The latest in a long series of photographs that are better than they look.
I was up in San Francisco Saturday afternoon. Picked up a friend in San Bruno, and we took advantage of her She Works In The City I Only Visit knowledge to navigate the blocks around Pac Bell Park, Mission, Folsom, and some of the single-digit streets. The weather was fantastic.
We went to the California Historical Society to see the exhibit they had of the photographs Jack London took in the immediate aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire. They had some early printings of London's novels and some of his notebooks and inscriptions under glass, and enlarged color photographs of his journals.
The photographs are on the website. They're intensely immediate, 9/11 style. Firemen pulling people from burning debris. Fire gutting buildings from the inside, when said buildings weren't destroyed by the earthquake or dynamited to create a barrier against the advancing flames. Turn of the century opulence in architecture, ignorant of plate tectonics, crumbling and burning. The survivors outlasting upheval.
Frankly, the photographs are completely unimaginable. Sometimes I think black and white photography is hard to belive, looking more like artifact, literature. Sometimes it seems like color would be more believable. In this case though, color seems like it would only serve to make these more unbelivable still. Yes, here's where I admit I've never been to war, never seen devastation like Indonesia after the tsunami, or post-9/11 Manhattan, it's true.
Warfare on a scale that levels cities is horrifyingly timless though. Even the tsunami had the familiarity of the contemporary--all the retail cues, the clothing, the cars, the rest, and, well, the self-interest. After all, you could have been there, technically, right? Not so in 1906, and the clothing, and the horses, and the urban devastation are all just incredibly alien, and Mission Dolores, and the ferry building, and the other things that survived the earthquake are better evidence that it happend than the structures that sprouted up in its wake.
This is all to say nothing of the two world wars, this decade that roared, that decade that didn't, and the infinite lives and lifetimes that intervene between then and now. Photos are surreal data in the face of that, however conclusive.
In one of the rooms, in the center of the wall opposite the entrance to the room, is an actual-size photograph of the 2-page newspaper piece that London wrote. It's interesting writing. If you go, read the whole thing. His faith in the government in his conclusion is quaint, or seems so, but it's preceded by such stark perception of the range of suffering, that you give him a pass. He saw it as his duty to calm people if he could, maybe, and so he tried to invest their faith in The Government, even as it, in an insert on the very same page, rashly promised to "KILL" looters and others breaking curfew, causing the reckless death of several innocents.
Go see the exhibit, if you get a chance.
After the exhibit, we went to dinner near where the photo was taken. The camera was fooled into flash, and I like the way that works on the signs, but the sky wasn't nearly that dark in person. It was a nice walk at sunset, along the water up to the ferry building and back.
A lot more to write here, but a lot more of these articles to write too. Now to try at a back issues page, and then longer term, to get on a more predictable schedule. See you next week.
Yes, I half-stole my opening line from Mark Twain. Cf. John Scofield, So Sue Me.