The photography collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco spans the entire history of the medium, with particular strength in 19th-century American and European photography. The de Young accepted photographs into its collection during its earliest years, starting with documentary scenes of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. The collection also includes large concentrations of historical California photographs, with many views of the Bay Area, as well as a significant holding of daguerreotype portraits.

The Legion of Honor also amassed historical photographs prior to merging with the de Young. The Legion’s most important acquisition was its purchase in 1943 of negatives and prints by Arnold Genthe representing San Francisco in the immediate aftermath of the 1906 earthquake.

After the two institutions were combined to form the Fine Arts Museums in 1972, the photography holdings were united at the Legion within the Museums’ department of works on paper, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Among the photographers represented in depth are Imogen Cunningham, John Gutmann, Eadweard Muybridge, Bill Owens, Ed Ruscha, David Seymour (Chim), and Arthur Siegel.