Cliff House Project
A Program of Western Neighborhoods Project

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This is undoubtedly one of the most reproduced Cliff House photographs.  Marilyn Blaisdell's book attributes it to "T. Imai".
(More on T. Imai below)


(close up)



(transcription of reverse)

Cliff House, San Francisco.

A Japanese boy, noticing the approach of lightning and thunder storm, took the last car for the Cliff House at 10:30 p.m.

The night was dark.  He took up his position with his camera on the beach, and patiently waiting until 2 o'clock a.m., was able by leaving his camera open to obtain this picture, the "flashlight" being Nature's own--the bright strokes of lightning at the moment.  The patience of the "Oriental," together with his keen preception of the opportunity, give us this photographic rarity, thunder storms and lightning being a rare occurance in the "glorious climate of California."  --Copyrighted.

The above description is neither dated nor verified.


Tsunekichi Imai
(scan courtesy of Winston Montgomery)

This newsletter gives the photographer's full name as Tsunekicki Imai.  It is the story of Ted Imai, son of the photographer, but it also provides us background information on T. Imai...



     The vast majority of the information in this article comes from Ted Imai, now 95, the photographer’s only son. Like most memories from long ago, Ted’s are sometimes indistinct, disjointed and even contradictory, and they may derive from family tradition, not fact. I did some research at San Francisco’s Japanese American History Archives with the assistance of Mr. Seizo Oka, community historian and executive director of the archives (recently diseased) and at the S.F. Public Library. I intend in the future to consult with other members of the Imai family who may have more or different information, and I would also like to try to find experts in historic photography to take a in depth look at the “Night Time Cloud Effect” photo. So this is a work in progress.

Tsunekichi Imai

     Tsunekichi Imai, who created what is probably the best known photographic image of the third Cliff House (1896-1907), was according to his family and other sources, the first Japanese commercial photographer in San Francisco. He operated a studio at 1303 Polk Street, near Bush, (cited in the Japanese Yearbook of 1905) and later at 1950 Bush Street, which also served for many years as the Imai family home.
     Born in 1872 in Yamaguchi, an agricultural region on the island of Honshu in southern Japan, he learned his craft in his native country and then in 1899 immigrated to United States. Economic conditions in Japan were difficult, and Tsunekichi Imai was part of large wave of workers who were drawn to California because of an acute labor shortage caused by the imposition of the Chinese Exclusion Act which had cut off the supply of immigrant Chinese workers. He may have thought that a burgeoning Japanese community would be well served by its own photographer.
     Originally Tsunekichi Imai planned to save the money he made and return to Japan, but with each child born in the United States this prospect seemed to grow dimmer. He and his wife, Taki, eventually had seven girls and one boy. Ted (originally Heiyu) Imai, born in 1910, is the second oldest child and the first to be born in the United States. One daughter died at about seven years of age from acute appendicitis.
     Tsunekichi Imai was working in his Polk Street studio when the 1906 earthquake struck, and he described to his family how the pictures hanging from his shop walls shook and gyrated wildly, many tumbling to the ground. In the days that followed, the rapidly spreading fire which followed the quake overwhelmed firefighters and threatened to destroy the entire city. To stop the fire by depriving it of fuel, officials decided to create a firebreak by dynamiting a swath of buildings east of Van Ness Avenue. The Imai studio was located in one of these buildings.
     The structures to be exploded were evacuated hurriedly and Tsunekichi Imai thought that all his equipment and furniture had been lost. Someone suggested that he go up to Lafayette Park at Washington and Laguna streets, and there he discovered stacks of personal possessions and household furnishings covered by tarpaulins that firemen and other volunteers must have rescued from the doomed buildings. He found most of the things from his shop piled together and even labeled with his name. Ironically many of the photographs and other personal affects that survived the earthquake and fire were lost during the period that the Imai family was interned during W.W. II at Camp Topaz in Utah.
     Tsunekichi Imai took a number of photographs in the earthquake’s aftermath, the most notable, according to his son, Ted, showed a man trapped on the upper balcony of a burning building pleading for help as the flames engulfed him. The picture was taken just as soldiers on the ground shot the man with their rifles to put him out of his misery. Ted says his father was fearful of the possible legal implications of taking this photo or even witnessing this event, and eventually destroyed it.
     Ted, who as a young boy often acted as his father’s assistant, has a vivid memory of other photographs his father took. When the 1918 influenza epidemic struck San Francisco (doing particular damage in the Japanese community) his father was busy around the clock taking photographs of the victims to send back to their relatives in Japan. The Japanese in San Francisco were served chiefly by the Martin and Brown Funeral Home on Sutter St. One particularly poignant image Ted recalls was of a mother with her infant in her arms, both sharing the same coffin.
Tsunekichi Imai also was commissioned to do a photographic portrait of the colorful early California literary figure, Joaquin Miller, the so-called “poet of the Sierras”. A friend of Jack London and Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller in his later years was a resident of the Oakland Hills and his forested 75 acre estate which he called “The Hights” is now a park. Ted Imai believes an original print of this photo is still in the possession of the Imai family.
Another portrait of a dignitary that Tsunekichi Imai crafted was of Prince Fushimi (Hiroyasu), a member of the Japanese Imperial Family. The City of San Francisco has always had a close relationship with Japan, --the first visit of a Japanese warship to San Francisco was in 1860, and the tradition of naval visits to San Francisco continued until the First World War.
     Every two years the Japanese Training Squadron on their Sea Cadet graduation cruise would lay anchor in San Francisco. Like this era’s Fleet Week, the ships, mostly old battleships, were open to the public, and in San Francisco and the East Bay there were welcoming ceremonies and exhibitions of Japanese arts and culture including sumo wrestling, martial arts and fencing. The ships gave away small Japanese flags and other souvenirs. Ted Imai, like all Japanese American kids, was tremendously excited. The culmination of the events was a huge parade down Market Street in San Francisco.
     Tsunekichi Imai took photos of many of these events and he was invited to attend the banquet in honor of the Japanese guests which was sponsored by the Japanese American Association. This was held at some of San Francisco’s most prestigious hotels including the Fairmount and the St. Francis. Tsunekichi Imai always sat at a table with the teenage cadets and their training officers and since they had not traveled much out of their country or had much familiarity with western cuisine they looked to him for clues as how to behave. There was a bowl of olives on every table and throughout the meal there was much discussion as to their nature and purpose. As the table was being cleared and coffee served, Tsunekichi Imai grabbed a handful of olives and dropped them into his cup. All the Japanese cadets and officers immediately followed suit.
     It was probably in 1904 that Tsunekichi Imai took the portrait of Prince Fushimi, an Admiral in the Japanese Navy, a member of the Japanese Supreme War Council and Chief of the Japanese Naval General Staff from 1932 to 1941. At the Japanese American History Archives in San Francisco there is a picture of the Prince on a visit to San Francisco in 1904. In gratitude for the portrait Prince Fushimi gave the photographer a silver cloisonné cigarette case and a sterling silver matchbox. These gifts are still in possession of the Imai family.
     After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Imai family, afraid that their loyalty to the United States would be questioned if this portrait were discovered in their home, transported the original print to the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco, from which it disappeared.
According to Ted Imai, the most interesting fact about his father’s photograph of the Cliff House, sometimes called “Nighttime Cloud Effect” is that it was essentially a fake, created or at least substantially enhanced in the studio. Ted was not born until after the picture was taken, but his father over the years told him that he had shot the photo in broad daylight and then gradually darkened it over a period of 4 or 5 days, retouching it and redeveloping it by trial and error until he had achieved the desired image. Ted does not remember the specific processes or chemicals his father used. In support of this theory Ted says that such an exposure would have been impossible to create with the primitive cameras of the time and flash powder, the only supplemental illumination then available to photographers.
     Ted remembers that his father had a very well equipped studio for his time, including a custom built 4 ft by 4 ft enlarger he utilized to print his portraits. It featured a 1000 watt light, immensely powerful for its time.
Some observers see a bolt of lightning in the photograph, but upon closer examination it appears to be the edge of a backlit cloud. I have no reason to doubt Ted Imai’s memory but at least one knowledgeable photographer says it appears authentic. In reply to my inquiry, Haral Edens, a doctoral candidate in atmospheric psychics at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, an experienced weather photographer and proprietor of states as follows:

“I’m almost sure that that photo is real. There is no lightning in the photo however; the streak of light going to the upper left is a so-called silver lining effect. You can also see the shadow of that cloud to its right, cast on another cloud (the sun must have been left of the photo). No-one would produce that shadow effect in a studio, since it is little interesting. I think that that gives a clue that the scenery has not been edited or created.”

     Obviously more investigation on how this photo was created remains to be done, but it is possible that a daytime photo containing an unusual configuration of light and cloud was strategically darkened to make it appear that it was taken at night. The lights or reflections of light in the lower windows of the Cliff House probably would be relatively easy to add.
     Some of the existing prints of “Nighttime Cloud Effect” have “Imai” written in ink diagonally across the right hand corner. From 1985 a version of this photograph without “Imai” has been featured on the cover of Marilyn Blaisdell’s “San Francisciana: Photographs of the Cliff House”. Originally the photographer was unnamed but the Imai family was able to prevail upon the publisher to add T. Imai to the list of credits. There is another photograph in that book, “Tea House and Lunch Stand, Cliff House Terrace” (page 49) which Ted Imai remembers his father taking. In fact he remembers acting as his father’s helper that day and carrying the photo plates in a leather case.
     As to the small, cardboard framed souvenir version of the photo which features on the reverse side the fanciful, but racially stereotyped description of how the photo was taken, my copy of that photo features the ink stamp of the store which most likely sold it.

     This was an obviously Japanese store and was listed in the San Francisco City Directory beginning in 1901 and ending, ominously, in 1941. The fact that the photo was sold in a Japanese store and that the account of its origin contains an element of truth and supports the reported fiction of its night time creation leads me to believe that the caption was written with the assent and knowledge of the photographer. Tsunekichi Imai and the retailers he used probably thought that a sympathetic and inspirational story would make the photo more saleable.
     Ted Imai says (and the story about the olives reinforces this) that his father was an inveterate practical joker so this mythical story behind the photo probably appealed to him greatly. However, he was not fluent in English, and someone else would have had to do the actual composition.
     Tsunekichi Imai was a creative man of many talents and artistic interests. He was formally trained in Japan in flower arrangement and he was a bonsai enthusiast and avid gardener. In the backyard of the family home at 1950 Bush he designed and built a traditional style Japanese Tea Garden with a ornamental fish pond and a tea house custom built by a local Japanese carpenter featuring finely crafted sliding shoji doors.
     Tsunekichi Imai visited Yosemite often with his family and he came to admire highly an interestingly shaped boulder in the park. When his tea garden neared completion he recruited a friend who worked at Pacific Laundry and they drove the company’s Model T panel truck to Yosemite and brought the four or five hundred pound stone back with them. When the Imai’s moved from 1950 Bush a neighbor moved it to his own yard.
Tsunekichi Imai died in 1929.

Winston Montgomery

Addendum: Ted’s Photos Returned

     There is another interesting story concerning the history of the Imai family and photographs taken by Tsunekichi Imai. Soon after I visited the Japanese American History Archive a few years ago, I was contacted by Kimi Wood, a San Francisco native living in Redwood City. She had visited the Archives to try to find out if anyone with the surname Imai was still living in San Francisco. They would have to be quite elderly by this time, she thought. She was in possession of some old glass plates and photo albums that were marked with the name Imai.
     Kimi’s parents had lived in Japan for a number of years after the Second World War where her father was in the U.S. Armed Forces and her mother had taught English to Japanese women. During their stay in Japan they developed a tremendous affection and respect for the Japanese people and culture, hence their daughter Kimi’s name. Back in the United States in the late 1960’s some friends were renting an apartment at 2025 Pine Street near Japantown and discovered a cache old photos concealed in a joist space in the garage. They turned them over to Kimi’s mother because they knew of her strong interest in Japan.
     Over 30 years later when Kimi was helping her mother pack up her possessions to move she came across the photographs and decided to see if she could locate their owners. Kimi had done genealogical research before, including working on the Mormon lists. One of her first investigative forays was to the Japanese American History Archives where Mr. Oka told her that someone else had just been in seeking information about the Imai family. Ted and Kimi were introduced and his family photos returned to him. Ted remembered them specifically (in fact they were mostly of him as a child since as the only boy and highly photogenic he was his father’s favorite subject. Ted’s description of why they were hidden in the garage gives a vivid picture of the chaotic and desperate days before the Japanese were forced to get on buses and leave San Francisco. Since they could take very little to the internment camps, families faced the problem of what do with their personal possessions. Warehouses and furniture storage facilities filled up quickly and many families were left with no way to protect their furniture and personal items. Some unscrupulous people took advantage of this situation by going from house to house in Japantown offering to buy people’s furniture for pennies on the dollar, Ted remembers, and some of the Japanese got as much as they could for their stuff, but others attempted to conceal things in their house or on their property. Most items were never seen again.
     Ted tells of entire automobiles being buried in backyards, tools and other valuables hidden under floorboards and personal possessions crammed in crawlspaces or behind attic rafters. Ted Imai hid some of his machine tools under the floor in his basement, but they were gone when he returned. This is how the photos ended up concealed in the garage at 2025 Pine Street, the house that the Imai family moved to sometime in the 1930’s (they were renters) when 1950 Bush Street was sold to a local Japanese doctor.

Winston Montgomery, a longtime San Francisco resident, is a retired painting and plastering contractor who is re-inventing himself as a songwriter. You can listen to his songs at or send him an email at