Fred Lyon, the charming photographer who epitomized the best of the elan and spirit of his native San Francisco, died on August 22, at home in that city. He was 97.
Lyon’s career spanned most of the significant elements of twentieth century photography. He worked with some of the best magazines including Life, Holiday, Vogue, House & Garden, Fortune and Time and others during the golden age of that medium. He worked across genres in fashion, interior design, travel, food and wine, sports and photojournalism. He was the subject of the 2013 documentary Fred Lyon – Living Through the Lens by filmmaker Michael House.
Lyon is one of the most significant photographers to work in interior design photography in the twentieth century. Early in his career he collaborated with designer Frances Elkins and editor Dorothea Walker to produce groundbreaking images that appeared in the leading shelter magazines including House & Garden and Vogue. He worked with many significant designers including John Dickinson, Tony Hail, Michael Taylor and others to capture their work in creating the “California Look”.
Lyon wrote several photography books and contributed to many more. He had two new books about his work released in the spring of this year: Inventing the California Look: Through the Lens of Fred Lyon (Rizzoli) by Philip E. Meza and San Francisco: Portrait of a City (Taschen) by Reuel Golden. An indefatigable worker as well as an artist, Lyon participated in two different large book signings for the respective titles in April, entertaining audiences that had come to meet him in person, enjoy his joie de vivre, and have him autograph their books with his fluid and distinctive signature. He might have walked a little unsteadily into the two events, but he left them with a spring in his step. Characteristic of the man, Lyon was working on two other book projects in the last weeks of his life.
Lyon studied photography at the prestigious Art Center, then in Los Angeles, where he learned the art and trade of photography from distinguished faculty including Ansel Adams. Lyon joined Adams and a select handful of other students on a summer trip to Adams’ home in Yosemite. He took from Adams certain artistic tenets, such as Adams’ famous admonition, “there’s nothing worse than a very sharp image of a very fuzzy concept” but even then, Lyon knew he needed to become his own photographer. He said: “My feeling was that I could never learn all Ansel knew. I could never be more than a miniature Ansel Adams if I tried to be like him. I was never going to become a landscape photographer. I always seem to need to include some of the works of man in my work. Ansel was terrific and inspirational, but I didn’t want to emulate what he was doing.” In his autobiography Adams commented, “I never went to war, too young for the First, too old for the Second.” This was not true of Lyon’s generation.
After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Lyon joined the United States Navy as an aviation cadet. In the time between reporting to duty and completing pre-flight training, demand for naval aviators declined. Lyon and his fellow cadets were kept waiting to earn their wings. With the impatience of a twenty year old, Lyon opted to leave aviation training to get into the war any way he could. With a common sense not always attributed to large bureaucracies, the navy assigned him to be a photographer in Washington, D.C. As a military photographer in the nation’s capital, he photographed navy brass and celebrities. He took a Christmas portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his extended family in 1944 in the White House residence. Lyon also photographed President Harry S. Truman on his first day in the Oval Office following the death of Roosevelt.
After military service, he moved to New York where he worked as a fashion photographer. In a lucky happenstance, Lyon was taken on as a client by Charles Rado, one of the hottest photo agents in the business who represented giants in photography in the United States and Europe, including Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Robert Doisneau Yousuf Karsh, André Kertész and others. The great Swiss photographer Sabine Weiss, of the same vintage as Lyon, and who died in late 2021, was also a client of Rado. Lyon remembered, “I came to New York with a spiral bound book of my original prints, some from the Art Center and some from the Navy, in my sea bag. I took that book with me to see Charles. That’s all I had to show him.” Rado must have been impressed by what he saw, or perhaps more likely saw the potential evident in Lyon’s work to date. Rado had no need to take on unproven photographers, but he took on Lyon and gave him very generous terms. “The standard arrangement was for the photographer and agent to split the fee evenly after expenses had been paid,” Lyon says, “when I asked Charles about his fee percentage, he said, ‘let’s do 40/60.’ I said, ‘Charles I have to get more than 40 percent.” Charles patiently responded in his thick Hungarian accent, “no Fred, you get the 60 percent.’ Charles was always very protective of me. It started that day.”
Returning to San Francisco, Lyon became an in-demand photojournalist working for Life, Holiday, Sports Illustrated and other leading magazines during the golden age of that medium.
He married Anne Murray, a fashion model who worked with him and Richard Avedon when both photographers were starting their careers in New York. The Lyons made a home in Sausalito, California, where they reared two children, Michael and Gordon. Anne Lyon continued to appear in some of his photographs.
Lyon had always been a flâneur and his ambit was vast and included the midcentury art and jazz scenes, when he befriended artists like abstract expressionist Richard Diebenkorn, and captured jazz greats Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Bobby Troup, Percy Heath and others. Lyon captured beat poetry happenings and haunted the best nightspots with the city’s “poet laureate” newspaper columnist Herb Caen in the days when San Francisco was the cool, gray city of love.
By the end of the 1980s, Lyon was busy mostly with editorial and food and wine photography. As the owner of a home and vineyard in Napa’s Oakville region, he had a special fondness for food and photography and had been a pioneer in that genre. In 1989, Anne Lyon died. Fred kept working throughout, but he was not as fully alive as he had been.
Lyon’s characteristic love of life was re-awakened by the interior designer Penelope Whelan Rozis. The two had worked together years earlier when Rozis was a designer with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Lyon photographed the recently completed Bank of America world headquarters in San Francisco that Rozis had worked on. The relationship that Lyon and Rozis began started to reawaken and inspire him. Rozis’s boss on the BofA project and mentor the noted designer Margo Grant Walsh says, “Penny infused Fred with another life.” But she was still looking out for her “little sister.” Lyon recalls, “I was in New York on business when I met Margo at her favorite neighborhood restaurant. When we were seated, two martinis instantly appeared and almost her first words to me were, ‘now Fred, exactly what are your intentions about Penny?’ Wham!” Walsh would not truck with a trifling septuagenarian where her decades-long friend Rozis was concerned. She need not have worried. Lyon was not just marking time any longer. “How could I, when I was so in love with this exciting creature?”
With Rozis continuing her career as an interior designer, Lyon began a new career as a fine art photographer. Working with the photographer advisor Mary Virginia Swanson, photography gallerist Peter Fetterman and photography assistant Laurel Thornton, he blossomed in his new career.
Lyon’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. Lyon’s understated sympathy for the poignance of places and people he captures in his work have led others to call him “San Francisco’s Brassaï”. But the truth is Fred Lyon is sui generis.
Lyon is survived by his wife Penelope Rozis, and two sons.
Philip Meza, author of Inventing the California Look: Through the Lens of Fred Lyon, (Rizzoli, 2022)
See images from Fred Lyon’s work at the Peter Fetterman Gallery on www.peterfetterman.com
 “Ansel Adams: Conversations with Ansel Adams.” Interview by Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harroun in 1972, 1974 and 1975. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1978, page 219.
 Interview with Fred Lyon 5 February 2020.
 Ansel Adams with Mary Street Alinder, “Ansel Adams: An Autobiography,” (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1985), page 9.
 Interview with Fred Lyon 31 January 2020.
 Interview with Fred Lyon 10 February 2020.
 Interview with Margo Grant Walsh 14 May 2020.
 Email from Fred Lyon to the author 14 May 2020.
 Email from Fred Lyon to the author 14 May 2020.