You might think that 93-year-old Fred Lyon, whose photographs have captured San Francisco for seven decades, spends most of his time indulging in nostalgia and recoiling at the changes that have transformed the city of his birth. You’d be very wrong.
“San Francisco is still a magical city,” said Lyon. “If I were a little tougher, I’d put aside that sentimental romanticism. But the city is the people, and that’s what persists. Maybe it’s a sickness we all have, but we keep attempting to recreate a lot of what attracted us here in the first place.”
His latest book, “San Francisco Noir,” has just come out, and an exhibition of his photos opened a few weeks ago at the Leica Gallery and runs through Dec. 30. The opening was a mob scene, with hundreds of people jostling for a chance to get an autograph, a few minutes of conversation or a selfie with Lyon.
On Sept. 27, he spent his birthday a few blocks away, speaking to a large audience at the Apple Store on Union Square, where he was billed as “San Francisco’s photography icon.”
Lyon, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who was born at St. Luke’s Hospital, is having a very good time — even though he doesn’t wander the streets of his hometown the way he once did.
“When I went to see my doctor last year, he said, ‘How are you?’ which you should never say to anyone past a certain age. I said, ‘Well, my eyes don’t work, my ears don’t work, my hands have carpal tunnel and I can’t straighten up anymore. But I’m fine,’ ” Lyon recalled during a wide-ranging interview.
He has photographed everyone from migrant workers to movie stars to presidents — five to be exact — and he traveled the world on assignment during the heyday of Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, many long gone. But he is best known for his photographs of San Francisco.
The current exhibition at the Leica Gallery consists of 63 photos, mostly taken between 1940 and 1960. Titled “San Francisco Noir,” like the book, the show reveals a moody and cinematic side of the city. There are dockworkers, beach walkers, a police car in the fog, fireworks during Chinese New Year and some of the musicians that Lyon loved — Billie Holiday, Ralph Hawkins, Sonny Rollins.
“Fred can tell you things about San Francisco you never knew,” said Alex Ramos, gallery director at the Leica Store on Bush Street. “These photographs are incredibly significant. They’re a strong record of an era many of us haven’t seen.”
That might be why the opening drew people of all ages. One of them was Josh Haftel, 38, product manager of mobile photography at Adobe.
“Fred Lyon has captured the heart and soul of San Francisco.” said Haftel, who interviews photographers for his “Make It” show and asked the nonagenarian to offer tips on storytelling and taking pictures.
“Fred was a wonderful guest,” Haftel said. “He had a lot of history and passion to share. He’s a fun and positive person with such a lust for life.”
In earlier times, that lust for life frequently surfaced in the city’s bars and jazz joints, often with the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who shared Lyon’s fondness for the nocturnal world.
“There were generally no drugs available then, so we were all booze-oriented,” Lyon said. “I have no idea why I’m still alive.”
He was sitting in the studio of his Cow Hollow home, which happens to be on Lyon Street. It’s near the Golden Gate Bridge and is convenient for trips to his cottage in the Napa Valley, where he grew wine grapes for 30 years. He was there on Oct. 8, hours before the wildfires broke out, and the flames burned close to his house on three sides.
His studio in the city is where Lyon spends much of his time. He works long days and a lot of weekends, but no longer pulls all-nighters. He said he’s thrilled with how the Leica Gallery has handled his pictures.
“I just love that place,” Lyon said. “Black and white really pops against that exposed brick wall. When it comes time to take the show down, I want to take the walls with me.”
Visiting the exhibition, one is struck at times by how much San Francisco has changed since the middle of the 20th century. But something else comes across as well — how little it has changed in so many ways. There are certain constants: Fog. Hills. Cable cars. Bridges. Chinatown during Lunar New Year. Strolling on the beach.
Lyon’s San Francisco is a timeless city.
“There are certain things we cannot interrupt,” Lyon said. “We can’t control the fog. And people are still crazy enough to go to Ocean Beach, which is a terrible beach.”
Although he notes that he has been “reduced to a shuffle,” Lyon still gets around the city and takes pictures occasionally. Two of them are in the Leica show and were shot this year: a line of trees at Fort Mason and the Mission District’s 500 Club dive bar at night — the latter image captured with the help of his wife, interior designer Penny Rozis.
“Penny went out there because her job was to keep me from being hit by motorists,” Lyon said. “I want to be wherever the composition is right, and it’s usually in the middle of traffic. I love the 500 Club because it has the cocktail glass and the neon sign.”
He has always enjoyed shooting at night. “It’s akin to taking pictures in the fog,” he said. “It covers up a lot of human mistakes.”
He gets mad at his body because it limits what he can do, but Lyon is not given to lamenting his various aches and pains — or to hearing about anyone else’s.
“I’m on my way out and I want to have things my way,” he said. “I don’t want to waste time with people who just want to tell me where they hurt today. That’s what old people do — and they bore the hell out of me. I want to be around people who are doing stuff.”
Lyon is doing plenty. Besides promoting his new book, he is going through his files — including 22,000 digitized images — to find candidates for either future projects or the trash bin.
“The moment you die, people attach tremendous importance to your garbage,” he said. “I’ve done everything except combat. Aerials, underwater, whatever it takes to get the best perspective. But there are things I did as exercises or experiments, and I don’t want those photos floating around. I’ve got to throw away all the bad images.”
He has taken so many pictures that he doesn’t always remember when or where they were shot. For instance, he and his wife have spent hours driving around San Francisco trying to figure out the neighborhood where “Houses on the Hills” — on display in the Leica show — is located. “Perhaps we should have a contest,” he said. “Excelsior? Crocker-Amazon?”
In 2004, Lyon switched from film to digital, and he still marvels at how much it has simplified life. “Before, a slide could only be in one place in the file cabinet,” he said. “In the computer, it can be anywhere and I can put together collections quickly.”
He has become a fan of mobile photography. “It’s a wonderful time because everybody takes pictures now,” Lyon said. “They’re seeing things and people as they never did before. It’s sensitizing them visually. And people are also more relaxed about being photographed.”
But he uses a Nikon D300 and most of the photographers he admires are of a different era: Arnold Genthe, Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Jacques-Henri Lartigue — as well as Brassai, with whom he’s sometimes compared.
Lyon became fascinated with photography as a young teenager. “Cameras were shiny objects,” he said. “I knew a guy who had one and he always seemed to have a lot of cute girls around him. I thought that if I had a camera, maybe I’d get girls, too.”
He skipped two grades, graduated from high school early, apprenticed at the Gabriel Moulin Studio in San Francisco at age 14 and studied at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where Ansel Adams was a teacher, a year later. Lyon was a Navy photographer during World War II and then shot fashion in New York before returning in 1946 to the Bay Area as heir apparent to the family real estate business. But he had other ideas.
“Photography wasn’t really an honorable profession,” Lyon said. “It wasn’t a profession at all. When our family physician found out what I was doing, he said, ‘Oh Frederick, that’s no work for a man.’ But it’s the ideal pursuit for an inherently nosy person. You get to peek into everyone else’s life.”
Lyon has had neither the time nor inclination to embrace nostalgia, but there are things he misses about the old San Francisco: He used to swim at Sutro Baths. Kids played in the streets. People didn’t hurry and weren’t on “their damn iPhones all the time.” There wasn’t much traffic or all those “killer buses.” San Franciscans didn’t dress like they were camping, and didn’t wear baseball caps backward in good restaurants.
“Now that I’m officially an antique, I can say that I’m old-fashioned,” Lyon said.
And life was so much easier decades ago. “At the end of the month the rent was due and I had to create excitement,” he said. “I remember going into the office of the Golden Gate Bridge and saying it would be fun to photograph the bridge painters (for a magazine). The guy says, ‘That sounds fine. Go out and see Joe. He’s the foreman. He’ll fix you up.’ I crawled around the bridge for a couple of weeks. Now you’d have to put up $10 million in insurance.”
But Lyon loves San Francisco in its current incarnation, especially certain things: The profusion of Thai restaurants. Bicycles everywhere. Fantastic fruits and vegetables. All the watercraft on the bay. A revitalized North Beach. The Lands End Lookout. And a lot more sidewalk trees, which “cover up some execrable architecture.”
“I see pictures I would like to take,” Lyon said. “I need another lifetime to photograph San Francisco. But my life has been so much fun I can’t believe it. I keep thinking I’m being softened up for something really grim. And it hasn’t happened yet.”