Only true color pictures of 1906 Frisco quake found

The Smithsonian has discovered color pictures of San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake taken by photographic innovator Frederick Eugene Ives. They are the earliest color pictures of San Francisco ever, and the only true color ones of the earthquake-devastated city (some hand-tinted pictures exist, but they were taken in black and white and then color was applied after they were printed).

Ives took many of the pictures from the roof of the Hotel Majestic on Sutter Street, where he stayed in October of 1906, six months after the April earthquake. Experts think at least some of the pictures might have been taken over an earlier trip because the city is still laid to waste. There are scorched ruins, piles of rubble, whole blocks flattened like pancakes, a skyline full of rickety-looking swiss cheese buildings.

Frederick Ives took the pictures using a stereoscopic process of his invention called the Krömgram. The process used mirrors and filters to make separate slides for each primary color in the spectrum. Then the slides were bound together in a specific order, and that package would be seen through a Krömgram viewing device.

Taking the pictures required operating a cumbersome machine and very, very long exposures. The roof of the hotel and the almost empty streets provided him with the city equivalent of a still life, so he was able to take this color pair of pictures which customers would then view in 3D by looking at them through the viewing device. Although it doubtless must have been an arresting visual experience, the Krömgram was doomed by its complexity and huge expense (a viewing device cost $50 back then, $1000 in today’s money).

The pictures were found by Anthony Brooks, a volunteer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, who was going through a collection of glass plate pictures that Ives’ son Herbert had donated to the Smithsonian. Brooks has a personal interest in early color photography, so he recognized that these pictures were something special.

National Museum of American History restorers were able to piece together the delicate glass plates so we can see the pictures as they would have looked through the Krömgram.

Sutter St. Looking East from Top of Majestic Hall, Oct. 1906, Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Market St. Flood Bldg., 1906, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Fr. Van Ness Ave. City Hall R., 1906, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Fr. near City Hall looking NE, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

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Comment by edahstip
2011-03-11 18:27:53

Are the purple ghosts in the second set (on the right) part of the 3D effect or due to time lapse for the long exposure?

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Comment by livius drusus
2011-03-11 19:37:22

I was wondering that myself. I have to assume they’re artifacts from the long exposure.

Comment by Helix
2011-03-12 10:23:06

For what its worth, when I took film photography we had problems with one of the chemicals turning our photos purple. It could happen slowly over time or quite rapidly and was due to improper mixing or simply old chemicals.

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Comment by Helix
2011-03-12 10:25:31

As for the second set, when they shot old color photos they had to shoot three photos, each in red, yellow and blue. So most likely, those purple ghosts were there for the red photo but not the yellow or the blue.

Comment by Michael Morrison
2014-10-08 19:41:54

It’s eery calling them “ghosts,” as if it isn’t eery enough looking at such fantastic quality color photos from a famous event that took place more than a hundred years ago. Whoever that person was that ended p getting “ghosted” like that, is a ghost right now. :skull:

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2022-12-08 10:12:51

This post post made me think. I will write something about this on my blog. Have a nice day!!

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