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Family and history inspired this Googler’s photo series

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Editor’s Note: Welcome to Passion Projects, a series where we highlight Googler’s unexpected, fascinating and often inspiring interests outside of the office. In our latest installment, we’re focusing on a recent project Sarah Torney, a Googler from the Chrome Enterprise product marketing team, put together during her time sheltering at home in San Francisco. Over to Sarah...

I’m a fifth-generation San Franciscan and fourteenth-generation American. Recently, to fill my time as I shelter in place, I’ve been sifting through old family photos. I discovered a series of photos my great-grandfather took in the days after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. My great-grandfather, Edward “Ned” Johnston Torney Sr., hit the streets with his camera to document the devastation caused by fires following the “The Great Quake” on April 18, 1906. He was able to continue shooting for days after, documenting the path of destruction caused by the fires.

After sharing my great-grandfather’s photos with close friends during a virtual happy hour, an idea hit me: I decided to recreate a “then and now’’ photo series, heading out to the same locations and street corners my great-grandfather had photographed (all while following social distancing guidelines, of course). Not only has San Francisco's shelter in place emptied the streets of many cars and people, similar to the impact of the fires, but the timing is also significant. It’s been 114 years to the month since the 1906 earthquake. 

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Present-day photo of Market at 6th facing west; an East-bound cable car on Turk St. of San Francisco in 1906.

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Early afternoon on April 18 on Geary at Powell facing east toward the Palace Hotel on Market in 1906; the same location in 2020. 

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Hibernia Bank, Jones at McAllister, facing north, in 1906 and 2020.

Some things have clearly changed: New, modern buildings have replaced many of the ones that stood in the early twentieth century. Our methods are different, too; to document the crisis of 1906, my great-grandfather used the trendiest equipment available at the time, a Kodak “Premo” camera. I recreated his photos with my camera of choice, Pixel 3a. It’s interesting to see the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake juxtaposed against the ghost town that is downtown San Francisco amid the COVID-19 crisis today.


Working on this project has been a fascinating history lesson on San Francisco—and better yet, it’s surfaced family photos and stories that I will be able to remember and share for generations. 

Special thanks and gratitude to Warren Finke, Richard Torney and Eric Torney for photo preservation and publishing permission.

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Sarah Torney and her great-grandfather, Edward “Ned” Johnston Torney Sr.