Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon

Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
“Cable Car Thrill Rider” (O’Farrell and Jones Streets, 1946). (c) Fred Lyon

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.

Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
Herb Caen, at Powell and Market Streets, posed by Fred Lyon, 1953. (c) Fred Lyon

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.)

Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
Pushing cable car off the turntable, Powell & Market Streets, 1946. (c) Fred Lyon

Fred was unexcelled in putting the cable cars into context by including those who worked on them, as well as riders, of course.

Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
Cable car oiler, c. 1946. (c) Fred Lyon
Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
Off the turntable, Bay and Taylor Streets, about 1948. (c) Fred Lyon
Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
Cable car conductor on a foggy day, 1950s. (c) Fred Lyon
Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
Headed home from work, Jackson Street, around 1955. (c) Fred Lyon
Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
California Street looking west, below Powell, 1946. (c) Fred Lyon
Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
Market Street, looking east at Fourth Street, about 1956. (c) Fred Lyon

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.

Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon
Fred Lyon as a commercial photographer, above; below, Fred with Rick Laubscher at the Leica Gallery exhibit of his works, 2016.
Farewell to fabulous photographer Fred Lyon

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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Comments: 11

  1. Beautiful photos, he really had an eye for the grit and the glamor of our cable cars….looking closely at the Caen photo, I wonder the wear on the Washington & Jefferson destination sign came from….that Market street shot, just one PCC peeking around the older classic trolley…Mr Lyon had a gift…

  2. They are all wonderful, Fred was a true artist with a exceptional eye. My all-time favorite is the “Cable Car Oiler” it warms my heart everytime I see it.

  3. Fred Lyon was the greatest photographer ever in the history of San Francisco. Exquisitely beautiful, they forever capture the soul of this city. We were blessed to have him. Thank you forever Fred. I love you my friend.

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