense that I’m a happy idiot who itches to join in their games. Of course they’re right about that. The sadness is that today very few children play in the streets, perhaps preferring video games. Too bad for street photography.
In the early 1950s a magazine needed a fog picture to complete a San Francisco layout I’d shot for them. But fog can’t be produced at will and the deadline was bearing down. My new bride and I were about to have cocktails with our landlord when fog appeared outside the window. Over their protests I bundled both of them into the car and headed to Land’s End, with promises of a visit to the nearest bar as soon as we had our picture. There were complaints about the cold and urgent reminders about their thirst. Just before the mutiny materialized we made it to a watering hole and the evening was salvaged.
Kearny Street above Broadway epitomizes Telegraph Hill’s vertical structure. It looks like a short telephoto prevented it from flattening this image. In the postwar years North Beach was primarily Italian, with a fringe of Chinese, so much of neighborhood life spilled out onto the sidewalks.
When I joined the tribe of orange spattered bridge painters they accepted me casually, and after a couple of days they became somewhat protective. Here we were at the top of the south tower and as I hurried over to join the fellow coming up the cable he said, “I think you better let me give you a safety belt”. Suddenly I realized how perilous the footing could be. The vantage point above the Golden Gate displayed such an array of options that it distracted from any awareness of danger.
Along Broadway and Pacific every night was New Year’s Eve. Costumed barkers were outside of every strip club, good-naturedly trying to promise more on the inside than actually was ever delivered. The best show was on the street and naming the area Barbary Coast was a brave effort to maintain the myth of a more rakish era. Colorful eateries, jazz clubs, and comedy stars kept it all alive for a truly eclectic audience.
Jazz, and its development, has been on a parallel course with the West’s rocky history. Sonny Rollins, legendary saxophonist, played a gig at Basin Street West in the 50s and is still breaking new ground. A great magazine editor was doing a jazz in SF story but felt a recognizable musician would be distracting, so his instructions were to make it “abstract, like a painting”. What a compliment it is to a photographer to be offered that latitude.
San Francisco’s cable cars have rumbled and clanged their way into the hearts of generations of locals and visitors alike. This California Street car was originally shot in color, panning with the tracks, but its graphic quality allows it to hold up well in monochrome. Black-and-white imagery has always enjoyed the opportunity to lean toward abstraction.
Fog is such a part of daily life in parts of San Francisco near to Ocean Beach that these young athletes take it in stride. Near Portola Drive, this neighborhood had relatively light traffic, making the streets a viable playground. And anyhow, there is no suppressing a group of boys with a ball.
Fred Lyon, Part ll
Was there a photographic assignment you worked on that surprised you by how interesting or inspirational you found it?
A few years ago I was unleashed in a newish vineyard in the rolling hills above Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara County, California. A gorgeous tumble of pristine, oak studded slopes it was conceived in the imagination of a wonder couple in the wine world, Ali and Charles Banks. Their eco plan in developing the land included preservation of the old oak trees and laying out the vineyards around them, a radical and financially risky idea previously untried on this scale. The resulting vineyards are truly breathtaking, a photographer’s delight. It demanded repeated visits to show the vineyard patterns and undulating land forms at sunset. But the magical, mystical spell is at a crescendo in the early morning when a dense fog from the nearby Pacific Ocean envelops everything. It’s truly a cathedral in the vines.
Is there anything you really notice as a difference in shooting digital today vs film earlier in your career. Has it caused you to change anything you do in composing or taking an image?
Not really. Perhaps the opportunity to quickly check results means less time wasted in excessive bracketing. I find that, on average, I’m ending up with fewer exposures and probably more variations of viewpoint or composition. But again, that might just be the product of age and experience. Digital is wonderful.
If you could go out and shoot with another photographer living or from the past who would it be. What about his or her work would make them a great person to shoot with?
At times I’ve wanted to go out as an assistant to a professional whose work I admired, to experience his process, especially his handling of personalities: cast, crew, and clients. But beyond that, I have never considered sharing a shoot. Actual photography is a solitary pursuit. To me, there’s more to be gained in a rambling conversation over a bottle of wine or a meal. For that, I’d enjoy Bill Brandt or Jacques Henri Lartigue, letting the occasion set the direction and see where it would take us. I’d hope that along the way a glimmer of their motivations might be revealed.
Tell us about an average working day in your photography.
Being an independent photographer is the surest guarantee that one will never have an average day. In the past, twelve-hour days were usually the norm, but now that’s down to nine or ten. And weekends often grab at least part of one or two days. Email can ruin as much time as it’s allowed. Sporadically I escape the studio, following my camera to see where it takes me. It has always been my passport to discovery. My priority list contains both assigned and non-assigned projects so the trick is to keep all the balls in the air at once, not miss any vital details, and respect deadlines. Happily, these constraints have been with me for decades so they come as no surprise. My disappointment stems from the myth that with age things slow down and get easier. And that’s offset by the dangling carrot of new opportunities. I guess I’m an excitement junkie and my monkey mind constantly gets me in trouble.
How important has San Francisco been to your photographic endeavors. Is there something there you have seen but never had a chance to record?
San Francisco has always been good to me. It presents its many faces to the eye, and thus to myriad lenses. Isolating the pertinent facets and linking them together is job one for photo storytellers. Somehow this has always seemed obvious and therefore unremarkable to me. But it’s the visual feast, The Grand Buffet that continues to wake up the camera. I need another lifetime to document the changes in this magic city.
Would you tell us about photographing musicians?
Since I hand-cranked the family Victrola as a child, music has driven my imagination. No surprise there, but since I have lived through so many eras it reaffirms my belief that, of all the arts, musicians have come closest to realizing immortality. And jazz, our own truly American music, has been especially appealing. Perhaps because it’s so accessible. So, since my teens, my hangouts were record shops, jazz joints, and eventually wherever my camera heard the music. Sure, I knew musicians and shot album covers, but making the images always seemed incidental to the experience.
Please tell us about your book, SAN FRANCISCO: PORTRAIT OF A CITY 1940 – 1960
For the past nine years our ongoing studio project has centered on a handful of small boxes stuffed with negatives of San Francisco from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Laurel Thornton, Chief Detective, has stubbornly searched and researched these files, selecting mostly images never previously printed and many with scratches, dust, and processing flaws. Once scanned and digitally repaired they emerged as vivid documents of a colorful page in the city’s history.
I had long admired the books of Princeton Architectural Press, a temple of publishing irreverence. In a weak moment they succumbed to my pleas, embraced the material, and assembled an energetic band of talented young bandits to beat it into submission. The result, SAN FRANCISCO: PORTRAIT OF A CITY 1940 – 1960, will be released in mid-September. It may well be remembered for all time as a great tribute to the power of nagging.
Thank you Fred for sharing your work and your words.
Update Sept. 2017
Fred has a new book coming out in Oct.
Information from Princeton Architectural Press
October 10th 2017
San Francisco Noir
Following in the footsteps of classic films like
The Maltese Falcon
and The Lady from Shanghai
veteran photographer Fred Lyon creates images
of San Francisco in high contrast with a sense of mystery. In this latest offering from the photographer of San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940–1960
Lyon presents a darker tone, exploring the hidden corners of his native city.
Images taken in the foggy night are illuminated only by neon signs, classic car headlights, apartment windows, or streetlights. Sharply dressed couples stroll out for evening shows, drivers travel down steep hills, and sailors work through the night at the old Fisherman’s Wharf. Stylistically, many of the photographs are experimental—the noir tone is enhanced by double exposures, elements of collage, and blurred motion. These strikingly evocative duotone images expose a view of San Francisco as only Fred Lyon could capture.
Fred Lyon studied under famed photographer Ansel Adams and has been called “San Francisco’s Brassai.” A lifelong resident of San Francisco, he has contributed to numerous fashion, home, and garden magazines.
His work has been exhibited in San Francisco at the Museum of Modern Art, the Legion of Honor Museum, and the Leica Gallery, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, and was the subject of a Life magazine retrospective.
Fred also has a show at the Leica Gallery San Francisco. October 12 – December 30, 2017 Artist reception, book launch and signing: Thursday, October 12, 6pm-8pm
To learn more about Fred Lyon please visit his page at, Fred Lyon.