Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Great Fred Lyon: The finest photographer of California design. The most charming man. And the most dapper and stylish. A great pleasure to work with him…and chat to him at a dinner party. A lively and witty raconteur.

Congratulations, Fred Lyon, 97, on your new book.

After eight decades of photographing top interior designers work, along with glamorous interiors and wineries and travel, Fred's classic images of design have recently been published in a large new volume by Rizzoli, and it is a beauty.

The dramatic new book, ‘Inventing the California Look: Through the Lens of Fred Lyon’, written by San Francisco author, Philip Meza and published by Rizzoli. This beautiful new volume documents California interior designs of legendary Michael Taylor, the trend-setting Frances Elkins, and universally admired John Dickinson. There are also handsome interior designs by Anthony Hail, and Penny Rozis. It’s beautifully designed by Doug Turshen. Very very collectible.

California’s Legendary Photographer, Fred Lyon, at 97, with his wife Penny Rozis, author Phillip Meza and his wife Marjorie Qualey at the Hudson Grace booksigning.

I have known Fred Lyon for ages…and always loved seeing him at social events, and at art galleries, at photography shows and opening parties. A sharp eye and killer wit. Anecdotes…of working with John Dickinson and Frances Elkins and Michael Taylor.

He photographed for all the top magazines, such as HOLIDAY, and LIFE and House & Garden and Vogue, and has published multiple books, including the new NOIR, black and white images of San Francisco in the forties and fifties. 

This week I’m celebrating the great San Francisco photographer, Fred Lyon, as he approaches his hundredth year.

In recent decades Lyon’s fine art photography has been featured at prestigious international art fairs, including Masterpiece London, AIPAD’s The Photography Show and Paris Photo. His work also is held in museums and important private collections.

He is represented by Peter Fetterman Gallery in Los Angeles.

He and his book author, Phillip E. Meza, recently had a fantastic booksigning party at HUDSON GRACE, the wonderful design shop in Presidio Heights, San Francisco.

Hudson Grace store in San Francisco, the scene of the Fred Lyon book signing

“Over the years I have discovered that I like to work fast and take lots of pictures in natural light. I’m very systematic. I shoot a great opener and a lot of strong and memorable and well-composted shots that tell the story with no fluff, and no weak shots. Editors and art directors like to get a range of strong images.” — Fred Lyon

Since 1947, Fred has focused his lenses on the most beautiful rooms throughout California, captured the poetry and originality of designs by Michael Taylor and the quirkiness and glamour of rooms limned by John Dickinson. In the process, Lyon has influenced all subsequent generations of interiors photographers and decorators, and given the greatest designers their well-deserved immortality.

“I have known Fred since my early days in design, working for Michael Taylor in the eighties. Fred Lyon simply has the best eye in the business,”
said San Francisco decorator, Suzanne Tucker, who recently commissioned Lyon to shoot her own house. “I first saw the masterful way he photographed Michael Taylor’s interiors. His images simply don’t date.”

Since he arrived in San Francisco from Washington DC in 1947, armed with just one camera, Lyon has recorded thousands of glamorous interiors and hundreds of accomplished people, including five US presidents. Lyon has also shot food, galas, luscious landscapes, grand hotels, and international wineries — the good life — for every style-conscious magazine, from Vogue, House & Garden, Glamour, House Beautiful, and Flair.

Fred Lyon on John Dickinson

“John Dickinson was the best, and he was heaven to work with. A total gentleman. I first met him when he was working for the E. Coleman Dick design studio on Sutter Street in the fifties. Soon after, he went out on his own, and has me shoot six of his interiors in one day. His firehouse interior was dramatic and so chic. Who else would have combined carnival heads from the Old Spaghetti Factory with a grand Art Nouveau dining table, and plaster tables? Like Jean-Michel Frank, who he admired, he could take humble materials like straw, leather, plaster, pine plants, or galvanized metal, and have them crafted in the most luxurious manner so that the seemed precious. He was a true original, and the greatest of them all.”

Designer John Dickinson at his firehouse in San Francisco.

Lyon is famous for creating authoritative and elegant photographs of classic beauty. Images he shot in the forties, fifties and sixties are perfectly composed and superbly lit and even today they retain their allure.

“The architects and designs put all their talent and style and taste into the rooms I’m shooting, so I never want to impose a “look”, Fred told me. “That’s too gimmicky for me. I want a harmonious composition. Working with designers like Michael Taylor, Frances Elkins, or John Dickinson, I did not have to go into a trance or torture it. My job was and is to show the design and tell the story—not to make a design statement of my own.”

“Fred’s fine art photography today is featured at prestigious international art fairs and held in museums and important private collections. They are arresting images. Many were taken in San Francisco. They show high society, low society and many worlds in between. Fred has always been a flâneur and his ambit is vast and includes the midcentury art and jazz scenes, when Fred befriended artists like abstract expressionist Richard Diebenkorn, and captured jazz greats Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Bobby Troup, Percy Heath and others. Fred captured beat poetry happenings and haunted the best nightspots with the city’s “poet laureate”[i] newspaper columnist Herb Caen in the days when San Francisco was the “cool, gray city of love.”[ii]  – Philip E. Meza, from ‘A Wonderful Life: Fred Lyon’s 75 Years of Photography.’

Interior designer Michael Taylor

Fred Lyon shot almost everything Michael Taylor created, for House & Garden and Vogue and Lyon recalls him with great affection.

“Those were the days of the decorator-as-despot,” said Lyon. “ Michael was bold and outspoken and his clients were completely in awe of everything he said and did. But his rooms for each client were elegant, sometimes eccentric, and always highly individual.”

For the brilliant and egotistical Michael Taylor, however, the rooms he designed for his clients were merely full of possibility, waiting for the flourish he would add for the camera.

“We were once faced with a “nothing” corner at a beach house in Pebble Beach that we were shooting for House & Garden,” recalled Lyon. “I told Michael it was lacking pizzazz and had no focal point. He immediately got on the phone to John Berggruen. He’d been to an opening at his gallery the night before. He asked John to send down the centrepiece of the entire show right away. Three hours later, a truck arrived and the large abstract canvas was hung on the wall. The photo made the cover of the magazine, and the client bought the painting.”

Bedroom by Michael Taylor

Taylor worked on the fly, improvising as the photo shoot went from room to room, said Lyon.

“In the early sixties, we were debating shooting a small room in the attic of a Pacific Heights mansion,” said the photographer. “Michael draped it in white linen, arranged a pair of French painted chairs and an antique desk, and brought in masses of terra cotta pots of white hydrangeas. It was great instant decor for the camera.”

To the chagrin of the grande dame who lived in the mansion, her maid’s room soon appeared in full glory on the cover of House & Garden.

Taylor was not the only dictatorial decorator Lyon photographed. Frances Elkins cut a swathe through San Francisco society, and designed extraordinarily chic interiors for the likes of Nan Kempner’s parents, and young Nan, and for a bevy of demanding clients.

“Frances Elkins made charts for all their maids, showing precisely where to place ashtrays and where flowers were to be arranged on tables,’ Lyon commented. “She had keys to every client’s house, and would sweep in unannounced, saying imperiously, and “Those cushions look tired. They must be replaced” or “That wall needs repainting” and it would be done without a whimper. People were so pleased and impressed to be working with her that they would turn over their lives to her.”

Living Room at De Guigne in Hillsborough, California by Tony Hail

Lyon later worked with other towering talents, including Anthony Hail, Margot Grant of Gensler, and Charles Pfister. Lyon, genial, modest and droll, relished shooting their designs.

“I like to work fast and take lots of pictures in natural light,” explained the photographer. “You take a great opener and a lot of great shots that tell the story, with no fluff, no weak shots with nothing in them. You put in a good day’s work. That’s what professionals do.”

Fred Lyon and his elegant blonde wife, Anne Murray Lyon were fixtures on the social scene and regulars on Herb Caen’s column for decades. Anne, who died ten years ago, had been one of Richard Avedon’s favorite models.

Fred Lyon is still in demand today to shoot interiors for discerning designers, and to capture wineries around the world for leading magazines. He has, reportedly, the largest archive of wine-related photography in the world.

“My friends still call me a Young Turk,” said the indefatigable Lyon who now also shoots with digital cameras. “I spent all those years learning now to be a photographer. It has been exciting, unexpected and tremendously rewarding.”

Dining Room by Frances Elkins

Fred Lyon: Fine Art Photography

Fred is also known as a fine art photographer whose best work is “the equivalent of Brassaï or Cartier-Bresson” (gallerist Peter Fetterman).

Lyon began his career photographing fashion with the first American supermodels, including the iconic Dorian Leigh. He then became a contract photographer for the best titles of the magazine age, including Life, Holiday, Fortune, Vogue and Sports Illustrated and earned esteem for his photographs, in black and white and color, of interior décor for influential shelter magazines.

Join me to encounter some of Fred Lyon’s most celebration black and white photography.

San Francisco has never looked so alluring.

“There is an incredible empathy and sensitivity in Fred’s work,” Fetterman says, “Once you meet Fred, you understand where it comes from. Fred is in the tradition of many of the great French humanist photographers we have worked with like Willy Ronis, Edouard Boubat, Robert Doisneau mixed in with a touch of Brassaï and Cartier-Bresson.”[iii]  Fetterman continued, “Wistful, dreamlike nostalgia envelopes Fred’s work, and envelopes the clients when they see it. We all need relief from contemporary life. And sometimes when we look at Fred’s images, they give us that.”[iv]  – Los Angeles gallerist Peter Fetterman, as quoted in ‘A Wonderful Life: Fred Lyon’s 75 Years of Photography’ by Philip E. Meza


Fred Lyon’s photography is available through the Peter Fetterman gallery.

The new Fred Lyon book is published by Rizzoli Books. It’s available now. Follow Rizzoli on Instagram @rizzolibooks — and it can be acquired via @rizzolibookstore in New York City and other fine independent book stores as well as


Fred Lyon

Author Philip E. Meza

[i] R.W. Apple, “On the Road; Even in Fog, That City on a Hill Dazzles,” The New York Times, June 25, 1999, Section E, Page 27.

[ii] George Sterling, “The Cool, Grey City of Love,” The San Francisco Bulletin, vol. 133, no. 31 (Dec. 11, 1920), p. 1.

[iii] Interview with Peter Fetterman 24 March 2020.

[iv] Interview with Peter Fetterman 24 March 2020.


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