'I am frequently seated here,' said photographer Fred Lyon, who put in long hours in the studio at his San Francisco home. This picture was taken on Oct. 25, 2017. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)
red Lyon, one of the greatest of San Francisco photographers — and by some estimates one of the greatest anywhere, any time — has died at the age of 97.
Lyon, who built an incomparable record of his native city in a career that spanned more than seven decades, died last Monday, August 22. His wife, Penelope Whelan Rozis, told KQED the cause was lung cancer.
Peter Fetterman, a Santa Monica gallery owner who has represented the photographer and his iconic images of San Francisco for decades, described Lyon's work as "a love poem to the city. He has such heart and warmth, and it shows through his photographs — his images of children, of just normal people," Fetterman said in an interview Saturday. "He was one of the great humanist photographers."
Rozis and Fetterman said a memorial is planned for sometime in October.
Lyon emerged as one of the most respected chroniclers of his long era in San Francisco from a career focused mostly on magazine and fashion photography.
"His career touched on every significant aspect of 20th-century photography," said author Philip Meza, whose recent book "Inventing the California Look" featured Lyon's photography of interior decor. Lyon was a prolific contributor to national magazines including Life, Fortune, Holiday and Sports Illustrated and also worked as an ad agency photographer.
"And then at the age of 80, he starts a career as a fine art photographer," Meza said, referring to a career that was active right up until Lyon's passing. "He died working on two book projects. And just this last April, he had two books out — mine, and he was the largest contributor to another book, "San Francisco: Portrait of a City."
Fetterman said he had not encountered Lyon's work before seeing an image called "Foggy Night, Land's End."
"I thought I knew a lot about photographers and the history of photography," Fetterman said. When he came across "Foggy Night," he said, "I was totally blown away by it. I thought, 'Why haven't I heard of this man? Who is this man? This man is a giant — anyone who could make that kind of composition, I have to know more about him.'"
"Cameras were shiny objects," he said. "I knew a guy who had one and he always seemed to have a lot of cute girls around him. I thought that if I had a camera, maybe I'd get girls, too."
Lyon skipped two grades, graduated from Burlingame High School, apprenticed at a San Francisco photography studio at age 14 and then, a year later, attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where Ansel Adams was a teacher.
In a 2020 interview with "California Look" collaborator Philip Meza, Lyon recalled how he joined Adams and a select handful of other students on a summer trip to Adams’ home in Yosemite. He said he took from Adams certain artistic tenets, such as Adams’ famous admonition, “There's nothing worse than a very sharp image of a very fuzzy concept." But even then, Lyon said, he knew he needed to become his own photographer.
“My feeling was that I could never learn all Ansel knew," Lyon said. "I could never be more than a miniature Ansel Adams if I tried to be like him. I was never going to become a landscape photographer. I always seem to need to include some of the works of man in my work. Ansel was terrific and inspirational, but I didn’t want to emulate what he was doing.”
Lyon was a Navy photographer during World War II, an assignment that took him to the White House, where he took a Christmas portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his extended family in 1944. He photographed President Harry S. Truman on his first day in the Oval Office following Roosevelt's death in April 1945.
After the war, Lyon shot fashion assignments in New York City before returning to the Bay Area in 1946, where his family's thriving real estate business awaited him. But he had other ideas.
"Photography wasn't really an honorable profession," Lyon told KQED in 2017. "It wasn't a profession at all. When our family physician found out what I was doing, he said, 'Oh Frederick, that's no work for a man.' But it's the ideal pursuit for an inherently nosy person. You get to peek into everyone else's life."
ll through his career, Lyon was very busy getting those glimpses into the lives of others.
"We looked at his work logs — he logged in every shoot he did from maybe 1940 on," Rozis, who married Lyon 20 years ago, said Saturday. "There were all kinds of interesting people, from sports to fashion to architecture to films. It's just amazing. He said, 'When I look at these job logs, it makes me tired.' Every day there were two or more shoots."
Meza says that Lyon set out to become a working photographer, a mission at which he was fabulously successful, but did not consider himself an artist.
"Nevertheless, he did become one," Meza said, the proof being the enduring attraction of the images he captured. "If it is a generation or more removed from the viewer, like some of Fred’s fine art photography, it retains these powers and is not just a curiosity because it is antique. I think his artistic sense was derived from his abundant empathy, curiosity and intelligence."
Fetterman says that, beyond the quality of his work, Lyon stood out as someone who embraced life and other people.
"He was a joyous character," Fetterman said. "He was like Cary Grant. He was from another era of charm and manners and gracefulness — all of it genuine."
Lyon's personality — his dedication to craft, sense of wonder and joie de vivre — shine through in KQED's 2017 profile.
The story noted that Lyon, "reduced to a shuffle" and accompanied by his wife "to keep me from being hit by motorists," was still venturing out to shoot the city where he was born back in 1924. "I want to be wherever the composition is right, and it's usually in the middle of traffic. I love the 500 Club (at Guerrero and 17th streets, in the Mission) because it has the cocktail glass and the neon sign."
And Lyon made clear in the story that he bore a deep affection for both the old San Francisco and the city it has become:
"Lyon has had neither the time nor inclination to embrace nostalgia, but there are things he misses about the old San Francisco: He used to swim at Sutro Baths. Kids played in the streets. People didn't hurry and weren't on 'their damn iPhones all the time.' There wasn't much traffic or all those 'killer buses.' San Franciscans didn't dress like they were camping, and didn't wear baseball caps backward in good restaurants.
"'Now that I'm officially an antique, I can say that I'm old-fashioned,' Lyon said. ...
" ... But Lyon loves San Francisco in its current incarnation, especially certain things: The profusion of Thai restaurants. Bicycles everywhere. Fantastic fruits and vegetables. All the watercraft on the bay. A revitalized North Beach. The Lands End Lookout. And a lot more sidewalk trees, which 'cover up some execrable architecture.'"
he 2017 piece had a sequel. It featured photographs from a just-published book of Lyon's work, "San Francisco Noir." The piece included several images from the book, including an undated black-and-white image of a series of gabled houses with a hill full of more houses rising into the haze beyond.
The caption said: "Fred Lyon has taken so many pictures that he doesn't always remember when or where they were shot. He and his wife have spent hours driving around San Francisco trying to figure out the neighborhood where 'Houses on the Hills' is located."
The mystery of that photo's location spawned a KQED social media challenge — to help find the spot where "Houses on the Hill" was shot. Two of our readers figured it out, and Yollin and Lyon visited the site with them. The result was another story, "Mystery Solved: Crowdsourcing a Vanished View of San Francisco."
"I can't tell you how amazing I think it is that you identified this," Lyon told the two readers, Robert Aranda Jr. and Eric Chesmar, who correctly identified the picture's Noe Valley location.
Besides Rozis, Lyon is survived by two sons, Michael and Gordon, from his first marriage, to the late Anne Murray Lyon, who died in 1989.
As he approached his mid-90s, Lyon told Yollin, he felt there was still more work to do.
"I see pictures I would like to take," he said. "I need another lifetime to photograph San Francisco. But my life has been so much fun I can't believe it."
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