Rare 1877 panoramic photo of San Francisco shows a city you won't recognize
A rare and startlingly clear panorama of San Francisco taken in 1877 by pioneering 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge sold at auction with Bonhams in New York this week for $13,825.
The series of 11 images that together create a seamless 360-degree view shows a city that was mostly destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. You'll see railroad barons' wedding cake mansions on California Hill (now Nob Hill) and dense development of brick and stone buildings mixed with wooden structures growing along the waterfront. The view reaches some 50 miles into the distance, according to Bonhams.
"It's really the first important panorama of the city of SF which shows its rapid development after the Gold Rush," says Laura Paterson, the director of photography at Bonhams.
Muybridge took the photos from the turret of the then unfinished Nob Hill residence of railroad baron Mark Hopkins, which was the highest point in the developed portion of the city at the time.
"Technically it's remarkable because he positioned himself on the top of the house and he used rather basic equipment," Paterson explains. "Every 15 minutes he exposed a glass plate starting from 11 a.m. in the morning. If you can imagine, you would need a perfect day so you would have bright light. This is a very carefully timed and ordered photograph."
The seventh plate in the series didn't work out, and Muybridge later went back and re-photographed that plate.
"It appears slightly different from the others in that the shadows are different because it was photographed at a different time of day," says Paterson.
The son of a coal salesmen, Muybridge was born in England in 1830, and that's where where he also died in 1904. But between the mid-1850s to the early-1880s, he mostly lived in San Francisco working as a landscape, architecture and documentary photographer.
He's most famously known for his stop-motion images of galloping horses and is often referred to the "father of the motion picture." But he also photographed Yosemite, lighthouses up and down the Central Coast, Alaska and, of course, San Francisco. He often signed and published his work under the pseudonym Helios, which was also name of his studio, and the Greek god of the sun.
Muybridge created large versions of the 1877 San Francisco panorama but the one sold at Bonhams was a small copy with each photo measuring 4.5 inches by 7.75 inches. At the time the photo would have sold for $8 for a rolled copy or $10 for an accordion-folded version.
"They all had to be individually done and then folded and printed," says Paterson. "They couldn't be mass produced. They were probably quite largely available at the time but how many are still available now is unknown. They're very fragile. Most of them have probably been battered and damaged over the years."
Amy Graff is a digital editor for SFGATE. Email her at [email protected]