Friday, August 08, 2008

Volume 3, No. 1 - Summer 2008

Arthur C. Pillsbury - You See The World Through His Eyes

No matter where you live today you see the world through the eyes of a man of whom you are probably unaware. Over a period of half a lifetime Arthur C. Pillsbury designed and built the cameras that changed our beliefs about nature and science.

Pillsbury's career would lay the groundwork for the use of photography as we know it today. Seeing is understanding. Seeing connects us with immediacy and power, providing both the medium for art and for all human innovation.

The cameras invented by Arthur C. Pillsbury remain with us. Each was conceived and built to provide the means for Pillsbury to solve a problem he confronted and was determined to solve. While still in college he considered how to widen the frame of a lens to produce a more expansive image. He solved the problem by designing and building the first circuit panorama camera. With that camera he chronicled the opening of the mining fields in the Yukon, explored the entire West Coast, and recorded the San Francisco Earthquake from the first day on. The images captured were not always beautiful, but they were always true to life. Images have continued to provide us with needed insights through wars, tragedies, and celebrations. Photojournalism, just one application of the technology of photography, has changed lives and our national direction.

In 1910, realizing that the number of species of wild flowers in the meadow near his studio in Yosemite were decreasing; Pillsbury built a camera that would capture the growth progression of flowering plants so that the plants themselves could tell their own story. Today all of us are familiar with the the images of a flower lifting its face to the sun in a dance-like motion. Flowers in motion, captured by time lapse photography grant us entirely different perspective on their life cycle and the need to preserve them.

Ever the pioneer and pushing the technological limits of photography of his day, on May 17, 1919, Pillsbury took the first aerial photos of Yosemite. This new view of the Yosemite valley provided perspective on the park unknown until his film was made. He used short films on nature to teach environmentalist themes. His films began to be shown in movie theaters. He was the first film documentarian that took environmentalism from the classroom to people.

In 1927, in a lab loaned to him by UC Berkeley, Pillsbury build a microscopic motion picture camera. His images stunned the scientists of the day. They had spent their careers studying dead samples under their microscopes. With Pillsbury's new camera living samples could projected on a screen in a lecture hall. The ability to capture events with the microscopic motion picture camera has created explosive waves of discovery in every field of science.

Pillsbury's motion picture technology caught the attention of leaders from around the world who wanted to bring his technology and his way to impart information to their nations. He found himself awash with invitations to present his perspective on nature as a living, growing changing system of plants and animals interacting with the environment. By 1930 Pillsbury invented the X-ray motion picture and underwater motion picture cameras. The focus of his life's work was connecting you to the worlds we could not see without the extension of human vision made possible through his photographic innovations.

Pillsbury's cameras were not patented. He believed that his inventions could be improved upon by those who were inclined to improve them. His mission was not patenting inventions but instead creating new photographic technology to carry on his work. Although an idealist Pillsbury did patent his mass production machine for photo post cards in 1922. The sole patent was intended to provide resources to fund work that would follow. As for cameras he provided them as gifts for our use and development. He wanted them to be available to everyone. To that end he wrote a book, “Picturing Miracles of Plant and Animal Life,” that explained in each case how the camera used were built so others could do the same.

The world has used his work lavishly. His earliest educational films, then produced for schools at all levels, were used worldwide. He created new awareness of the natural world; His photographs of people connect you to the warmth and humanity of the man behind the camera, reflected in the faces of those who see images remain for us to see. His legacy remains with us through those images and also through our own minds and eyes as we see the world today. His images stay with you because for Arthur C. Pillsbury people remained in the frame.

In every part of our lives photography touches us, changes us, informs, and increases our awareness of our world. Arthur C. Pillsbury was one of the first photographic pioneers beckoning us on with images and insights. But he was more than that as you will discover for yourself as you understand his life's work.

From “Miracles of Plant and Animal Life” by Arthur C. Pillsbury

“Beauty, Form, and Color, the Rhythm of movement, express art everywhere. The story of a bud opening, a leaf unfolding, a seed germinating, all the various steps of its life struggle for perpetuation, is as interesting and poignant as one's own life's happenings. Step by step the lens has registered on a sensitive film of a lapse-time, motor-driven motion camera, recording in that way in a comparatively few seconds life efforts that may take days or even weeks to happen.....

...Man looks at a flower in passing: the eye would soon tire in trying to watch the growth or change of position, but the lapse-time camera, running at a speed to record in the time we have to see it, registers every change of position day and night with a tireless lens eye, and all from the same chosen position, writing on the film what happens in lines, expressing position, growth and color until finally death, or better call it, when its parts have fulfilled their life's duty, passing onto another form.”

Life Time Accomplishments

  • 1895 – Invents specimen slicer for microscope at Stanford

  • 1895 - Photographs first Rush at Stanford

First visits Yosemite via bicycle from Palo Alto

  • 1896 - Invents circuit panoramic camera, as senior project at Stanford.

  • 1897 - Leaves for Alaska to chronicle Gold Rush

Shipwrecked and rescues himself.

  • Trip from the headwaters of Yukon River to sea in a canoe.

  • 1903 - Begins work as photographer in San Francisco

  • 1906 - Photographs Earthquake, distributes world-wide.

Buys a studio in Yosemite.

Photographs the Missions of California and sites of interest through out the state.

  • 1910 - Aerial photographs of rebuilding, runaway balloon.

Balloon breaks free. He is reported dead.

Films first nature movie, shows it at The Studio of the Three Arrows in Yosemite.

  • 1911 - Begins work on lapse-time studies on flowers

  • 1912 – Builds and films the first lapse-time movie of a flower blooming.

Stops the cutting of the wildflowers in the meadows of Yosemite by persuasion.

  • 1921 - First aerial motion pictures of Yosemite.

  • 1922 – Patents the first mass production unit for photo postcards.

  • 1924 - First color motion picture, produced for his lecture series.

  • 1927 – Builds the first microscopic motion picture camera in a borrowed lab at UC Berkeley. Dedicates it to science.

  • 1929 - Builds the first X-ray motion picture camera.

Makes the first movie using the X-ray motion picture camera.

  • 1930 - First underwater motion picture

  • 1935 – Photographed the process of hydroponics carried out by Professor Gericke at Berkeley

  • 1942 - Documents process of osmosis in plants.

Find some of his images at:

Introducing the Arthur C. Pillsbury Gallery! Look for it at, with lots of photos and a new beginning.

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