The third pandemic of plague (in its bubonic and pneumonic clinical forms) struck the globe between 1894 and 1959. As Yersinia pestis spread from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and devastation, but also a vast visual archive. It was the first time that plague would reach and establish itself in all inhabited continents. But it was also the first time that any epidemic would be photographed. As plague spread from harbour to harbour, and amongst cities, towns and villages, so did photographs of the pandemic through reproductions in the daily and illustrated press. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, these photographic documents provided diverse perspectives on the pandemic, which, more often than not, were not simply different from region to region, but in fact conflicting within any single locus of infection. Moreover this photographic production came to establish a new field of vision, what we may call “epidemic photography” which continues to inform the way in which we see, depict and imagine epidemics and their social, economic, and political impact in the age of Global Health.
The plague reached mainland America through the harbour of San Francisco in California where a major outbreak occurred in 1900. Like in Honolulu a few weeks earlier, the disease appeared to be focused in Chinatown. The outbreak engulfed the city in intense conflict between local, state and federal authorities, and fanned Yellow Peril narratives which erroneously portrayed Chinese immigrants as responsible for the outbreak. Plague was eventually stamped out through what public health authorities believed to be effective fumigation and demolition measures, affecting Chinese properties. Still, the plague eventually spread to wild rodents so as to become endemic among different species of wild mammals all the way to New Mexico and Colorado where it can still be found today.