Shadow and Fog

Fred Lyon’s photographs of San Francisco at night transform the city into a noir mystery of shadows and fog.

Fred Lyon lives for the night.

For seven decades, Lyon has been shooting photographs of San Francisco after dark — landmarks that look very different in the shadows; nooks and crannies that aren’t so obscure in daylight; people out for the evening who become enigmatic when captured by Lyon’s lens.

His noir photography shows the city in a very different light. “This town is so easy to make the case for noir,” Lyon says. “The nighttime is a parallel to the fog. It covers up the works of man visually.… It gives them a romanticized look.”

Lyon was born in San Francisco 93 years ago and has been there ever since. He became a photographer, he admits, to get girls, after noticing the success of a school classmate who had a camera and a lot of dates. He’s shot countless photos since, traveling the world for big-name publishers like Time Life and Conde Nast. But he always came back to San Francisco noir. Why? Well, he liked being out at night and, “I couldn’t afford to hang out in the bars endlessly.” Instead, he grabbed his camera and roamed the city’s darkened streets.

His photos have been collected in several books, most recently “San Francisco Noir” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017) and, even at 93, he’s still shooting the city. Yes, he switched from film to digital a few years ago (he even has nice things to say about smartphone cameras), but his subject hasn’t changed: the city he loves in its nighttime shadows.

Once, when an out-of-town editor asked him what was so special about the city, Lyon answered, “Well, we have hills, and fog, and cable cars, and a couple bridges that won’t quit. … In this town, everywhere you point your camera, there’s something wonderful.”

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