Book Review: After The Ruins: 1906 And 2006

After The Ruins:  1906 and 2005:  Rephotographing The San Francisco Earthquake And Fire, by Mark Klett with Michael Lundgren and essays by Philip L. Fradkin and Rebecca Solnit

I must admit that I am not very familiar with the phenomenon of rephotographing, but this is not the first time I have come across it, as I have seen it at Portland’s art museum, where the same subject was photographed decades apart for reasons unknown to me, and I have also seen it in joke photographs where people try to photograph family photos many years later.  These photographs are easy enough to understand, as the photographers of this book sought out the same sights that were photographed in an earlier collection of post-1906 earthquake and fire photos that showed the devastation wrought by it, and the 2006 photos demonstrate a city that has largely forgotten the horrors faced by their city only 100 years before.  Rephotographing presents a contrast and allows readers to come to their own conclusions about the sort of material that they are seeing, and readers of this book may come to a wide variety of conclusions based both on the text of this book’s essays as well as the pictures and the contrast one can see between old and new.

The materials of this book are mostly straightfoward, and the authors do far more showing than telling.  The photographs of San Francisco and some outlying areas like Fort Ross and the Stanford University campus that make up the vast majority of this book are preceded by some essays.  There is an interview with the photographer that allows him to show his appreciation for the public collection of 1906 earthquake and fire photos that make up the originals that he sought to copy.  There is a thoughtful essay by Philip L. Fradkin that reflects on the hellishness of the massive fire and earthquake and the fact that San Francisco had a long history of destructive fires going back to its founding that has largely been neglected by its citizens.  And, of course, there is a predictably awful essay by Rebecca Solnit which tries to romanticize poverty and destruction and look down on the desire of San Francisco to better itself and its urban architecture.  For the most part, though, this book consists of some excellent photos that portray both the damage and destruction wrought by the 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed it as well as the way in which San Francisco has rebuilt to the point that the earthquake and its horrors has largely been covered over if not totally obliterated.

How one feels about this depends on what sort of person one is.  There is more than a little irony that building on earthquake fill makes damage in future earthquakes even more severe.  But although I am someone who enjoys visiting ruins [1], I do not think there is necessarily anything romantic enough about them that they are preferable to vibrant towns.  Ruins are a sign that the glories of the past have not been matched by the present, and that the desires for permanency were unsuccessful, and the fact that there are so few ruins in the United States is not a bad thing at all, at least in my own judgment.  Yet these photos may in many readers encourage a sort of romanticism about the destructiveness of nature and the many ways that mankind’s plans can fail.  I’m not the sort of person who is nostalgic about San Francisco and it’s not a city whose culture and ways I particularly care for.  Even without being a fan of the city of San Francisco, this a pretty compelling set of photographs, though.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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