Taschen’s ‘San Francisco: Portrait of a City’ Is a Photographic Time Capsule

A lavish new book showcases the glories of San Francisco

To Reuel Golden, Taschen’s photography editor, the new book San Francisco: Portrait of a City is a natural fit for the publisher. “San Francisco has a relatively short history,” he says, “but it feels like Europe.” In the text, written by Bay Area resident Richie Unterberger, the pageant of the city unfurls from the 1848 discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills to the current era of gentrification. San Francisco entails an all-star assembly of renowned photographers, from Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Lee Friedlander to Robert Frank, Slim Aarons, Bruce Davidson and Garry Winogrand.

On the cover, Fred Herzog’s 1962 shot of Grant Avenue, a neon sign proclaiming the nocturnal pleasures of Club Macumba, captures the eternal allure of Chinatown. Inside, a 1906 Arnold Genthe portrait of handsome hometown boy Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild, is counter-pointed by a 1931 Imogen Cunningham photo of Frida Kahlo, who was then living in San Francisco with her husband, Diego Rivera.

Homer Flynn’s 1978 portrait of the avant-garde group The Residents at the Golden Gate Bridge / Photo: © Homer Flynn

In 1950, the brilliant Fred Lyon—dubbed the “Brassaï of San Francisco” by Golden—defined the Barbary Coast red-light district with an evocative photo of Spider Kelly’s nightclub. San Francisco is captured at its lurid best, a semiotic touchstone for the joys of sin.

Of course, the city was Beat mecca, and the book uses a Nat Farbman portrait of Lawrence Ferlinghetti at his City Lights bookstore—the shop is still going strong, thank God—and Allen Ginsberg’s snapshots of Neal Cassady, immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. A few years later, San Francisco owned the 1960s, from Tony Bennett’s 1962 recording of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to the Beatles playing their last big concert at Candlestick Park in 1966. A 1960 Gordon Parks photo of Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn lounging at the Fairmont hotel is all easy breezy jazz cool.

1947 photo of passengers crowding a cable car / Photo: Max Yavno

Every photo in the book brings back jolts of memory. The Summer of Love in 1967 riveted the nation, with Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and assorted flower children dream—an era when Steve McQueen would casually wear love beads given to him by passing hippies during the production of 1968’s Bullitt—died with the Hells Angels running amok at a 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.

The 1970s brought the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, dark messiah Jim Jones, and the assassination of Harvey Milk. In 1977, Steve Jobs introduced the Apple II in San Francisco, a brave little prelude to the modern deluge of Twitter and Google.

Forever unto end, San Francisco is rooted in the American brainpan. Golden, naturally, takes the long view: “Cities are in a constant state of flux, good and bad, but San Francisco is still so exotic. Even today, you can walk into Chinatown and have an experience that’s like a trip to a foreign country.”

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