Portals of the Past: The Photographs of Willard Worden

By James A. Ganz


A fascinating though largely forgotten figure in the Bay Area’s rich photographic history, Willard Worden (American, 1868–1946) photographed San Francisco during its darkest and brightest moments of the early twentieth century, from the disastrous earthquake of 1906 to the spectacular Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

Settling in San Francisco in 1901, Worden promptly turned his lens to his new surroundings, creating picturesque views that formed a rich travelogue of the city, from dramatic seascapes of Ocean Beach and the Golden Gate to urban scenes of Union Square and Chinatown. With the 1906 earthquake, Worden turned photojournalist, documenting its fiery aftermath with images that fueled the public’s fascination with the disaster.

As the city struggled to rebuild, the ruins of the Towne mansion on Nob Hill—the “Portals of the Past”—were photographed repeatedly by Worden and became a symbol of San Francisco’s resilience. The city’s resurgence would be on display with the 1915 world’s fair, for which Worden was an official photographer, highlighting the spectacle of its architecture and sculptures.

Portals of the Past: The Photographs of Willard Worden, the first published survey of Worden’s photographs, documents the career of an artist worthy of renewed attention as well as the past lives of a city devastated, then reborn.


James A. Ganz is curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. His recent publications include Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Rembrandt’s Century, and Impressionist Paris: City of Light. Ganz also contributed to Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter.

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