Fred Lyon: The Photographer by the Bay

Words: Mark Edward Harris

A fourth-generation Northern California resident, Lyon grew up in Burlingame before moving down to Los Angeles to attend Art Center followed by a stint in the Navy. While a successful career in fashion, music, interior, food, portrait, travel and documentary photography put him out in the world, it was the City by the Bay that would always call him back. Now in his ninth decade, Lyon graciously revisited his storied career in this exclusive interview.

B&W: What makes San Francisco such a timeless and romantic city?
FL: Historically, the march of civilization has been from east to west, and when you get out here you’re at the edge of the cliff. It’s the jumping-off point for the Orient. For those being sent off to or fortunate enough to return from World War II in the Pacific, many passed through San Francisco. It’s also a destination for people who consider themselves a little bit rakish, willing to risk the chance to have a more exciting life, a little more adventure, to dance out on the edge. It still has that myth.

B&W: There is something too about the geography.
FL: Oh, yes. The fact that the hills are dramatically steep, we have fog, and the bridges are dramatic sculptures. San Francisco is the tip of a peninsula, so it can’t spread out. A lot of its expansion has been upward. Of course, at the moment it has a lot of problems, but it’s a metropolitan city.

B&W: Why did you encapsulate the years 1940 to 1960 for your books on the city?
FL: That’s easy. All publications depended heavily on black and white in those days. Then around 1960 magazines started getting more color pages. I was lucky. I had been to Art Center before I went into the Navy, and I had shot some color there. At the end of my time in Washington I discovered a lot of 4×5 Kodachrome in a storage room, with an ASA of about 8. I knew nobody else would use it, so I spent a lot of time with it. When it came time to do color I wasn’t intimidated. Well, we were all intimidated by color, but I was way ahead of everybody else.

B&W: How did you end up as a Navy pilot?
FL: I was a little full of myself, to put it mildly. I always assumed that I could do whatever I put my head into as long as I was willing to work hard at it. It was something that my parents laid on me. I probably overplayed that, but in my ignorance somehow I ran that to my advantage. I was at draft age during World War II and wanted to do photography in the service. Edward Steichen had a unit, and that was my dream, but by the time I was ready to go into the service that was filled up. In fact, all photography was already subscribed, so I signed up for the Navy because the pilots had these really slick green uniforms. They were dynamite, and the girls, which were a major preoccupation in my life, would fall for the green uniform. I bid for that and got it. They were losing less pilots in the Pacific than expected by the time I finished aviation school, so I traded the pilot uniform for a sailor’s suit and was sent to the Great Lakes, then to Washington D.C., where I spent the rest of the war.

B&W: How did you transition back into the civilian world and a career in photography?
FL: After I finished with the Navy I spent my mustering out pay as the ritual drunk in Manhattan. I mentioned to a number of people my interest in a career in photography, and two of them scribbled names and numbers on small pieces of paper. After a couple of days I called the numbers. One was Charles Rado, who had a picture agency called Rapho Guillumette Pictures. We ended up having a great relationship and doing business together for years. The other slip of paper had the address and phone number of a place called Wilcox Studio. I called and made an appointment. It was in an old Fifth Avenue mansion at 36th Street, all marble floors and crystal chandeliers. A very snappy young lady sitting at a Louis XV desk in the front hall waved me into the salon. In a few minutes a guy who was a caricature from Mad Men in a flawless gray-flannel three-piece suit and stuffy as hell came out. He looked at my work. “I don’t see much fashion here.” Being a little bit cocky, I said, “Well, you can see I’ve done everything else, all the same lessons apply. I’ll just shift gears a little bit.” He thereupon asked, “Well, can you start tomorrow?” I said, “How about on Monday?”

I went down to Washington and closed up my apartment. On the way out the door of the studio I had asked how much of the work was fashion. He said, “Oh, about 98 percent.” On the way to the train station I bought all the fashion magazines I could find and had a very good short course in fashion photography. We did newspaper advertising, a lot of catalog work, and work for fashion houses. It turned out they needed a second photographer because there was a greater demand than their first photographer could handle, a very sweet older man who liked to work in the studio, which was in the former dining room in this mansion. They didn’t have space for another studio, so they would send me out on location.

I was so naive, so innocent. I loved everything about it. I had a stylist who was of great help, but she would use her “falsies” as pin cushions, which made me very nervous.

B&W: What brought you back to the Bay Area?
FL: The first time I had been on location in New York there was a vacant corner lot on 6th Avenue, where some airline company had installed a full-size airliner. I climbed up and shot down at a model from over the wing, which made a nice frame. It was a newspaper ad for a fur coat for Russek’s Department Store. The Russeks Department Store family really loved that picture and hung a large print of it in their office. It turns out that their daughter was interested in photography. A little while after me, she and her husband went into photography. The Russek’s Department Store heiress was Diane Arbus.

The model I used for that photograph I booked again, and she said, “My husband and I have a farm in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and are having people over for the weekend. Would you like to come down?” So I went, and at some point was sitting by the brook with a young woman who was a writer, who said, “Air France has just announced that they are going to have service from New York to Paris, and I’m thinking of proposing to do a story.” She said if she placed it with a magazine it would have pictures to go with it. “Maybe we could do this together?”

She sold the idea to a number of magazines. I quit my job to go to Paris, but ran into trouble getting a passport because I had to get clearance from my draft board in Burlingame, California. They were lackadaisical due to the war being over and I didn’t get it in time. She had to announce to some of those magazines that I wasn’t able to go, and suggested that I go with her to House & Garden. The editor asked, “So, what are you going to do now?” I told her that I was going back to San Francisco to visit my parents. She replied, “We have lots of photographers in Paris, but we don’t have anyone in San Francisco.”

A few weeks later I was lazing about on my parents’ patio getting a suntan when a call came in from New York. My mother was highly agitated because back then long-distance phone calls only came when somebody died. But the call was from the editor at House & Garden. “We have an assignment for you.”

I had done only one set of interiors before, but it seemed obvious to me that you just had to position the camera some place where everything was in a pleasant relationship and it explained what was going on in the room in an attractive way. I had one large hot light and my 4×5 camera. Location strobes were a very iffy thing at that time. They sent a woman who tidied things up and made sure everything was in place. It was a very fancy house on Telegraph Hill designed by Gardner Dailey, one of the most sought-after midcentury architects, and home to Whitney Warren, Jr., a pinnacle of the San Francisco social scene, son of famed New York architect Whitney Warren, Sr.

The pictures were a great success. The woman the magazine had sent turned out to be Francis Elkins, the greatest designer of her age on the West Coast. After the story ran she called and said she liked the pictures and had some houses for me to photograph.

B&W: In addition to documenting homes of the city’s elite, how did you end up documenting daily life in San Francisco, perhaps the pictures you’ve become best known for?
FL: Charles Rado at Rapho Guillumette had told me that I should always shoot stuff for myself. Between assignments I would take my Rollei and occasionally my 4×5 and shoot San Francisco. Then I found I could write story suggestions and approach magazines. After the war it was a whole new ballgame. There were brand new art directors and editors. They would ask me, “What do you have out there?”
“That’s easy. We have steep hills and bridges and little cable cars that run up and down and fog and Chinatown and Herb Caen.”

They would say, “I guess you can do a story on those.” I was let loose to run with that, and kept building a library of San Francisco pictures.

Being on the West Coast was an advantage as it wasn’t always feasible for magazines to send out an editor to sit on my shoulders and direct me. It was largely up to me to set up the shoot and deliver it on time. By virtue of being three thousand miles away, if I overshot and it didn’t succeed they would never see my mistakes. The wastebasket is a very important piece of equipment, which I used a lot. I built a little darkroom in my parents’ house and after awhile hired a darkroom man.

B&W: Ansel Adams was one of your instructors at Art Center, so you must have been a well-trained printer.
FL: He was there for a short time while I was there. I remember taking a tray out of the darkroom with a wet print to show him. He looked at it for a while. “Hmmm, the reality of the light does not exist.” And I thought, Ah, hah. Well, thank you very much.

I went back in the lab and thought, What the hell is he talking about? What he was trying to tell me was that I was making very dark prints. I made Bill Brandt look like a wimp.

At one point, Ansel took a small group of students up to Yosemite. That was just glorious. The first evening we were there he had us come to dinner, and the first thing he did was make an old-fashioned for everybody. It was one of the best I ever had. He was a very ebullient guy. He was so excited to have us all there. I sometimes argued with him because I didn’t agree with a lot of the things he espoused. But he did more for photography than I can possibly imagine.

B&W: What did you disagree with him about?
FL: I had come from a different background. I was pointed toward slick advertising photography and I admired all the Bauhaus stuff. I had a warm feeling about Ansel and a great rapport with Imogen Cunningham, who in fact was at my wedding reception. I didn’t know Ed Weston, so I couldn’t say anything about him personally, but there was that school of photography that blossomed because of that group, and they looked down on me because I had to keep eating. I took whatever came my way. I loathed the disciple system because you could never learn everything the great man had. Who wanted a small imitation of an Ansel Adams or an Ed Weston?

I remember shooting a portrait of a dog. I shot food and jewelry. I shot one wedding. I did interiors for all those magazines. What I learned in fashion I used in architecture. What I learned in architecture I used in fashion or food and reportage. I was always looking for opportunities. I shot a lot of cruises. I worked a lot for Holiday.

I felt so privileged to do all this, to get an education that could never be duplicated. Sometimes Time needed a portrait of someone that they would then have painted by one of their artists for the cover. I always volunteered to do those things. I did everything. When they were considering a new magazine and just called it Magazine X, I shot for them for a year. It turned out to be Sports Illustrated. You had to be Johnny on the Spot and have discipline and know how to grab unlikely situations in color.

B&W: And you had to athletic, not only to cover sports, but to do things like climb to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge for a photo op. That must have been terrifying.
FL: No, I was so excited to get there. I sold that idea to a magazine. I went into the bridge office and said, “A magazine wants to do a story about your bridge painters.” The man said, “Go out and see Joe, and he’ll fix you up.” These days they would ask for 10 million dollars of insurance and send three people to follow your every move. All my life in photography has been marvelous misunderstandings and misinterpretations. I wasn’t supposed to be there. But I didn’t know that, and they didn’t know that either.

B&W: How did you get the aerial shots of Golden Gate Bridge?
FL: Aerials have always been useful for subjects that need to be explained visually from a high angle. The pilots who fly photographers are very conscious of the altitude ceilings over populated areas and refused to risk their licenses by going lower, which I often preferred for tight shots that would give a feeling of intimacy. Early on I detected a loophole in that restriction and exploited it flagrantly. There was a seaplane base in Richardson Bay at the top of Sausalito. The floatplanes have no altitude restrictions over water, since one could be making an approach for a landing. Voila! Simply by staying over water the problem was solved. In San Francisco, ninety percent of the good stuff to photograph was around the edge of the waterfront.
People make a big distinction between aerial work and everything else. My assumption is that aerial work is just like everything else. Get your camera in the right position to tell the story. I was always looking for different viewpoints.

B&W: What cameras have you worked with?
FL: I’ve shot with everything from 8×10 to half-frame. I often worked in medium format with Rolleis until the Hasselblads. My first 35mm was a used Leica IIIg and a fast 50mm lens. I started shooting in 35mm after I was interviewed by LIFE magazine editor Wilson Hicks. I recall that interview vividly. He was reading something and didn’t look up. He was waiting for me to fidget. And I thought, F__ you, I’m not going to fidget. Finally, he indicated a chair somewhat behind him and lower than his, but I sat on the front end and didn’t fidget. I was maybe 21 or 22 and somehow I got an assignment for LIFE to photograph the dregs of a cult encampment in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It never ran, but shortly thereafter I got another assignment and then another and another. I weathered through a lot of LIFE bureau chiefs.

LIFE had the large full-sized pages, so when you held a copy in your hands it extended to the periphery of your vision. I learned in a hell of a hurry that I needed a wide lens so I could be up inside a group to get a feeling of immediacy on those pages.

B&W: Your shot “After Hours Jam Session, Monterey Jazz Festival, Cannery Row” from 1958 is a great example of how you got right in there. The viewer can almost hear the music.
FL: I think that was with a 28mm on a 35mm camera. If you used a normal or telephoto lens, you would just get the outside of the group. I shot Leicas for a while. I think I had one Contax body. I spent a lot of time having my beat-up cameras in the shop with Adolf Gasser, who was a fantastic camera repairman. At one point he said, “Listen, I’ve been approached by a Japanese man who wants me to import his cameras from Japan. I’ve stripped them down and they’re really well made and I think the optics are really good.”

These were rangefinder cameras. I held the camera, and my finger was in front of the rangefinder window. I was a big guy, 6’ foot 3”. He said, “Oh.” A few months later they fixed it. These were the very first Nikons that came to this country. Nikon was great about taking advice from photographers and acting on it. A lot of the advances in photography after World War II are attributed to Canon and Nikon. I shot with those viewfinders a little bit, then went to the Nikon SLRs, and we were off and running.

B&W: You’ve interfaced with many of the great names in 20th century photography, including Irving Penn, who used your studio.
FL: I was getting ready to go to New York to work in the LIFE studio, and LOOK called me. “We understand that you have a daylight studio. Irving Penn would like to do some pictures for us in one while in San Francisco.” At that time my studio was across the bay in Sausalito. I said, “Sure.” Penn and his assistant were in my studio preparing for their shoot for a couple of days. They had a gigantic L-shaped sweep constructed and covered with rough concrete. Penn troweled the final background smears himself. He was a very calm person but purposeful. His assistant shot film tests and washed 50 feet of windows to gain an additional half-stop of light.

I left my assistant Chuck there and stocked the refrigerator with a lot of beer. I said to him, “Watch everything that Penn does. He might do something exotic. See where he stands.” I thought that maybe if I stood in the same place Penn did inspiration would come up through the floorboards and I would make Penn pictures.

B&W: What advice would you offer photographers wanting to follow in your footsteps?
FL: I always finish up my list of advice with “Wear confortable shoes.” You log a lot of time in your shoes as a photographer. I’ve spent a lot of time in them working for every magazine on the face of the earth. LIFE and LOOK, The Saturday Evening Post, Woman’s Home Companion, Liberty. Nobody as yet has been able to directly trace the demise of those publications to my contributions. The key for me was that I was always looking for opportunities. Sometimes I would have to invent the opportunity, but if I saw one, I would often grab it and kick the hell out of it, and occasionally it worked. If you have enough irons in the fire, some of them can possibly come true.

Addendum
Images courtesy of Peter Fetterman Gallery (perterfetterman.com). Special thanks to Peter Fetterman for his help in coordinating this interview. Thanks also to Michael Hulett, Gallery Director at PFG, for his help providing photographs. Visit fredlyon.com to learn more about this remarkable photographer.

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Golden Gate Bridge South Tower, San Francisco, 1952