Man with a Camera Traveling in Time - Page 5

Fred Lyon looks over the shoulder at mid-century Bay Area—in his upbeat world of enduring images
Fred Lyon
Organic architecture seen in a home designed in Malibu by architect Harry Gessner, who was a friend of Fred Lyon.
Fred Lyon
Lyon shot Eichler's 'Life House,' a special split-level design in the San Mateo Highlands designed by architect Pietro Belluschi, in 1958.
Fred Lyon
Lyon shot this tall yet cozy interior of an Art Carpenter house in Bolinas.
Fred Lyon
A handsome and debonair Fred strikes an attractive pose, never losing touch with his trusty camera.

"I was young and I just loved all of it," he says of the city, "and it was very friendly. Nobody was threatening, everything was very optimistic. We'd all been repressed and deprived during the war. And things were so upbeat you got to do almost anything."

Lyon's story also took in the down-at-the-heels ex-shipyard town of Sausalito, where he lived from 1948 into the 1980s, mixing with artists and poets.

It was a time he thought would last forever. "I just assumed they would always be there," he says of the jazz clubs. "Everybody was supposed to be in place, in your role for the rest of your life. And of course it doesn't work that way."

Today Lyon lives, and runs his photo studio, where else, on Lyon Street in the city, across from the Presidio Wall. And at age 90, he still shoots.

Ten years ago he began going through his vast collection of photos and has produced a new book, San Francisco: Portrait of a City, and several exhibits, and sells his photos as works of art.

David Christensen, a fine art photographer and curator of the Harvey Milk Photography Center in San Francisco, which gave Lyon's a one-man show this year, says Lyon's work "is way above documentary. It really is fine art," and is in "the same league" as many of his more famous colleagues.

"He can find the right exposure, the right composition, the right moment. It all comes together—the subject, the exposure, the cropping, the movement in the frame," says Christensen, who's planning another Lyon exhibit.

"He's such a gentleman, and that comes over into his work. He has an insatiable interest and curiosity."

"I told Fred," Christensen says, "you've created the best love letter to San Francisco."

Explaining why it took him so long to market his photos as art, Lyon says, "I was always lurching forward, much too busy to look over my shoulder."

"At that time," he says, with some exaggeration, "there was no art photography. No one would think of hanging a photograph in their home, unless it was of their mother."

And, yes, Lyon created history as well as recorded it. He takes the credit, or blame, for helping turn Sausalito into a tourist trap by producing a five-page spread on the town for Holiday in the early 1950s.

"I didn't mention that to anybody for years for fear that they would kill me," Lyon says.

And he helped bring down the infamous liquor-movies-racetrack lobbyist Artie Samish by snapping a quick picture of the rotund man in a straw boater while he was holding a toy figure in a Sacramento hotel room in 1949.

Lyon spotted the toy, "a bum with top hat," and handed it to the lobbyist. Samish said he called the figure "Mr. Legislature," and added, "Everyday I tell him what to do."


"It was the one thing, when they got him in court, he couldn't talk around," Lyon says. "He went off to jail."

"I thought that would be a good picture."


• For more on Fred Lyon, his books ('San Francisco: Portrait of a City - 1940-1960' and 'San Francisco Then'), and documentary film ('Living through the Lens'), visit

Photography: Fred Lyon, David Toerge; and courtesy Getty Images (LIFE Images Collection)