While San Francisco’s summer fog confounds newcomers, local photographer Fred Lyon embraces it. The fog, more recently known as “Karl,” stars in many of the native’s iconic images of 20th-century San Francisco. The nonagenarian first wielded his camera in Washington, DC, and New York before returning home in 1946. Impressed by Lyon’s portfolio, which included snapshots of high-profile places from the White House to top fashion houses, prestigious East Coast magazines offered him assignments in the Bay Area. During the golden age of photojournalism, Lyon showcased SF in silvered shades of black and white.
Post-World War II, the city reflected the activities and dreams of its inhabitants, from high-society debutantes to blue-collar workers. Lyon told their stories against the mercurial backdrop of the fog. As he wandered the urban landscape, his lens lingered on the city’s haunting beauty with its culturally diverse neighborhoods, dynamic downtown and vibrant art scene. Often compared to French street photographer Brassaï, “The Eye of Paris,” Lyon is “The Eye of San Francisco.” Here, he shares some of his foggy favorites.
Couple in the Fog, Land’s End above Sutro Bath,1953
Before its personification as Karl the Fog, San Francisco’s temperamental weather played the lead in Lyon’s work. For one story, a New York editor insisted on an overcast nocturnal shot. The photographer replied: “You cannot queue the fog here, we haven’t had a foggy night.” At the time, Lyon lived in Sausalito with his wife, Anne, a former Avedon model. Their landlord invited them upstairs for evening cocktails. Gazing out the window, Lyon saw fingers of fog reaching out through the Golden Gate. Grabbing his camera and the reluctant couple, he raced to Land’s End and snapped this evocative photo.
The Huntington Hotel from Cathedral Park, 1958
Like photographer Brassaï, who roamed Parisian streets at night, Lyon scouted nocturnal San Francisco. Visiting Nob Hill, he recorded its historic hotels, where the ghosts of railroad tycoons lingered. In Lyon’s photo of the Huntington Hotel, he captured the brick building in shades of gray. Viewed at night from the park, the Huntington’s lit windows pierce through the fog, creating an asymmetrical pattern. The image documents Lyon’s lifelong love affair with the city. “San Francisco has always been good to me,” he says. “It presents its many faces to the eye, and thus to myriad lenses.”
Crissy Field to Fort Point, 1949
Two solitary, windswept figures promenade from Crissy Field to Fort Point. In the background, fog consumes the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco’s emblematic landmark features in many of Lyon’s photos. While the Art Deco masterpiece’s lyrical lines lend themselves to the visual arts, the photographer also views it as a symbol of hope. “In the visage of the Golden Gate, we still see the myth that servicemen left behind as they shipped out to war and the beacon that welcomed their return,” he observes. Throughout his work, Lyon juxtaposed the nostalgic past with an optimistic future.
Embarcadero Lunch, 1948
Lyon captured an ethereal moment on the foggy Embarcadero. There, postwar stevedores and longshoremen grabbed a lunch of hot chili washed down with strong coffee. Exploring the seawall, the waterfront and Fisherman’s Wharf, Lyon sent photo essays back to New York magazines. His editors regarded San Francisco as the Wild West and would ask, “What do you have out there?” Lyon’s answer: “We have steep hills, iconic cable cars, two spectacular bridges that won’t quit, the bay, the fog, distinctive neighborhoods and one-of-a-kind personalities.” This period, Lyon describes, “was a visual feast for a young photographer.”
Night Scene on Nob Hill, 1953
In the 1950s, Lyon socialized with the Bay Area Figurative Movement painters. He shared jugs of California burgundy with Richard Diebenkorn and other artists in Sausalito’s shipyard studios. Similar aesthetics linked the photographer and figurative painters. Removed from New York’s established art scene, San Francisco’s creative community experimented. Both Lyon’s photos and his colleagues’ paintings merged realism with abstraction while balancing the physical and ephemeral worlds. In a nocturnal shot from the time, a nuanced figure emerges from the fog near the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Is the person male or female, ascending or descending Nob Hill? Lyon invites us to imagine.