Recreating George Lawrence's Photographic Feat One Hundred Years Later

Location: 
San Francisco, California
From: 
Sunday, January 1, 2006
To: 
Sunday, January 1, 2006

With San Francisco devastated after the earthquake of April 18, 1906, Chicago photographer George Lawrence saw an opportunity to capture a unique image of the Paris of the West. Using a train of Conyne kites, he lifted a 49-pound panoramic camera, which he had built himself, a thousand feet above the bay to shoot his famous photograph, San Francisco in Ruins. Lawrences farsightedness paid off handsomely: he earned a small fortune, $15,000 (more than $300,000 today), selling reproductions of the image.

To mark the centennial of the 1906 earthquake, and a seminal event in the history of kite aerial photography (KAP), The Drachen Foundation collaborated with Bay Area photographer Scott Haefner to re-photograph Lawrences view of San Francisco. From a boat expertly piloted by Malcolm Johnston of the US Geological Survey, using a contemporary KAP rig weighing less than three pounds, Haefner lifted his camera in almost the same locationin light windswith a single Dopero kite, and captured the same awe-inspiring view of the city, looking west down Market Street.

Factors Affecting the Recreation

USGS scientist (and boat pilot) Malcolm Johnston was able to calculate the exact location where George Lawrence positioned his camera a hundred years ago. But other factors also affected the recreation of this remarkable photograph:

  • type of lens: Lawrence shot his photograph using a 19-inch lens on a large 18 x 48 negative, which yielded a field of view of approximately 145 degrees. Haefner used two cameras to approximate Lawrences approach, a Haaselblad XpanII 35mm. film-based panoramic camera with a 30mm lens, which yielded a field of view of about 94 degrees, and a Nikon D70s 6-megapixel digital SLR camera with a 10.5mm fisheye lens, which yielded about a 138 degree horizontal field of vision.
  • elevation: Lawrence was able to pull his camera to about a thousand feet (No one knows exactly how high the camera was lifted, but current GPS readings suggest a height closer to one thousand feet than the two thousand feet commonly cited.) Haefner was limited by FAA regulations to five hundred feet.
  • weather and wind conditions on the day of shooting: both Lawrence and Haefner were shooting in early spring, and experienced periods of storms and shifting winds.

Haefners photograph, of course, documents how San Francisco has grown and changed since 1906. The challenges of capturing an aerial view of San Francisco today further testify to the brilliant vision and accomplishment embodied in Lawrences San Francisco in Ruins.

George Lawrence was a self-taught inventor, with no formal education. Through independent experimentation, he developed a type of flash photography, and designed and built a 1,400-pound camera to capture the entire Chicago and Alton Limited Railroad train in a single horizontal image. His business motto said it all, The hitherto impossible in photography is our specialty. http://robroy.dyndns.info/lawrence/naval_his.html

Scott Haefner, the accomplished KAP photographer, was chosen by The Drachen Foundation to make this shot. He has published work in numerous magazines, newspapers, and book, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, BBC News, and Photo District News. http://www.scotthaefner.com

The Drachen Foundation is a private nonprofit corporation devoted to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about kites worldwide. It uses an integrated program of exhibitions, education, research, collections management, and publications to promote learning about kites. The archive it maintains is freely open to the public for research.

Do you want your own copy of the George Lawrence photograph? The Library of Congress owns a print of Lawrences San Francisco panorama. A 16-by-20-inch black-and-white print costs about $40 plus shipping and handling; ask for negative number USZ62-16440. A 16-by-20-inch sepia-toned print costs about $80 plus shipping and handling; ask for negative number USZC4-3870. For more information, check the Photoduplication Services website, www.loc.gov/preserv/pds/.

Project Type: 
Research
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