A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Robert Cameron, a self styled World’s Oldest One-Eyed Aerial Photographer died last Saturday. He was 98 and he might have been shooting stuff almost until the end. There are 59 6x9 foot photo murals illustrating environmentally healthy sites along the Pacific Rim at the Metreon Gallery in San Francisco right now. It was in San Francisco that Cameron in 1960 started a company that sold champagne-formula shampoo. He was a moderate drinker so he self-published a little book called The Drinking Man’s Diet in which he championed the idea that sipping a martini or Scotch on the rocks while eating something like a steak could take off weight because of the low carbohydrate count. He sold 2.4 million of these little books at $1.00. He made enough profit so that he could get started on his real love, helicopter photography. He published several (19) including Above San Francisco, Above London, Above Mexico City, Above New York (the best seller of them all), Above Los Angeles and Above Paris. I have his Above Paris which is written by no less than Pierre Salinger. His most famous picture, for me, (in his Above London) is one he took over centre court at Wimbledon. He was almost shot down because his helicopter was flying so low. You know that one of the little dots down there is Björn Borg. One of the other dots is Queen Elizabeth.

Cameron used a heavy Pentax 6x7 camera that was mounted on a gyroscope to offset the helicopter vibrations. He had special harnesses made so that he could hang precariously (but safely) outside the craft. His pictures are superb. It was in his later life that he developed a macular degeneration in his left eye and left him blind in that eye. But he kept shooting.

In his pre-Google Earth time his pictures are superb and his touch elegant.

Your friendly blogger here never had that elegant touch. I was always too busy swallowing Dramamines like candy and usually being quite out of it before the various helicopters and small planes I have flown in my past took me up to photograph mills or women wearing fur coats in the summer.

The first time I ever flew to take pictures was in Mexico City. I was hired to photograph a soft-drink bottling plant. I was scared to death but managed to take my pictures. I did not feel too good but felt lucky when a week later the pilot of the plane hit a cow in a pasture and killed himself.

Since I was a child I became dizzy in swings, cars, trams and just about anything that moved. It was only when I was in my 30s that I was finally able to control myself enough that I could fly with some equanimity.

I quickly found out what Cameron would have told me and that was that the finest aerial camera was and is the Pentax 6x7. It has a fast enough shutter speed (1/1000) to minimize most vibration and its lenses are very good. It has one flaw (for me). It is difficult to remove spent film as you have to look down a lot and grab the film just right. Looking down in a helicopter or airplane is murder for me. I never did get sick in any of those flights over lumber mills in BC or Alberta because I had really drugged myself with Gravol and Dramamine cocktails.

I took the picture above for a chain of Vancouver stores in the early 80s called Gray’s Apparel. They wanted to feature fir coats for their fall catalogue. The only place with snow in the middle of summer was near Agassiz. We flew in a helicopter to find a suitable glacier. I remember that my seat companion was a foppish young man called Klaus. He was very German and pleasantly gay. He was scared to death but probably not as scared as I was. I decided to make him more scared and perhaps in the process entertain myself and forget about my vertigo.

“Klaus,” I told him, “you must be aware that helicopters cannot glide. They are rocks with a rotors. If the rotors fail they plummet like rocks.” He looked at me and I could feel his panic!

The best thing about a helicopter shoot is when you are back on terra firma and you know that if you throw up you will not have to clean the field (or the cockpit).

In my years in Vancouver I have braved many flights in De Havilland Beavers. On those few moments when I am not worried about my stomach and my vertigo I will admit that flying in a Beaver is exhilirating and exciting. Taking pictures from them is a tad more difficult than in helicopters as the windows are usually clouded or yellow with age. Pilots have offered to open the door but I have in almost all cases (that I can remember) declined their generous offer. For more on Beavers:

More Beavers
And more Beavers


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