San Francisco Bay was not named after the city of San Francisco; the sequence was actually the opposite. The large estuary that borders northern California's most-recognized city was called San Francisco Bay at a time when the settlement on its shores was named Yerba Buena. When the United States took possession of California in 1846, the settlement was renamed for the estuary.
This bit of historical trivia hints at the significance of the bay to the surrounding communities. The importance is highlighted in Portrait of an Estuary: San Francisco Bay, an exhibition of thirty color photographs on view from January 14 through March 14, 2004, at the Oakland Museum of California.
The photographs, by nature photographer David Sanger, celebrate the beauty and evolving ecology of San Francisco Bay. Accompanying the photos are text panels by environmental historian John Hart, which discuss the history of the bay and environmental issues shaping its future. The exhibition is based on Hart and Sanger's 2003 book, San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary (University of California Press, 2003).
The thirty photographs, selected from among 155 photos in the book, are presented as 15-1/2 x 23-1/2 inch Lightjet prints, a printing process that results in brilliantly colored, highly detailed images. Familiar landmarks--one of the Port of Oakland's huge container cranes silhouetted against the sky at dusk, the Golden Gate Bridge seen from above, an almost abstract image of salt evaporation ponds in South San Francisco Bay colored coral-pink by salt-tolerant algae and bacteria--contrast with more intimate views of the wildlife that populates the region, like a portrait of a snowy egret wading and a Forster's tern perched on a rock in the water, the two seeming to be engaged in conversation.
The beauty of the photographs belies the fact that San Francisco Bay is one of the most urbanized and degraded estuaries in North America. "The San Francisco Bay is an irreplaceable natural treasure," said Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. "These photographs remind us that the bay will continue to thrive only as long as we, as stewards of the environment, are willing to protect it."
Estuaries, where rivers mix with the sea, are fresher and better supplied with nutrients than is the ocean. The San Francisco estuary is also an important destination or midway stop for migrating birds, particularly shorebirds and waterfowl.
In 1961, faced with a government report indicating that most of San Francisco Bay was shallow enough to be converted to landfill, as well as a plan by the city of Berkeley, California, to double its size by filling in part of the bay, three Berkeley women formed the Save San Francisco Bay Association (commonly known as Save the Bay). Since that time, numerous citizen groups and government agencies have become involved in the effort to restore and protect San Francisco Bay.
Photographer David Sanger was born in Great Britain and graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts. He now makes his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, but has traveled and photographed in more than 80 countries. The Society of American Travel writers recognized Sanger as Photographer of the Year in 1998.
John Hart is the author of a dozen books on environmental issues and wilderness travel, and is a prize-winning poet. His books Storm Over Mono: The Mono Lake Battle and the California Water Future and Farming on the Edge: Saving Family Farms in Marin County, California were both awarded the Commonwealth Club Silver Medal.
Curator of the exhibition is Christopher Richard, associate curator of aquatic biology in the Natural Sciences Department of the Oakland Museum of California.
Native bunchgrasses in the restored Crissy Field dunes. Photograph by David Sanger