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The photography collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco spans the entire history of the medium, with particular strength in nineteenth-century American and European photography. The de Young museum accepted photographs into its collection during its earliest years, starting with documentary scenes of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. The collection also includes large concentrations of historical California photographs, with many views of the Bay Area as well as a significant holding of daguerreotype portraits. 

The Legion of Honor also amassed historical photographs prior to merging with the de Young museum. The Legion’s most important acquisition was its purchase in 1943 of negatives and prints by Arnold Genthe representing San Francisco in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake of 1906. After the two institutions were combined to form the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1972, the photography holdings were united at the Legion of Honor within the Museums’ department of works on paper, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Among the photographers represented in depth are Eadweard Muybridge, Imogen Cunningham, Arthur Siegel, John Gutmann, David Seymour (Chim), Bill Owens and Ed Ruscha.

Photography is intermittently displayed at both the de Young and the Legion of Honor.