Smithsonian: Behind The Scenes

1906 San Fran Quake In Color ... And 3-D

A Kromograph consists of three exposures of green, blue and red, which are then layered and viewed with a Kromscope to give the full-color and 3-D effect. The images in the slideshow have been combined digitally to simulate the effect.

hide captionA Kromograph consists of three exposures of green, blue and red, which are then layered and viewed with a Kromscope to give the full-color and 3-D effect. The images in the slideshow have been combined digitally to simulate the effect.

Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

The Smithsonian has recently rediscovered a rare perspective on San Francisco's legendary 1906 quake: 3-D, color stereo photographs. They are assuredly some of the earliest true color stereo photos in history, according to the Smithsonian, and possibly the first color photos of San Francisco.

Again this week, the West Coast has met the familiar face of natural disaster, in the fallout of Japan's earthquake and tsunami. But the 1906 quake still stands out as one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Registering at a magnitude of 7.9, it was felt from Los Angeles up the coast to Oregon, and killed at least 700 people.

The images — which show the destruction in San Francisco six months after the quake — are credited to pioneering photographer Frederick Eugene Ives, who according to the Smithsonian, "rarely issued licenses for the use of his many patents, so today his name is not widely known." He patented the method and called the photos Kromograms. To get the 3-D effect, a viewer called a Kromscope is required — much like a viewer is required for all stereograms.

  • These stereo photographs, called Kromograms, show the earthquake-damaged San Francisco of 1906. They are thought to be the first color photographs from one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
    Hide caption
    These stereo photographs, called Kromograms, show the earthquake-damaged San Francisco of 1906. They are thought to be the first color photographs from one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
    Frederick Eugene Ives/Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
  • The images are credited to pioneering photographer Frederick Eugene Ives. This image, showing the dome of City Hall in the far distance, was taken on the roof of the Hotel Majestic.
    Hide caption
    The images are credited to pioneering photographer Frederick Eugene Ives. This image, showing the dome of City Hall in the far distance, was taken on the roof of the Hotel Majestic.
    Frederick Eugene Ives/Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
  • This stereo view includes an added layer on the left, showing part of the original black-and-white separation with the image of a man walking and a trolley car. On the right you can see the effect of movement in this color process registering as color streaks.
    Hide caption
    This stereo view includes an added layer on the left, showing part of the original black-and-white separation with the image of a man walking and a trolley car. On the right you can see the effect of movement in this color process registering as color streaks.
    Frederick Eugene Ives/Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
  • Another view from the top of the Majestic Hotel. According to the Smithsonian Institution, Ives patented the color method used in these images in the early 1890s, and later marketed the process known as the Photochromoscope system.
    Hide caption
    Another view from the top of the Majestic Hotel. According to the Smithsonian Institution, Ives patented the color method used in these images in the early 1890s, and later marketed the process known as the Photochromoscope system.
    Frederick Eugene Ives/Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
  • The photos came to be called Kromograms and the viewer, a Kromscope. They required a high level of technical skill to produce.
    Hide caption
    The photos came to be called Kromograms and the viewer, a Kromscope. They required a high level of technical skill to produce.
    Frederick Eugene Ives/Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
  • Shortly thereafter, the Lumiere brothers would introduce the Autochrome process — a less expensive alternative that had more commercial success.
    Hide caption
    Shortly thereafter, the Lumiere brothers would introduce the Autochrome process — a less expensive alternative that had more commercial success.
    Frederick Eugene Ives/Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
  • The Ives collection contains 250 Kromograms in addition to other materials. According to the Smithsonian, these may be the first color photographs of San Francisco, and are certainly among the first true color stereo photographs.
    Hide caption
    The Ives collection contains 250 Kromograms in addition to other materials. According to the Smithsonian, these may be the first color photographs of San Francisco, and are certainly among the first true color stereo photographs.
    Frederick Eugene Ives/Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

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