Midcentury Photos of the Bay Area by Legendary San Franciscan Photographer Fred Lyon

bay area
Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill, downtown in background, San Francisco

San Francisco is a city famous for endearing itself to the many visitors who venture there. The city by the bay is officially the City and County of San Francisco, and is recognized as the commercial, financial as well as cultural hub of Northern California. As the sole consolidated city-county in California, San Francisco encompasses a land area of about 46.9 square miles on the northern part of the San Francisco Peninsula.

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge painter walking up main cable, 1947
San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge painter walking up main cable, 1947

San Francisco is the fourth-most populated city in California, following Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose. It is the 14th-most populated city in the United States based on estimates done in 2013.

Fred Lyon is perhaps one of the most, if not the most celebrated photographer from the bay area. Around 70 years after first picking-up a camera, Lyon is still shooting alluring images of this beautiful city and its diversity of people. Lyon is a fourth-generation inhabitant of San Francisco, and knows every nook and cranny of the city and its diverse populace.

Boys on coasters, North Beach, San Francisco, 1953
Boys on coasters, North Beach, San Francisco, 1953

He has shot virtually everywhere from Chinatown to Ocean Beach, with all the iconography in between. From the cable cars, famous hilly terrain, fisherman’s wharf, Lombard Street, to the world famous Golden Gate Bridge, Lyon has photographed them all.

Fishermen hauling in their nets, Sausalito waterfront
Fishermen hauling in their nets, Sausalito waterfront

On a personal level, the San Francisco of the 1940s and 50s was a special era for Lyon. While many facets of the place from that time remain, many aspects are also gone. Just like other cities, news stands are no more, telephone booths are practically non-existent, and you rarely see kids playing simple games on the streets. There is also the obvious explosion of a more dense population.

Flower stand, Union Square, San Francisco with I. Magnin in background, 1958, Anne Murray Lyon
Flower stand, Union Square, San Francisco with I. Magnin in background, 1958, Anne Murray Lyon

While Lyon reminisces of the old, he admits that there is always more to discover. “It would take another lifetime to explore the San Francisco I haven’t seen, and see in my imagination.”  For those of us too young to know the San Francisco Lyon is hearkening to, you need not imagine what it was like because his images are a treasure trove of a bygone era.

Parking on the steep hill just below the Mark Hopkins hotel.
Parking on the steep hill just below the Mark Hopkins hotel.

Support Fred Lyon by checking out his new book entitled San Francisco, Portrait of a City 1940–1960.

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Patricia Ramos

Patricia Ramos

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I’m talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.