If there’s a special heaven for photographers, greats like Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, O. Winston Link, and many others are welcoming San Francisco’s Fred Lyon, who captured the essence of this city in the mid-20th century in images just as brilliantly as Herb Caen captured it in words.
Fred’s life-well-lived ended this week at the age of 97, but his work – his legacy – will endure and grow even more important in decades to come.
Fred Lyon’s gifted eye turned commonplace urban scenes into uncommonly compelling photographs. As a commercial photographer, he did all kinds of shoots for clients – fashion, travel, products – and did them very well, but his genius really shined in his photos evoking the urban vitality and mystery of San Francisco. His photos incorporating fog are justly famous, as are his shots of daily neighborhood life.
But to this reporter, who got to know Fred in his final years, his most special shots involved transit, particularly cable cars.
In his youth, Fred Lyon was quite the man about town. Caen was one of his friends and partners-in-nightlife. Both saw the cable cars as symbols of The City (capitalization courtesy Caen). Yet while he was very successful during his career, published repeatedly in leading magazines including Life, his greatest fame accrued as he entered his tenth decade, when he and his wife Penny Rozis retained archival help to organize his voluminous body of work and bring never-seen images to light and life. I was fortunate to have purchased several of his wonderful prints directly from him. Later, after he retained the Peter Fetterman Gallery to represent him and provide professional promotion, the prices rightly skyrocketed. (Here’s a link to a sample of Fred’s work on Fetterman’s site.)
Fred was unexcelled in putting the cable cars into context by including those who worked on them, as well as riders, of course.
In his final decade, several books of Fred’s San Francisco photos were published, including San Francisco, Portrait of a City 1940-1960, and San Francisco Noir. We recommend both to those who love the photos we share here.
Thank you, Fred Lyon, for a lifetime of love through your lens, bestowed on our city and its people. Our deepest condolences to Fred’s wife, Penny, his son Michael McAllister Lyon, and all of Fred’s family and friends. He will be remembered; and so will his vision of San Francisco.
- By Rick Laubscher, Market Street Railway President
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