Fred Lyon, Famend San Francisco Photographer, Dies at Age 97
“And then at the age of 80, he starts a career as a fine art photographer,” Meza said, referring to a career that was active right up until Lyon’s passing. “He died working on two book projects. And just this last April, he had two books out — mine, and he was the largest contributor to another book, “San Francisco: Portrait of a City.”
Fetterman said he had not encountered Lyon’s work before seeing an image called “Foggy Night, Land’s End.”
“I thought I knew a lot about photographers and the history of photography,” Fetterman said. When he came across “Foggy Night,” he said, “I was totally blown away by it. I thought, ‘Why haven’t I heard of this man? Who is this man? This man is a giant — anyone who could make that kind of composition, I have to know more about him.'”
‘Foggy Night, Land’s End,’ a 1953 image shot by San Francisco photographer Fred Lyon. (Fred Lyon/Peter Fetterman Gallery)
yon told KQED’s Pat Yollin in a 2017 profile that he became fascinated with photography early in his teens.
“Cameras were shiny objects,” he said. “I knew a guy who had one and he always seemed to have a lot of cute girls around him. I thought that if I had a camera, maybe I’d get girls, too.”
Lyon skipped two grades, graduated from Burlingame High School, apprenticed at a San Francisco photography studio at age 14 and then, a year later, attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where Ansel Adams was a teacher.
In a 2020 interview with “California Look” collaborator Philip Meza, Lyon recalled how he joined Adams and a select handful of other students on a summer trip to Adams’ home in Yosemite. He said he took from Adams certain artistic tenets, such as Adams’ famous admonition, “There’s nothing worse than a very sharp image of a very fuzzy concept.” But even then, Lyon said, he knew he needed to become his own photographer.
“My feeling was that I knew I could never learn all Ansel,” Lyon said. “I could never be more than a miniature Ansel Adams if I tried to be like him. I was never going to become a landscape photographer. I always seem to need to include some of the works of man in my work. Ansel was terrific and inspirational, but I didn’t want to emulate what he was doing.”
Lyon was a Navy photographer during World War II, an assignment that took him to the White House, where he took a Christmas portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his extended family in 1944. He photographed President Harry S. Truman on his first day in the Oval Office following Roosevelt’s death in April 1945.
After the war, Lyon shot fashion assignments in New York City before returning to the Bay Area in 1946, where his family’s thriving real estate business awaited him. But he had other ideas.
“Photography wasn’t really an honorable profession,” Lyon told KQED in 2017. “It wasn’t a profession at all. When our family physician found out what I was doing, he said, ‘Oh Frederick, that’s no work for a you.’ But it’s the ideal pursuit for an inherently nosy person. You get to peek into everyone else’s life.”
ll through his career, Lyon was very busy getting those glimpses into the lives of others.
“We looked at his work logs — he logged in every shoot he did from maybe 1940 on,” Rozis, who married Lyon 20 years ago, said Saturday. “There were all kinds of interesting people, from sports to fashion to architecture to films. It’s just amazing. He said, ‘When I look at these job logs, it makes me tired.’ Every day there were two or more shoots.”
Meza says that Lyon set out to become a working photographer, a mission at which he was fabulously successful, but did not consider himself an artist.
“Nevertheless, he did become one,” Meza said, the proof being the enduring attraction of the images he captured. “If it is a generation or more removed from the viewer, like some of Fred’s fine art photography, it retains these powers and is not just a curiosity because it is antique. I think his artistic sense was derived from his abundant empathy, curiosity and intelligence.”
Children street-sledding down steep hill, North Beach, San Francisco, 1952. (Fred Lyon)
Fetterman says that, beyond the quality of his work, Lyon stood out as someone who embraced life and other people.
“He was a joyous character,” Fetterman said. “He was like Cary Grant. He was from another era of charm and manners and gracefulness — all of it genuine.”