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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