Edith Irvine, Photographer of SF Earthquake

City_Hall(1)Kristiana Gregory’s YA book, Earthquake at Dawn, was my bonus read this month. It is historical fiction at its best: a tragic and fascinating story based on and including primary sources. Through this book I learned about Edith Irvine, an extraordinary photographer. In a mighty strange convergence, Edith, 22, was in a boat about to dock at 5:12 a.m. April 18, when the shaking and quaking of the 1906 Earthquake began.

Gutted_AreaA photojournalist at heart, she went into the city and started to take pictures. She had to be surreptitious, because the city government wanted to minimize both the death toll and the damage. With martial law in effect, Irvine took great risks in documenting the destruction.

Flood_Mansion_California_Street__Mason_StreetA few sentences from a letter written on May 1, 2006 by Mary Exa Atkins Campbell head every chapter.

Streams of people in white and colored garments poured into the streets and for a time we remained, a mourning, groaning, sobbing, wailing, weeping and praying crowd. The most pathetic of all were the poor half-clad women clasping little infants in their arms and begging for mercy.

Produce_areaThe picture of the horses killed by the falling bricks is the most famous photograph of Edith Irvine’s.


Martial law went into effect, with no due process regarding crime. Mary Exa, again:

The big fire in the mission [district] was caused by a man and woman who, after being made to put out the first fire they made, built another as soon as the policeman left. He came back, saw what they had done, called them out and shot them dead.

Hordes of people were displaced; they camped out at Golden Gate Park Mary Exa wrote that sixteen little babies were born in the Park the day after the quake and one woman had triplets.

Edith Irvine overwhelmed my imagination. Irvine, CA, is named after her family. I have been slowly browsing the 293 photos in the online collection at Brigham Young University. There are photos of Yosemite, the mining town she grew up in, dams being built, cats, horses, portraits and scenes from everyday life.

Half_Dome_Yosemite (1)All photographs are from the Brigham Young University library. You can see the entire collection online.


5 thoughts on “Edith Irvine, Photographer of SF Earthquake

  1. These images make a profound impact. Poor people, but honestly I feel sorrier for the horses!

    My husband has black and white photos of Yosemite that are amazing (of course I’m biased!) It is a treasure trove for photographers, for sure.

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