Double Take: A Different Slant on Photographic Research

When I envision how to research a photograph or any other image, one methodology I come back to over and over consists of ever-widening circles, with the photo in question at center. Picture, if you will, a stone thrown in a still pond and the ripples flowing outwards, growing ever wider. Today’s stone is the photo from our collections featured below:

After the earthquake - frame houses tumbled from their foundations, San Francisco Disaster, U.S.A. Stereograph copyrighted by H.C. White Co., 1907 July 29. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.09834

After the earthquake – frame houses tumbled from their foundations, San Francisco Disaster, U.S.A. Stereograph copyrighted by H.C. White Co., 1907 July 29. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.09834

I was asked if I could determine where exactly these two houses were in San Francisco when they were knocked off their foundations and set at this precarious angle by the April 1906 earthquake. As always, I start my search with the item itself. The original caption, featured below the image, offered no further clues. A study of the high-resolution digital file yielded only a small sign for a painter in the window and the clue that the houses were on a street with some kind of trolley or streetcar.

I widened my circle to include other stereographic photos by this same publisher, then others by different publishers, as many photos of the earthquake were sold. Limited as I am by our current circumstances to what is already digitized, I was not able to spot these houses in our holdings with any further identification information. Moving to an even broader circle of collections, I looked through other digitized images of the earthquake aftermath in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

I found a few related photos, including these two intriguing images of the houses from different angles. While they both gave me a slightly wider context and another distinctive building to look for in photos, neither got me any closer to a street address:

 [Two men cleaning street, horse-drawn wagon and damaged buildings in the background, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake] Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1906. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a52123

[Two men cleaning street, horse-drawn wagon and damaged buildings in the background, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake] Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1906. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a52123

[Uprooted houses as a result of the San Francisco earthquake and fire] Photo copyrighted by Clinton Johnson,1906 May 31. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a22998

[Uprooted houses as a result of the San Francisco earthquake and fire] Photo copyrighted by Clinton Johnson,1906 May 31. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a22998

Thanks to the internet and the efforts of other libraries and archives, I can stretch my research circle even further and try to find the answer. Many institutions in California include photographs of the San Francisco earthquake and I can explore those that are digitized from the comfort of my home office!

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Digital Collection includes photographs from numerous California archives, (update 5/26/20: see comments section for more on the project), and it was in this circle of research I found my answer, as well as multiple images to support that answer. The houses sat on Howard Street (now S. Van Ness Avenue in this area), between 17th and 18th Street. Once I had located a photograph suggesting Howard Street, I was able to use that as a search term and found these results, among numerous others:

Selection of search results in the The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Digital Collection presented online in Calisphere

It’s apparent these houses were often photographed, their dramatic appearance – and the fact that they did not burn down after the earthquake as so many buildings did – drawing many photographers to them.

Now that my research circle found the answer within the resources of other cultural institutions, I can have that information added to the description for that photograph in the online catalog, as well as to other as yet unidentified images in our collections, and make them even more valuable for researchers of the future.

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6 Comments

  1. Tom Liljenquist
    May 22, 2020 at 7:10 am

    Great detective work Kristi!

  2. Mary Johnson
    May 22, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    Such a fun story, Kristi! Your writing about this photo research pulled me into full sleuthing mode! Thank you for your persistence in answering what I suspect began with a single patron’s question.

  3. James Eason
    May 22, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    Thank you for this posting. It’s great to see library resources, across institutions, being used. The Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley, securing LSTA grant funding, undertook the project you cite. We coordinated scanning and description submissions from the California Historical Society, Stanford University Libraries, The Huntington Library, the California State Library, and the Society of California Pioneers in order to produce the online resources you found. The project description is found here: https://bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/earthquakeandfire/technical.html

  4. Mary Elings
    May 22, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks for highlighting The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Digital Collection on Calisphere as part of your research project. The images captured above are from several contributing institutions that were included in that project.

    The original project was compiled by The Bancroft Library and included content from multiple partner institutions. The project, carried out in 2004-2006, was supported by the California State Library through the Library and Services Technology Act (LSTA). It was a compilation of selected holdings from collections housed in the archives and special collections of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; the California Historical Society, San Francisco; The California State Library, Sacramento; Stanford University, Stanford; The Huntington Library, San Marino; and The Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco. See: https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/hb8779p2cx/

    It is great to see that the collection is providing useful information, even after being online for over 15 years. Thank you for sharing your story!

  5. Cheryl Davis
    May 23, 2020 at 10:43 am

    Thank you for another wonderful research story and amazing images! It is so helpful to know the approximate location of primary source images to be able to understand the changes in location over time. And in this case, how a badly damaged city recovered.

  6. Gene McAvoy
    May 24, 2020 at 11:24 am

    Very impressive….more, please!

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