Recently, a friend confided that he was on a quest to watch every episode of the 1970's cop drama The Streets of San Francisco, which was released last year on DVD. It's not that he's a particular fan of Karl Malden or Michael Douglas, but he does love his city, which was the backdrop for the popular TV show.
As it turns out, "Streets" is actually a pretty good time capsule of San Francisco in the Watergate era, but if you want to see what San Francisco's streets looked like a few decades before that, check out San Francisco Then, an exhibition of photographs taken during the 1940s and '50s by Fred Lyon.
San Francisco Then, which runs through August 28, 2010, is a fitting first show for Modernbook Gallery's new San Francisco location. Since 1999, the gallery has been quietly mounting lovely photography exhibitions in Palo Alto. Since 2005, Modernbook has also been publishing handsome, limited edition, hardbound books to accompany many of these shows, including a pair each by Fan Ho and Maggie Taylor. Fred Lyon gets a book for this show, too, and a new publication devoted to the surreal photography of Jerry Uelsmann is due later this year.
The Lyon exhibition is a mixture of movie-poster-size blowups interspersed by grids of smaller photos. There are lots of predictable shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars, many of them aerials, but the show is also heavy on neighborhood streets, some shrouded in fog, others attracting the photographer's eye for their steep inclines and angles.
"Embarcadero Lunch" from 1948 is an example of the former. This large, grainy image features a man at its center walking through the haze toward Lyon's camera. A sign promising "Lunch" and "Drinks" hangs above him and to the left, the faint ghost of the fogged-in Ferry Building looms behind.
"Embarcadero Lunch" is an example of a Lyon photograph in an instantly recognizable public place, but some of Lyon's best images take us into little neighborhoods and down obscure side streets. Sometimes he invites us to take a local's view of a famous landmark, such as in "Coit Tower, Castle Street" from 1947. In this moody night shot, a narrow strip of unpopulated pavement, flanked on either side by modest, wooden facades, serves as a kind of runway for Coit Tower, which is illuminated in the background. Here the city icon feels familiar, just another part of the neighborhood rather than a clichéd postcard.
Other photographs introduces us to the people who live and work in these neighborhoods. The five kids who stare at Lyon's lens in "Playground Fence" from 1949 are clearly masters of their urban universe. Similarly at home are the five old men shown in "Bocce Ball, Aquatic Park," 1958 -- unfazed by Lyon's presence, their collective attention is focused on the collection of balls at their feet. I love the guy on the right, his trousers pulled up high, a wide-brimmed fedora on his head, thumbs hooked into the waist of his pants.
And then there are the photos of the city's hills, which are often peopled to dramatize their steep slopes. In "Forbidden Parking" from 1953, a police officer is ticketing a car parked at a right angle to the tightly packed buildings marching down the hill. To steady himself, the officer puts a foot on the car's front bumper so he can use his knee as a desk to write the scofflaw at ticket -- good thing someone parked a car here!
I supposed I'd like to know the nature of the offense that brought a squad car and two officers to this crime scene -- was the car blocking the sidewalk, a driveway, both? -- but I mostly prefer Lyon's abstracts, where evidence of human habitation stands in for the real thing.
The best of these, and probably my favorite picture in the show, is "North Beach Clotheslines" from 1947. Here, half a dozen or more cords groan under the weight of drying undergarments, curtains and what appear to be towels. The waves created by the rhythm of garments and clothespins are gentle and undulating, but at the bottom of the composition, waves turn to teeth in the form of a jagged fence top, which resembles the lower lip of a leering jack o' lantern. The distracting contrast is so successful that it takes multiple looks before we notice a woman stepping into the frame from the right, and one or two more glances after that before we realize that in order to see her at all Lyon has forced us to peer through a car's driver- and passenger-side windows. Meanwhile, the laundry flutters.
San Francisco Then runs through August 28, 2010 at Modernbook Gallery in San Francisco. For more information visit modernbook.com.