Monday, 28 June 2010

1906 - San Francisco Earthquake: Before and After Journey Down Market Street

The terrifying rumble of an earthquake shattered the early morning silence of April 18 at 5:15 AM. The quake lasted only a minute but caused the worst natural disaster in the nation's history. Modern analysis estimates it registered 8.25 on the Richter scale (By comparison, the quake that hit San Francisco on October 17, 1989 registered 6.7).
The greatest destruction came from the fires the quake ignited. These ravaged the city for three days before burning themselves out. The maelstrom destroyed 490 city blocks, a total of 25,000 buildings, made over 250,000 homeless and killed between 450 and 700. Damage estimates topped $350,000,000.

The above quote is a synopsis of the events of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which was the first major natural disaster to be chronicled by film and photography (please note that to emphasise the importance of photography as well as film in capturing such an event, none of the pictures in this post are stills from the film, but are instead photographs of the earthquake and its after-effects). There are a number of short films documenting different clips of the earthquake, but I think the above film is the most effective. This is because it provides the viewer with a before and after view of a particular street (Market Street) in San Francisco, which manages to successfully convey just how much damage was done to that particular part of the city.

The one problem with the film is that it has been put together quite recently, so the contemporary audience would not have viewed the particular film in the way that we are. However, the reason I chose this particular film is because it depicts something incredibly simple yet indispensably important: it demonstrates to the audience the actual physical damage caused by the earthquake.

Living in an age of twenty four hour news media, we have become somewhat anaesthetised to the impact of the moving image (Of course I do not mean that we are not moved by terrible events such as the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I simply mean that we do not fully appreciate the fact that we have access to such images) in regards to natural disasters. But before this earthquake, all we had to rely on were eyewitness accounts of such terrifying events. Film would allow such events to be captured as they were, rather than how they were experienced by a limited group of people.

It is almost overwhelming just how much visual information there is to digest when watching this film. The tall building at the top of Market Street, which is visible from the offset in the pre-earthquake film, does not appear as anything more than a silhouette in the post-earthquake film, even when the camera is metres away from it – and it is this contrast which is the most haunting.

In the first two minutes of the film, the juxtaposition of the two films could not present a more stark contrast. On the one hand we have a film (the pre-earthquake film) which could easily have been mistaken for one of the Lumiere Brothers’ actuality films. The San Francisco of this film is brimming with life; the street is cluttered with people, trams and horse carriages, the unique architecture of each building is visually captivating. In the post-earthquake film however, it appears as though we are looking at a completely different city; whole buildings are missing while others are severely damaged, the street is almost completely empty. Towards the two minute mark, there is the poignant image of a solitary horse drawn carriage perambulating around Market Street.

The latter half of the post-earthquake film feels as though we are watching the first zombie film. A mass hoard of people walk by the camera and appear listless and lifeless. The thickness of the fog perpetuates the otherworldly sense of this film, particularly as it is in constant contrast with the clear skies of the pre-earthquake film.

This film makes an even greater case than Panorama from the Times Building did for re-evaluating the importance of early non-fiction film. If we trace some of the tragic events of the last century, from Hiroshima through to 9/11, often the most resonant image in our collective conscience is the visual impact these events had. The moving image not only created a new art, but also managed to alter the eye of history.


  1. Amazing film...

    "The latter half of the post-earthquake film feels as though we are watching the first zombie film. A mass hoard of people walk by the camera and appear listless and lifeless. The moving image not only created a new art, but also managed to alter the eye of history."

    That is the most haunting thing I've read on this blog.

  2. @ Rob - Many thanks for picking out these particular sentences.

    Watching films such as this make me re-evaluate my almost apathetic stance towards non-fiction film - I must include more such films in this blog.

  3. Thank you so much for your excellent blog!!! Very educative, inspirative and deep. I watched this pre/post earthquake so many times. Hypnosis... and the music! Could you tell me, please, who composed it? It fits to the picture so well! Best regards and many thanks for your efforts. David

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