On Dec. 10, 2020, the old man died. It came gradually, then suddenly; neighbors describe a short and aggressive illness. The old man was beloved by his neighbors; he had been concerning them for a while by amassing items in his declining years. His Russian Hill apartment was purportedly filled to the brim.
It’s sad when old people die alone. It’s sad to see a lifetime of amassed trinkets and treasures disseminated after an old person dies.
Your humble narrator, in 2015, attended a consignment sale. Items with no discernible resale value were ungently hurled out an upper-story back window into a growing pile of broken detritus in the weed-choked yard below. The vision of furniture and dolls and souvenirs — broken things but real things, treasured things — soaring through the air, framed against a perfect blue San Francisco day, and landing with a thud will always stay with me. It was all too reminiscent of the final scene of Citizen Kane, in its own way.
How many Rosebuds do we burn every day?
But in the case in Russian Hill, not only were the old man’s acquired items being unloaded — so was his original artwork. This 84-year-old man’s name was Horst Kampschulte, and he was a prodigiously talented artist with a particular focus on San Francisco, his adopted home of many decades.
And yet neighbors described the German immigrant’s artwork as being relegated to the building’s lobby, left out for any taker, and even being put in the trash.
Thankfully, however, neighbors have stepped in and attempted to rescue what they can.
In some ways, this is a sad story. But not a completely sad story. Because some of Kamschulte’s work found its way to the best possible place it could, where it will be valued more than he could know.
But not in any manner he could’ve intended. And, of course, not while he was alive.
It took a while, but David Gallagher has finally directed his life to where he wants it to be: In his Noe Valley garage, looking at old pictures all day.
Gallagher, who’ll be 58 next week, is the co-founder and manager of OpenSFHistory.org, an offshoot of the Western Neighborhoods Project. Along with a battalion of volunteers, Gallagher has scanned more than 100,000 photographs of San Francisco’s past, and posted some 53,000 online.
In early April, a friend alerted him to a Nextdoor post about an old man’s artwork being discarded. Within a day he’d contacted the author of that post, a neighbor of Kampschulte’s, and came away with the little the neighbor was able to salvage: Eight boxes containing perhaps 1,800 or more slides of San Francisco in the late ’70s and early ’80s as well as a clutch of the hand-drawn San Francisco postcards Kampschulte used to sell. There was also some ephemera, including old business cards that, curiously, had no contact information on them.
You’d have as much ease getting a hold of Kampschulte in 1984 as you would now, it would seem.
We don’t know a whole lot about Kampschulte. He has an Instagram page featuring psychedelic artwork and a Facebook page acknowledging his death. We’ve written to the administrators of both pages, but neither has gotten back to us. You can easily find his artwork for sale on the Internet; Kampschulte’s self-published 1976 book of framable San Francisco lithographs is for sale at antiquarian bookstores. In this 2016 article in a German newspaper, he seeks a tenant who can maintain “my private little jungle” at his family home in Stockum, near Dusseldorf.
“Order fanatics would probably not enjoy my garden, but for me it is simply unique,” he told the newspaper. It seems he structured his San Francisco life (and apartment) similarly.
It didn’t take long for Gallagher to realize these boxes of Kampschulte’s slides contained gold — quotidian gold.
Kampschulte’s hand-drawn postcards are serenely beautiful. The detail is astounding, the work is masterful — there’s just something about these postcards that makes you want to crawl in between the pen strokes and live in them. Even if, as San Franciscans, you already do.
Gallagher appreciated that. But that wasn’t the real find for him. Nor were the stunningly beautiful composite shots Kampschulte created of the Transamerica Pyramid framed by massive fireworks explosions.
Rather, the real value here, as far as the history buff was concerned, were the incidental shots. Reams and reams of incidental shots. These are the photos of the Victorians and cable cars that would serve as models for Kampschulte’s idealized line drawings and postcard images. Like any artist, Kampschulte took a few liberties. No, there isn’t a cable car line that runs to the foot of Lombard Street. No, you can’t take the cable car to the Golden Gate Bridge. No, the Embarcadero isn’t sunny and open and free of a multi-level highway (well, not in 1984, at least).
But his incidental photos, the models for idealized works of art, are not idealized. Not at all. They’re moments of life in a city very different from our own, but one that looks, in many neighborhoods, very much the same — save for the aggressive right angles of 1980s-vintage clothes and ski-jump profiles of the elongated 1970s cars. It’s San Francisco in an unposed, candid shot. And that’s what Gallagher needs.
“I look for city and street views that show us what the city was. And not every old picture shows things better than they are today. Just different,” he explains.
Gallagher loves the past and studies the past. But he doesn’t want to return to the past. He just wants to see the pictures and document it. Kampschulte can help here.
“These are good. I can use these,” says Gallagher in his garage, with a dozen or so of Kampschulte’s slides spread out across a light table.
“These are important. It’s important to show San Francisco as it was at that time.”
And, make no mistake, Kampschulte was a gifted and professional photographer. And that’s important, too: “I look at a lot of blurry photos,” says Gallagher with a laugh. “And this guy knew how to use a camera.”
So, this is a sad story. But not a completely sad story. There’s no better place for Kampschulte’s photographs documenting San Francisco to end up than where they ended up. But, paradoxically, it was the minor details, the fleeting details — the details Kampschulte’s postcard- or lithograph-buying audience probably had the least concern for — that ended up being most valuable of all. Rather than the sweeping arches of the Golden Gate or the finely wrought facades of the Victorians, it’s the people, the decor, and even the detritus that ended up making these pictures special.
It makes you think about what’s going to matter in our own San Francisco lives. Rosebud, after all, was just a sled.