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Willard Worden’s Forgotten San Francisco

For every Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange, whose place in the history of photography is permanent, there are countless photographers like Willard Worden, a fellow San Franciscan active at the turn of the 20th century, who was well-respected and even celebrated during his career but has since been largely forgotten as tastes changed. An exhibition of 73 images, ranging from romanic views of the city’s landmarks to documents of The Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire and the city’s consequent rebuilding, is on view in “Portals of the Past: The Photographs of Willard Worden” at San Francisco’s De Young Museum until February 14. “Worden made his living as a view photographer during one of the most dramatic periods of San Francisco’s development,” James A. Ganz, curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says in a statement. “Soon after his arrival in 1901 he captured a dynamic city on the upswing, only to bear witness through his photographs to its tragic destruction in 1906. As the region began to recover and rebuild, his line of picturesque landscapes and seascapes appealed to the many displaced residents as they settled into new homes with bare walls.”

Among the images in the show are delicately hand-colored California landscapes, views of San Francisco’s famous Cliff House, which Worden photographed repeatedly (including recording the 1907 fire that destroyed one incarnation of the ornate hotel), and photojournalistic records of the Great Earthquake and subsequent fire. Some of Worden’s best-known images are from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the world’s fair that announced the city’s rebirth. Worden, who went on to run an art gallery selling his own and others’ work, recorded the PPIE’s spectacular palaces and pavilions lit at night, a novel architectural practice. (“Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition” also celebrates the fair’s centennial at the de Young.) Worden was an official photographer for the exposition, and he successfully sold his photographs there in his own booth. But as Ganz writes in an introduction to the show’s catalog, times and tastes change. “Worden sold himself to the exposition’s jury and to the general public as an “art photographer,” winning a prestigious medal of honor, but his skill in marketing his work in ornate frames as interior decoration, combined with his adherence to a pictorial style that would soon fall out of fashion among the intelligentsia, contributed to the obscurity into which he later fell.”

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