Stereo photographs of 1906 San Francisco Quake discovered

A volunteer at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has discovered what is believed to be the first, and maybe the only, color photos of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire that nearly destroyed the city.

Photography pioneer Frederick Ives shot the images. They may be the earliest color photographs of San Francisco ever taken.The photographs were intended to be viewed with the help of a 3-D image viewing device. From the SF Chronicle:

Frederick Ives was an inventor. In 1881, he patented the halftone process still used for newspaper and magazine photographs. He also became interested in color photography, then in its infancy. He developed a process using mirrors and filters to create separate slides for each primary color of light.

"The slides were then bound together in a special order with cloth tapes in a package known as a Krömgram," [museum volunteer Anthony Brooks] wrote in a blog about the photos.

Anthony Brooks, the museum volunteer who made the discovery, wrote about the color plates in this Smithsonian blog post in January, with some really interesting details about the science and aesthetic theory behind the technology Ives used.

More on the story today in this San Francisco Chronicle article, and a related AP piece is here. Images: Above, Half of a Krőmgram by Frederick Eugene Ives. A view towards downtown San Francisco, October 1906. Below: Half of a Krőmgram by Frederick Eugene Ives. A view from near city hall, San Francisco, October 1906.


  1. These shots are stunning. It’s amazing what a hold the 1906 SF quake still has on people

  2. Disaster is a critically as well as painful condition to all human being. we can not control but we can save our life meet with each other.

  3. These are not 3D / stereo photos.
    The colour fringes come from registering mismatches of the colour layers.

    1. Frederick Eugene Ives…”employed subtractive color theory to record scenes with a one- shot stereoscopic camera. Ives’ camera system of mirrors and filters behind each lens split and filtered the light to create one pair of slides for each primary color of light (red, green, blue). The slides were bound together in a special order…”

      It looks as if someone took Ives’ RGB separations and did a loose combo of them via Photoshop. The first photo looks better “alligned” than the second. Still, both are wonderful. They somehow remind me of photos of urban debris of practically any US city circa 2011. The second photo could easily be Detroit

  4. There’s nothing stereoscopic about these shots (dead-giveaway… there is only 1 of each frame, not two shots from different perspectives).

    These *are* however pretty cool… even more amazing, Russian Photographer Prokudin-Gorskii was doing the same thing in the Russian Empire… at a time when the Emperor was outlawing photography altogether to prevent dissent. Gorskii had special permission from the Emperor, traveled all over the Russia and Central Asia, and documented some amazing, colorful scenes when the photographic world mostly existed in black & white. He’s believed to have the only color photo ever of Tolstoy. Almost all of his surviving glass negatives were purchased by the Library of Congress for practically nothing, many of them are scanned and you can put them together yourself in Photoshop to reproduce the color projection process!

    1. I noticed no 3d effect either – but I have seen the side-by-side images for combined viewing using a stereoscope. In a Yahoo article published today March 10th the images are shown as two side-by-side slides to be viewed with a stereoscope – the two images are in my opinion the same image, because I see no stereo paralax showing two perspectives of the same scene. I think the idea was to be able to view them up close with the stereoscope as a viewer so that the image was larger with the aid of the stereoscope, but should not be confused as a 3d image.

  5. Oh yeah, you can also do this yourself with black & white 35mm film (scan it and merge in Photoshop).

    I’ve done it, the results look pretty much as above… all in all, not really worth the effort developing the film (IMO).

  6. If you follow the links, you’ll see that they are both poorly registered and 3D–these are “halves” of each image, as noted in the text. There’s even a picture of the viewer.

  7. Check the original Chronicle article. The above images are only half of a stereo image, each. That’s why it says “Half of a KrÅ‘mgram”. It works like a ViewMaster, but you can also get the effect by crossing your eyes.

    1. I thought the same. It has a current feel. Too bad there weren’t any people in the photos. Or maybe there are? I haven’t clicked on the link yet.

  8. Of course, there are devices called stereoscopes or stereopticons which hold a single piece of small cardboard. That cardboard contains two nearly identical images. When viewed through the stereoscope’s “goggles” the images appear to merge into one stereo image. My dad has a couple of stereoscopes and several boxes of stereo images from the turn of the last century. I’ve never been able to recreate depth or “stereo vision” with the things. I guess it’s all in the eyes of the stereoscope holder.

  9. I was walking in the city to school and right next to the road they were excavating. I noticed that the ground was full of bricks and old paving stones. The area was filled in with earthquake rubble, so I knew that what I was looking at was one of the last remnants of 1906, hidden in the ground. I wanted to take a piece of brick, but I could not find a nice piece, like something charred or with some detail on it. It was interesting though to see it though. Soon the area will be paved over and it was an opportunity to view history up close.

  10. The 1906 quake is still having effects today. Much of the modern city was built on that earthquake rubble. The conglomeration of bricks, debris, air spaces and clay soil also happens to wobble a lot in earthquakes.

    Fast forward to 1989: the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the collapse of the Nimitz highway, and major citywide destruction including a chunk of the Bay Bridge falling off. Had the fill been dumped in the bay and never built on after 1906, damages in many places on land would have been 1/10th what they were.

  11. My first thought was “That’s not 1906, that’s 1960!” Weird what adding color to something you’ve seen only in black and white does. To me it seems more “real”. I wish there were more like this.

  12. Not quite stereograph photos. A stereograph takes two exposures side by side, and once you produce the print, you look at them through a stereoscope and it becomes a 3D feel.

    But I’m not really familiar with the coloring either or what’s going on there. Didn’t pay THAT much attention in History of Photography :P

  13. It feels really jarring to see things from that era in color. Somehow I feel like I’ve internalized the idea that life before World War II actually took place in black and white, not color, and that the world only became colorful after the war. So this picture clashes with that idea and says “wait a minute, San Francisco was much more visually interesting then than you think!”

  14. The color really outweighs the destruction in interest. Looking at the wood structures in the first photo, it’s easier to more actuaretly envision what the “old west” of 20 years early was like.

    Gives new perspective to looking at pictures of places like Bodie, CA. It looks less decrepit now, knowing it’s probably much closer to how it was than I imagined.,_California

  15. Hmmm. .. . I see the Coit Tower in one of the pictures . . . BUT …… the tower WASNT BUILT UNTIL 1933 !!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. I agree that the pictures are not a stereo pair. There’s no difference between them except that the area included in one is slightly shifted to one side. If you look at where an object is in front of another some distance behind it, like the utility poles, they intersect in the exact same place.

    Gorgeous pics, though!

    (Note: a “Stereopticon” was a slide projector, not a 3-D viewer. Modern writers have confused it with “Stereoscope” because they sound somewhat alike. The stereopticon had two lenses so that one slide could be shown while the other was changed, making for a smoother presentation.)

  17. Most definitely not a stereo pair.
    If you view them stereoscopically they will appear a little clearer, but that’s because you are seeing double the amount of pixels.

  18. @Anon
    The Coit tower is round, not the case of the tower you see on the first picture, that is square.

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