Pioneer Portraits: Arthur C. Pillsbury

Pioneer Portraits: Arthur C. Pillsbury

If I told you that around 100 years ago a guy successfully constructed an automatic time lapse camera, you’d probably call me nuts. What if I told you the same guy also shot panoramas from a helium balloon? And he filmed underwater, through microscopes and even X-rays machines! Almost a century ago! Nuts, right? I wouldn’t blame you. So, allow me to introduce to you the absolute legend that was Arthur C. Pillsbury.

“I will help people understand the Miracles of Nature by extending the scope of human vision.”

Here is the case for why Arthur C. Pillsbury – photographer, adventurer, activist and mechanical genius – must be considered one of the fathers of modern time lapse photography.

Extending the scope of human vision

Arthur C. Pillsbury was born in 1870 as the youngest of three siblings to a pair of doctors. When he was eleven years old, his family bought an 80-acre ranch near Auburn, California. It was there that they started a fruit farm, growing prunes and almonds. His talent for tinkering soon became obvious.

Three people on a bike

Arthur C. Pillsbury, Kitty and Ernest, his brother. ©acpillsburyfoundation

Young Arthur, an avid cyclist, rode an “Eagle” – a high wheel with the smaller wheel upfront. Soon he began to repair, rent out and sell custom-built bicycles to earn money for his tuition. He enrolled at Stanford for mechanical engineering in 1893.

After borrowing a camera one day for just an hour, his life changed forever. He documented the “rush” at Stanford, a wild time of recruitment rituals and fraternity parties. By 1895, he had expanded his business to print photos and rent out dark rooms for developing them. In 1897, he built a circuit panorama camera as his senior project at Stanford, “which looked like half a wash tub. (…) and made a picture 10 x 36 inches taking in almost half a circle. (…) It was a bulky outfit, would only take one picture and then required a dark room to replace the exposed film. Which meant an entire day’s climb in the mountains had to be recorded with just one chance.”

The rush at Palo Alto, shot on a Kodak he borrowed for $5. ©acpillsburyfoundation

Despite this limitation, Pillsbury would shoot scenic pictures of Yosemite and Tahoe, and even take it to Yukon.

To Alaska…

After leaving Stanford, he bought a 22-foot boat, loaded it with photo equipment and sailed with his father to Alaska. However, their ship ran ashore in a storm and broke in half. So, after finding shelter in a native tribe, they made it to Alaska by repairing two other boat motors en passant.

Panorama Image of Five Finger Rapids

Panorama image from 1899 showing the “low” lining up Five Finger Rapids, by Pillsbury & Cleveland. ©loc

During this journey, Pillsbury would carry his 226 kg of photo gear everywhere. It consisted of “the panorama camera, an 8 x 10 view box, plates, film, paper, chemical portable tent dark room [which also served as a shelter tent], blankets, food, gun, fishing tackle etc.” So, he pulled it on a dog sled with his bike to get his load over White’s Pass. He documented Alaskan native tribes in a time of great disruption and produced panoramic images of the great gold rush in Yukon.

…and back by canoe

On his 2,600-mile journey home to California, someone stole his boat. Therefore, Pillsbury decided to go back by canoe. So, he washed his negatives while drifting down the rivers. At each mining camp he took panorama photos. He developed them in his floating dark room, sold them for gold dust and sent the prints back via courier from the next stop down river.

Nome city

Sept. 21, 1899, Nome City, a city two months old, by Pillsbury & Cleveland. ©loc

The earthquake

Back in California, Pillsbury took countless pictures of Yosemite, the High Sierra and Lake Tahoe. At the same time, he established the photographic department of the San Francisco Examiner for William Hearst, which he ran for three years until he founded Pillsbury Pictures. It was in the morning hours of April 18th, 1906, when he shot pictures that would travel all around the world.

The earth quake shook me out of bed. It did some light damage to the house. I grabbed my cameras and started for San Francisco. Fortunately I had saved my press badge when I left the Examiner and knowing all the police in the city I could go everywhere. That Wednesday I covered the entire city, making 5 X 7 Graflex views and panoramas of the burning city. It happened I was the only professional photographer who pictured the burning city.

San Francisco on fire

San Francisco on fire, April 18th, 1906. ©acpillsburyfoundation

The wildflower man of Yosemite

Thanks to the money he earned with his exclusive earthquake pictures from San Francisco, Pillsbury would fulfil his lifelong dream of owning a photo studio in Yosemite. Ever since his first trip in 1895, he had been enamoured with the beauty of the proliferation of wildflowers in the valley’s meadows. This would mark the beginning of a campaign to awaken and connect citizens to the wonders of the natural world. He held a government photographic licence from 1906 until 1922.

Pillsbury went on to help illustrate the stories of John Muir, father of the preservationist movement in America, with the power of film. He taught Ansel Adams and personally developed his first roll of film. The Pillsbury Picture Company became the largest distributor of postcards on the West Coast for many years, introducing countless innovations to the region such as orotones. In 1924, a Hollywood producer paid him $26,000 for a piece.

Orotone of Jeffrey's Pine on Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.

Orotone of Jeffrey’s Pine on Sentinel Dome, Yosemite. ©acpillsburyfoundation

The Fairy

It was at this time Pillsbury started to experiment with aerial photography. America was in a flying frenzy fuelled by the Wright brothers’ first motorised flight. Everything was possible. First, he tried kites, but he found them impractical. Inspired by his airship flight with Roy Knabenshue, he bought a helium balloon and called her “The Fairy”, because “she was gossamer [translucent] and white.”

Pillsbury in his balloon called “The Fairy”, published in “Camera Craft” in March 1910. ©acpillsburyfoundation

It was of fine white Chinese silk, oiled to make it air tight. The net of linen thread, and the basket, about as large as a half barrel, was made of fish line. The complete outfit which weighed seventy pounds, and could be packed in an average suit case, was when inflated, twenty-five feet in diameter, and contained ten thousand feet of gas. This little bag, with the sun shimmering on its white sphere, was one of the most beautiful of mechanical air visitants.

He took his panorama camera with him and secured footage from above. On one such occasion, Pillsbury’s balloon broke free from his anchor rope, and after quickly gaining way too much altitude, it disappeared in the sky. He was pronounced dead. Luckily, he survived half-frozen and would follow his ambitions in the years to come and create photo as well as video footage from various planes, including the first aerial footage of Hawaii and his beloved Yosemite.

lapse time camera

Arthur C. Pillsbury with his lapse-time camera. ©acpillsburyfoundation

Building lapse-time cameras

German botanist Wilhelm Pfeffer invented the process of time lapse photography when he documented the growth of beans back in 1898. The resulting video was widely circulated in cinemas in Europe at the time. In 1912, after five years of experiments, Pillsbury perfected the method of producing “moving pictures showing the flowers (…) as they bud and burst into bloom.” He called it lapse-time photography.

Starting as I did, in the corner of a small crowded room, with a home-made camera run with a small motor, fitted with a reduction gear of changeable speed, each flower subject an unknown problem, as regards time of opening, speed of growth, size at maturity, combined with elements of photography, lighting and correct exposure, the after treatment of negative and print and combining all of these and many others to get an artistic, pleasing result.

Pillsbury would use his videos to protect the flowers he pictured, as the park service had been mowing the meadows to create fodder for their horses.

One of the first reactions of seeing a reel of flowers growing and opening was to instill a love for them, a realization of their life struggles so similar to ours, and a wish to do something to stop the ruthless destruction of them which was fast causing them to become extinct.

Preserving Yosemite

In October, he showed his films at the second conference for National Superintendents for the National Parks. He managed to get six species protected. The assembled superintendents decided the wildflowers must be preserved. After this success, he screened at garden clubs, town halls and schools, educating the nation about the need to preserve the wildflowers. Pillsbury’s role in the creation of awareness for the emerging preservation movement is highly underrated.

Pillsbury would go on to shoot time lapse videos of over 500 flowers native to Yosemite. The study of flowers became both an obsession and his greatest triumph over the coming years. He went on lecture tours to most of the major universities across the United States as well as the National Geographic Society. Selling the foreign rights to his films paved the way for a global audience to behold his floral displays.

It was also during this period that Pillsbury adopted and raised the three kids of his brother, who died in a car crash. The kids would spend six months every year in the Yosemite studio and became an integral part of it. Countless pictures portrait a decade of joy and happiness. In 1924, he built a large new studio with an auditorium which seated 250 people. The theatre showed time lapse and nature movies, which were free to the public.

microscopic cells

Cells in motion. ©acpillsburyfoundation

The microscopic motion picture camera

When F. Martin Duncan’s Cheese Mittens was released in 1903, “cinema photomicrography” was well known in the scientific world. Etienne Jules Marey filmed red blood cells coursing through a capillary in 1891. 18 years later, Jean Comandon filmed the syphilis bacteria at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The research that resulted in his microscopic motion picture camera took Pillsbury from 1922 until 1927.

My first attempts to solve these mysteries were crude. I bought a binocular microscope of low power, thinking the camera lens could look into one eye piece while my eye at the other watched what was going on. This gave me up to twenty times magnification, not nearly enough except for small flowers, which I could photograph direct in the camera by similar methods.

At the invitation of Dr Harper Goodspeed, a botanist, he conducted further experiments at UC Berkeley. The breakthrough came when he focused his lens on a microscope that was focused on the eyepiece of another (compound) microscope. In 1926, he presented both his lapse-time motion pictures and his microscopic film to President Calvin Coolidge. An article on the microscopic motion picture camera, published in Sunset Magazine in 1927, quotes Pillsbury:

I believe this discovery will be of inestimable value in bacteriology and probably will lead to much greater knowledge of communicable diseases, their cause, prevention and cure.(…) This invention is to be dedicated to educational purposes. I could not think of even attempting to make money out of it. I will not commercialize it.”

When he showed a crowd of scientists sweet pea pollen germinating in a drop of sweetened water magnified by a factor of 220, they agreed that, “there were unlimited possibilities for future work.”

In the same year, a fire in his Yosemite studio destroyed a lifetime’s work.

Pillsbury’s further explorations in experimental photography

Arthur C. Pillsbury would go on to build several underwater cameras and film coral reefs in the South Pacific. Moreover, he built the first X-ray camera. Most of his inventions were built, published and kept in the public domain (except for the first Photo Postcard Printer that he used to fund his endeavours). Against the trend of the time, he refused to patent them, instead calling it the “knowledge commons”, an early example of today’s open source movement. Above all, he devoted his life to extending the scope of human vision and giving the larger public visual proof. 

In conclusion, his book “Miracles of Plant and Animal Life” contains detailed instructions for all of his inventions. For this reason, I urge you to read it and stand in awe of this man’s diligence, creativity and vision.

Above all, if you liked this story and crave for more information about the history of time lapse photography, please let us know!

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