1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Panorama Photograph

The History of the Photograph


Original Fragment - Greg Clark Copy


Enhanced Fragment - Greg Clark Restoration

After the 1906 disaster that destroyed much of San Francisco, the California Insurance Company made the unusual decision to cover losses from the earthquake, even though it was not obligated to. It was the only insurance company that did this. Besides providing an important kick-start to the rebuilding effort, this gesture brought new customers. To emphasize their important contribution to the rebuilding of San Francisco, the insurance company commissioned a photographer, R.J. Waters & Co., to make a large panorama photograph of San Francisco on April 22, 1906. Copies of the 51.5" x 8.5" photograph were mounted on art board and the entire periphery of the photograph was surrounded by a single row of mounted cancelled checks covering losses from the earthquake. With the added width of the checks, each unique completed artwork was just short of an impressive 5 feet wide and nearly 16 inches high. It is assumed that each of the completed artworks were framed behind glass and were distributed to insurance company offices, where they offered testimony to the contribution of the California Insurance Company to the rebuilding of the city.

One of these panorama photographs made its way to Phoenix, Arizona, to a now-unknown insurance company office. There it stayed until around the late 1930's, when it was thrown into the trash. My father had been an insurance agent in Tempe, Arizona since 1932, and he just happened to be at the insurance company offices the day the photograph was discarded. Concerned that a mistake had been made, he enquired about the photograph and discoved that it was not desirable to have it on display anymore as the California Insurance Company was no longer "one of our companies." My father collected the framed artwork and brought it to his insurance agency office in Tempe, where it was on display for all to see for more than 60 years.

Today the photograph is nearly 100 years old and has suffered some of the problems any old photograph experiences when it is on permanent display. Fortunately, the photograph was never in direct sunlight for long periods during the time it was on display in Tempe. Nevertheless, it has yellowed and lost contrast. In 2005, I decided to produce a digital restoration using stiched digital photographs. Once digitized, the contrast and sharpness can be restored and the yellow color removed. A gantry was produced that could hold the digital camera in place over the photograph at an exact height. The gantry allows the camera to be moved into place for each small overlapping photo segment to be taken. All of the small images of the panaroma were combined using Microsoft Digital Image Pro 10, which has a stitched panorama tool. The checks were added to the main panorama by hand in Photoshop. A lower resolution version is used online to reduce the load time. In the example fragments shown at the top of the page, note that there are some details in the restored fragment that cannot be seen in the original.

links to the panorama photo page

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Copyright Greg Clark, 2005

update 8/2012