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1906 Earthquake at SFMOMA

Commemorating San Francisco's Big One

Those of us who were in the Bay Area for the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake are accustomed to the fear-addled curiosity of out-of-towners. Earthquakes are the most unimaginable of natural disasters for most people because of their sheer unpredictability -- but being so close to Earthquake Central, we often forget the devastating impact of some of history's major calamities.

SFMOMA features 1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures to commemorate the centennial of the quake that rattled San Francisco's foundations on April 18, 1906. It's a grave yet compelling photographic documentary -- teeming with city rubble, the catastrophic fires that razed much of the city in the quake's aftermath, and men and women turned homeless refugees after the destruction of their pristine city.

The sixty vintage photographs range from a "Babylon in Ruins", a brand of postcards from the commercial carpetbaggers of the era who nabbed a fortune off the disaster, to the surreal panoramas of George Lawrence and Willard Worden.

Lawrence's "San Francisco in Ruins, May 5, 1906" is one of the most revolutionary images of natural disaster in the last century. Lawrence pioneered a new kind of photography -- stark backdrops of colossal terrain. He sent cameras into the air on a network of kites, revealing a vista of seared, misshapen terrain below.

Willard Worden's "Market Street Afire, Showing Ferry Building Through the Smoke" reveals the poetic keenness of a master artist stumbling upon a rare moment; while Market Street blazes away in an abandoned inferno, two ashy plumes frame the Ferry Building in the distance, as if auguring an eventual clearing of the smoke.

While some of the photographs were compelled by insurance companies who wanted to minimize their claims, or tycoons with an unflagging optimism for the resuscitation of the city, many of the photographs were taken by individuals swept up in the horror of the moment. Some of the photographs, however, are lighter in nature and focus on the quintessential staying power of the city and its inhabitants.

Anonymous snapshots of malformed storefront advertisements, makeshift barbershop and restaurant tents perched nonchalantly atop city rubble, and largely undamaged frame houses set askew by the disturbance make 1906 San Francisco more recognizable to us.

Arizona photographer Mark Klett goes one further with his "After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006", which pieces duplicates of archive pictures against patches of contemporary cityscape -- rendering a twisty, mutable picture of a San Francisco whose unquenchable spirit has persisted throughout time.

1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures is on exhibit through May 30.