San Francisco

San Jose Man Uses Old Pictures to Create New Views of Early San Francisco

For a guy surrounded by technology, Nick Wright lives in the past.

His address is in Silicon Valley — but he spends much of his time in 1850s San Francisco — diving into the city’s past through the pictures of photographers like Eadweard Muybridge and William Henry Jackson. Yet Wright has figured out how to bridge his technological vantage point with the history he loves so much.

Using Photoshop, the amateur historian discovered he could virtually assemble together vintage pictures of streets or views taken at different times but from the same vantage point during San Francisco’s infancy. Stitched together, the results create stunning panoramas showing city vistas that haven’t been seen with the human eye for 150 years.

“That’s why I tell people I’ve got pictures you’ve never seen before,” Wright said. “Because they never existed before.”

Perched between two large computer monitors in his San Jose home, Wright, a technology worker by day, pulled up a large panorama showing San Francisco in the late 1850s. As he zoomed in, you could faintly make out the ghostly outline of someone standing in a doorway. Wright scrolled through the picture pointing out horse-drawn wagons, church steeples and a large sand dune that once occupied Van Ness Avenue even after the city had developed around it.

The early photographers shot their pictures using large format cameras that created equally large glass negatives known as “mammoth glass plate negatives”. Wright said the glass plates contained incredible detail revealing the minutiae of life in the growing city.

“When you zoom in you can see people’s laundry on the line,” Wright said. “You can see people delivering goods down the streets.”

Wright said early photographers like Muybridge sometimes captured multiple side-by-side pictures of a single view with the intention of putting them together to create a panoramic image. But often photographers lacked the tools to seamlessly connect the pictures into a single perspective. Using technology, Wright has been able to take those pictures and weave them together, erasing seams and connecting them to look as if they were captured in a single frame.

“It’s a great sense of accomplishment,” Wright said, “to be able to finish the work that the photographer started that he didn’t have the tools to finish.”

Wright pulled up an 1878 photo by Muybridge taken from the Hopkins Hotel, originally shot across seven glass plate negatives. Wright not only combined the photos into a single picture, but identified every building in the picture. He clicked on the photo and blue labels appeared for each structure; the hill that would eventually become the crooked portion of Lombard Street — the observation tower that originally sat atop Telegraph Hill.

As San Francisco bloomed from a gold rush town into a major metropolis, it drew large numbers of photographers to capture its unique topography and boisterous life, resulting in a trove of photography.

“There’s just a wealth of pictures that had never really been explored or assembled,” Wright said, “even from the great masters.”

Though he was born in England, Wright is immersed in San Francisco history, founding two popular Facebook groups San Francisco Remembered and SF History. His brother Jason Wright recently made news by purchasing and restoring a film by the Miles Brothers, shot from a streetcar rolling down Market Street weeks after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Nick Wright shares his brother’s affinity for images of the great disaster. He pulled up a photo of several bank guards sitting amidst a pile of rubble in post-earthquake San Francisco. In researching the picture Wright came across several other images of roughly the same area. He assembled them together in Photoshop, erasing lines, smoothing transitions and creating a vast panorama of the disastrous scene.

“It’s a photographic jigsaw puzzle,” Wright said. “It’s putting together pieces through time.”

Wright has created hundreds of panoramas between 1850 and 1920 which for now live on his computer. He’d like to eventually have an exhibition or put them in a museum. The pictures open a window of time, revealing vast views of the old city — a birds eye glimpse of San Francisco in a time of hope and promise — before the 1906 disaster.

“You get involved in people’s lives, and actually get quite emotional,” Wright said. “You see the struggle and the success and the loss. You actually start to feel — you can see how things transition over time.”

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