At 82, Above Seattle
Photographer is Still On the Way Up
my old friend Emmett Watson called to ask if I would spend an hour
or so showing a visitor from San Francisco around Tacoma, I didn't
know what an interesting time I'd have. The visitor turned out to
be Bob Cameron, one of the best aerial photographers in the world
and certainly, at 82, the oldest.
has asked Emmett to write the text for "Above Seattle,"
the 11th volume in a series of picture books he is doing on great
cities and their environs. The assignment puts Emmett in
distinguished company. On previous books Cameron wafted Alistair
Cooke above London, Pierre Salinger above Paris, George Plimpton
above New York, and Herb Caen above San Francisco.
knows more about his home town than anybody but, true to Seattle
type, he confesses that his knowledge of Tacoma extends little
beyond the aroma. He wanted me along in the helicopter when
Cameron was taking pictures so they wouldn't confuse Stadium High
with a hotel or the Narrows Bridge with the Eleventh Street
up the three of us went in a rented helicopter with a pilot who
didn't mind back seat drivers.
went first to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The tower gave
us permission to park above the waterside runway. We sat there
about a thousand feet above ground while Cameron decided exactly
the angle that would best show the field, the terminal building
and hangars, the Old 99 strip, the valley and Mount Rainier, which
was cooperating splendidly.
about a hundred," Cameron would say over the intercom, and
the buildings would move away. "Up fifty," and the
buildings would sink. "Over a bit to our right." That
spent about half an hour over Tacoma. The great thing about the
flight was watching Bob Cameron work. It is always a privilege to
see an old pro doing his job - and Cameron is the oldest pro in
the aerial photography field. He keeps his tools to a minimum but
uses the best available. His camera of choice is a Pentax 6-by-7
centimeter single lens reflex. He uses color transparency film,
and carries an ultraviolet filter, a Pentax TLL metering prism,
and several lenses which are always fixed at infinity. His
treasure is his $5,000 Kenyon Gyro-Stabilizer, which he began
using when he shot "Above Paris" 10 years ago.
stabilizer looks a bit like a squashed bowling ball. With the
long-snouted Pentax bolted on top it seemed ominous. When the two
gyroscopes inside - one horizontal, the other vertical - are
whirling at 22,000 revolutions per minute, it sounds like a
disturbed wasp nest. Small wonder that Cameron sometimes has
trouble at airport pass-through checkpoints. Once aloft, though,
the stabilizer gives him a tripod that rests, magically but
firmly, on thin air.
has taken aerial photos from everything that can get airborne
except a glider or a spacecraft. He has used blimps, dirigibles,
balloons and fixed-wings, but he much prefers helicopters. He
likes the opportunity to pick the exact spot and insists they are
the safest thing in the air.
own experience with cameras goes back to 1919 when his father gave
him a Brownie. He didn't plan to be a photographer. After high
school he knocked around France for several years before enrolling
at the University of Iowa. He married a coed he met there (they
now have four children, eight grandchildren and four
great-grandchildren) and dropped out of school to earn a living.
He found work as a photographer for a Des Moines newspaper. When
photographing the aftermath of murders began to pall, he went into
the dry ice business. Then came World War II.
4F by Selective Service, he found a job photographing Army camp
and factory construction for the War Department. He enjoyed being
airborne with a camera, but peace grounded him. He took a job with
a Connecticut company franchised to sell French perfume and did so
well he became company president. He visited San Francisco on
business so often that he fell in love with it, sold his share of
the company to his partner and moved the family west.
the San Francisco influence he wrote a long essay, "The
Drinking Man's Diet," which argued that eating lots of steak
and drinking lots of red wine promoted good health and longevity.
No one would publish it so he published it himself. It sold more
than two million copies. So he founded a publishing company,
Cameron & Cameron (the other Cameron being one of his sons)
and in 1965 produced "Above San Francisco."
sales for the "Above" books exceed 2,500,000. All remain
in print. So, as he approaches 83, Bob Cameron is looking for more
cities to rise above. He yearns to do Mexico City but laments, "with
all the pollution, you can't see it anymore."