PRINT April 1965


Oscar Maurer at the Oakland Art Museum

The history and legends of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906, have given rise to such a vast body of “Earthquakeana”––pictures, books, films––that one more exhibit might seem superfluous. The current show at the Oakland Museum, twenty photographs by Oscar Maurer, is, however, such a splendid, moving representation of the chaos and destruction that followed the catastrophe that it is well worth seeing.

Maurer, who is now 94 years old, began to photograph in the 1890s. The Museum shows a small album of his platinum prints––portraits and landscapes––made before 1900; and early in this century, he showed prints in Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession Gallery and was encouraged by Stieglitz to enter a print in a Berlin exhibit, where it won a prize. For a year Maurer shared a studio with Arnold Genthe, whose photographs of the aftermath of the earthquake are widely known, and, like Genthe, he lost many of his early negatives and prints in the fire. Until his retirement, Maurer was a professional photographer whose specialty was family portraits.

Maurer’s photographs of the tragic results of the earthquake are an important discovery. They add no new historical information, but they introduce a photographer with an eye that is profoundly sensitive to the rhythms of disaster. The photographs show us buildings that were, a short time before, solid and secure, and are now a monstrous lacework of gaping windows and shattered walls. Twisted balconies dangle from the ruins. Market Street is shown desolate and almost deserted. One photograph, Surrealist in its use of space, shows the once flat cobblestone pavement and streetcar tracks in front of the Ferry Building now buckled and pleated, but ignored by hurrying, black-suited men who have more important work than staring at further destruction.

Maurer was able to preserve 118 negatives showing earthquake damage. The Museum exhibits 20 prints which were well chosen to show many facets of the city’s life. People whose homes were destroyed camp in the park; an elderly couple walks toward us against a destroyed landscape––again Surrealist in feeling; a group of Chinese with their possessions wrapped in loose sacks prepares to leave the city; wealthy people depart with their goods stacked on horse-drawn wagons. Everywhere there is rubble and debris, but men have started to clear it out, and a semblance of normal activity has been resumed.

Maurer’s negatives were enlarged by William Kriz, who has dramatized their early 20th-century aspect to give the prints museum impact, and the prints are imaginatively displayed with sufficient space around them to point up their importance.

––Margery Mann