Binh Danh’s 19th-Century Photographs of Contemporary San Francisco


November 13, 2014

Binh Danh. Cliff House and Seal Rocks from Sutro Heights Park, 2014; daguerreotype. Courtesy of the Artist and Haines Gallery.

Binh Danh. Cliff House and Seal Rocks from Sutro Heights Park, 2014; daguerreotype. Courtesy of the Artist and Haines Gallery.

The history of San Francisco is intimately linked with the daguerreotype and other early photographic methods. Daguerreotypes, one-of-a-kind photographs on silver-coated copper plates, were developed in the late 1830s and gained popularity in the 1840s. During that time, the small California town of Yerba Buena transferred from Mexican to U.S. hands, welcomed Mormon emigrants, and briefly boasted a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. But when gold was found in the Sierra Nevada foothills to the east, the recently renamed San Francisco exploded with speculation fever.

The oldest known photograph of San Francisco is from 1850, the same year the city was incorporated and California joined the Union. The remarkable boom that occurred over the next several decades was captured on high-tech media like the daguerreotype and its successors, such as the albumen print. Though there are famous daguerreotypes from Paris, London, and New York, none of them so fortuitously captured the birth of great city, forever linking San Francisco with the history of photography.

In this context, Binh Danh’s daguerreotypes of contemporary San Francisco, on view in This, Then, is San Francisco at Haines Gallery, are inseparable from the city’s history. Photographs like City Lights Booksellers and Publishers (2014) at times appear both modern and historic. The twenty-first century sedan zipping by, the bike rack, and the still-active bookstore all note the city we are familiar with. Yet, the building depicted was constructed in 1907, long after the gold mines dried up, but older than most buildings in the city and still reminiscent of a nebulous “old” San Francisco. The Chinatown buildings in the background and the street car wires conjure images of the city’s past, even more so because of the daguerreotype’s antique coloring and mirror image.

B and C Laundromat Barbary Coast Trail, Chinatown (2014) looks north on Waverly Place in Chinatown, showing a laundromat housed in a building from 1906 and a row of signs for other businesses. At the end of the street is the historic Goong Quon Cheong building, now home to Kam Lok Restaurant and the Gee How Oak Tin Benevolent Association. Chinatown’s distinctive and tourist-friendly architecture only arose from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake. Prior to the tremor, Chinatown, within the bounds of the raucous Barbary Coast, was a dense collection of uninspiring wooden tenements. The Chinatown recalled in this image is historic, but it is nothing like the Chinatown that stood on the same spot in the daguerreotype’s heyday. Danh’s photograph is a historical pastiche, but is there a more appropriate way to depict San Francisco?

This, Then, is San Francisco is not just of interest to lay historians; it is of equal value to aesthetes. Cliff House and Seal Rocks from Sutro Heights Park (2014) is among the most stunning works in the exhibition. Shot on the western edge of the city, San Francisco’s trademark fog hugs the reflective copper plate like greasy fingerprint smudges. The sun beams on Seal Rocks, radiating like the nuclear waste on the bottom of the ocean near the Farallon Islands. The Pacific Ocean, often tempestuous, is pacified by the camera’s long exposure, looking more like a sedate pool of mercury than a wrecker of ships. The Cliff House, one of three to adorn the site and the best so far at avoiding fire, is partly obscured by a monolith of trees and shrubbery in the foreground.

When I was a child I thought my grandparents lived in a world of black and white; still a bit naive, I can picture Adolph Sutro, real estate magnate and twenty-fourth mayor of San Francisco, standing on the same cliff as Danh, looking out at this eerie and phosphorescent scene as he surveyed the land he would soon transform.

San Francisco City Hall (Mother’s Day 2014) Rally for Black Youths Whose Killers Have Never Been Found by the San Francisco Police Department (2014) showcases the formal power of daguerreotypes. In the photograph, a dozen or so individuals sit in folding chairs at the steps of City Hall. Five women stand to give what one imagines is a moving speech, given the work’s somber title. The photographic process captured ghostly figures that are largely eclipsed by those subjects who remained still during Dahn’s long exposure. Though they are clearly audience members and passersby, they evoke the specters of the murdered youths. It appears as if one apparition in the center of the photograph has returned to hear his mother’s voice one last time.

The exhibition’s title is a play on the opening lines of poet William Vaughn Moody’s “The Daguerreotype”: “This, then, is she, / My mother as she looked at seventeen, / When she first met my father. Young incredibly…” Unlike Moody’s daguerreotype, Danh’s photographs present San Francisco as it is now, not its distant past, but memories of that past haunt almost any scene in the city. The rocks out past Ocean Beach are primordial, or at least date from the beginning of the Holocene period. Houses and office buildings throughout the city are historic, or at least as historic as the fault lines will permit. But by the standards of almost anywhere else on earth, San Francisco is still incredibly young. For Moody, the memory preserved by the daguerreotype is of a vanished moment, but for Danh the memories revealed are living and inhabit the photographs and the city’s streets.