14 November 2015

Willard Worden: 100th anniversary of San Francisco's photographic art. Guest post.

After 2 years living just outside San Francisco, I am back here! This year, 2015, is exactly 100 years after the grand Panama-Pacific Inter­nat­ion­al Exposition took place. San Francisco held the 1915 world fair to celebrate the city’s reconstruction after the devastating earthquake of 1906. But the fair was actually named for an even bigger event on the world stage - the opening of the Panama Canal which was started by the French in 1880 and finished by the Americans in 1914. Like all world fairs, this one was huge, celebrating local science, technology, industry and the arts.

To mark this 100 year anniversary, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco has created Jewel City marking, it said, the critical moment in the inauguration of San Francisco as the West Coast’s cultural heart and soul. I have seen hundreds of works by major artists from home and abroad, most of which were on display back in 1915. Not my taste at all!!

Much more exciting was an exhibition held at the de Young Legion of Honour in Golden Gate Park. So far I have been most impressed by the photographer Willard Worden (1868–1946) which is hardly a surprise, given all my photography lessons back in Melbourne. I really like what they were doing with photography at the time. It is easy to imagine a time where 90% of a person's photos didn't come out. Digital photography has changed things so much but back then they were experimenting with the very basics of light capture on silver. I suspect the reason there were rarely people in the landscape and architectural photos was because they moved too much. On a five-minute exposure, anything that moved was rendered invisible. One of Worden's photos of the Cliff House had another photographer (with camera on a tripod) and their subject (in bathers in the surf) in the middle ground. It was a beautiful moment.

The problem is that I had never heard of Willard Worden. Worden was from the East Coast and, so the gallery documents say, began creating photography while serving in the Spanish-American (1898) and Philippine-American Wars (1899–1902).

He must have learned to love the West Coast quickly. After being stationed in the Presidio in 1901 towards the end of his military career, Worden called Northern California home for the rest of his life. Since the Bay Area’s particular beauty was striking to everyone, I was not surprised when Worden’s landscapes were special. He must have roamed his adopted city, examining the natural beauty of the West Coast and the burgeoning city’s urban skyline.

Willard Worden, 
San Francisco at Night – City Hall Illuminated, 1903.

Willard Worden, 
Storm on the Ocean Beach, 1904.
all photo credits: de Young Museum 

Willard Worden 
The Call, Examiner, Chronicle, Palace Hotel and Crocker buildings from Kearny Street 
after Earthquake and Fire, 1906

In 1906 Worden HAD to become became a photo journalist, running around town taking hundreds of photos of the earthquake, the fire and its dramatic aftermath. His Great Quake photos of Market Street and Union Street in rubble were widely reproduced. Called the Portals of the Past: The Photography of Willard Worden, the gallery said these ruins served as both a monument to the city’s recent tragedy and a symbol of its resurrection.

By the time of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, Worden was experienced and talented enough to be nominated as an official photographer of the Fair; he even won a medal of honour for his own work that was exhibited in the Palace of Fine Arts. At the Panama Pacific World Fair it­self, he had a wonderful time photographing the spectacular arch­itectural and sculptural creations, during the day and then at night. One journalist said he, Worden, was the actual highlight of the Fair!

The de Young Museum exhibition displays 70 Worden photographs from the California Historical Society collections. These photographs were typical of Worden’s portfolio, which focused on Bay Area locations eg Chinatown, the Japanese Tea Garden and Golden Gate Park, and showed the devastating 1906 Earthquake.

Since you won’t be in San Francisco this year, I would buy the Portals of the Past catalogue of Worden’s work. Or see Worden’s photos on line in MMC News: “half-tone reproductions of photos, gelatine silver prints and soft-focus, hazy, sepia-toned, framed images that were most likely to end up on the interior walls of middle-class homes around the city. Worden also spent a lot of time producing hand-coloured photos, which almost appear to be paintings”.

The exhibition ends on the 14th February 2016.

Guest post, written by my clever son, AJ
San Francisco


Deb said...

Why do they pull down the facilities especially designed for World Fairs? It was such a terrible waste. Even more so in San Francisco because of the recent earthquake.

Hels said...


I could understand when cheap or impermanent buildings were created for a World Fair that they would only last a year or two after all the visitors had gone home. And when buildings were destroyed by Acts of God, usually fire.

But even the main attractions at World's Fairs, the national pavilions that were created by participating countries, were always pulled down. So we have to ask why useful buildings, made of proper materials, would not be used over and over again? And why a city that had already been devastated by earthquake, as you noted correctly, would waste precious building resources is beyond me.

Perhaps a reader of this blog might know.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels and Son, Exposition buildings were often quickly built of impermanent materials, and so not designed to last for a long time. Also, the grounds themselves were meant to accommodate huge numbers of people over a short period, and so perhaps not well suited to most later civic purposes. That said, a number of world-fair buildings did have a later history. A lot of the smaller buildings were moved, sometimes large distances. Washington University in St. Louis was built on the grounds of the 1904 exposition, and some of the buildings are still in use, especially the landmark Brookings Hall.

I am sorry to miss the Worden exhibition and will have to track down the catalogue. His photos are magnificent, and it is surprising that in the giant photo-opportunity of the destroyed city, more high-quality and artistic photos were not taken.

Hels said...


If good quality buildings could be saved and reused, or moved and reused, it would have been ideal. I love your example of St Louis' exhibition. Washington State said "The Louisiana Purchase Exposition/World's Fair of 1904, attracted the participation of 60 foreign governments and all but two states, cost more than $50 million for its breathtaking buildings and exhibits. Not only did the University serve as a model campus during the Fair, but each of its buildings was put to use for exhibits, meetings, or offices". Very smart thinking!

Ditto Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building from the 1880 World Fair. It was huge, beautifully designed, solid and used a million times since. I still go there often.

After the 1851 London World Fair, the Crystal Palace building was quickly rebuilt in an enlarged form in Sydenham and was used over and over again until tragedy struck in 1936 (fire).

Even The Eiffel Tower was originally built in Paris for the 1889 World's Fair as a temporary structure to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution! It was an utter fluke that it survived into the 20th century.

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AJ said...


thank you.

Parnassus This de Young Museum exhibition displays 70 Wordens, but they cover all the landscapes he did around the Bay Area. If you are interested specifically in earthquake photos, see the Historical Photograph Collection at the San Francisco Public Library. It has the most amazing collection (nearly 1800 works) of top quality earthquake photos, including by Worden.

Jim said...


This post about the waste/reuse of exposition buildings reminded me of a photo showing the letterhead of a Chicago wrecking company, dated 1908, which bragged about having bought the $50,000,000 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, which of course was the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. I had never thought about people buying the salvage rights to these fairs, but it makes sense--it wasn't all just bulldozed into the Mississippi. I wonder how many fragments are still in existence--perhaps a fireplace here, or a decorative carving there.

Note the amusing coincidence of the letter's addressee--Mr. Burt Williams, almost like the outstandingly famous entertainer Bert Williams, who was certainly performing at that time.


Hels said...


The heartbreaker was that fabulous buildings and other facilities in every World Fair were enjoyed by millions of people for only c6 months and then largely pulled down. So at least we know that quality materials could be bought and re-used.

The surviving ads from The Chicago Wrecking Company make that very clear - I particularly liked the one for bargain water closets from the World Fair - only $9 each :)