The other day I got an email from Historic Aerials with a couple of cool aerial photos of San Francisco. They showed aerial photos of the city taken in 1906 (just after the big earthquake), and again in 2006.
So how was the 1906 photo taken? Turns out, it was a camera mounted onto a kite! According to Historic Aerials, George R. Lawrence had invented the world’s largest camera in 1900 to take a photograph of the Alton Limited Train, owned by the Chicago & Alton Railway. The camera weighed over 1400 lbs and used a 4.5 ft. by 8 ft. glass-plate negative. The photograph was taken for the Paris Exposition of 1900 and won, “The Grand Prize of the World.”
But the innovation here is that Lawrence pioneered camera-carrying kites. One of Lawrence’s world-renowned photographs was taken just three weeks after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California. “San Francisco in Ruins,” shown above, is a 160-degree panorama taken 2000 feet in the air from a kite above the San Francisco Bay. Lawrence was able to capture the entire city on a single 17-by-48-inch contact print made from a single piece of film.
Each print of “San Francisco In Ruins” sold for $125 and Lawrence made at least $15,000 (today the equivalent of $427k) in sales from this one photograph. The camera used in this photograph weighed 49 lbs and required a train of Conyne kites to get airborne.
In 2006, Juneau-based photographer Ron Klein built a working replica of Lawrence’s camera and used it to rephotograph San Francisco by helicopter, from approximately the same location, 100 years after the earthquake. The rephotograph was actually taken by Mark Walsh, George R. Lawrence’s great-grandson, who rode in the helicopter, held the camera, and clicked the shutter.
Thanks to Historic Aerials for sharing this narrative and photographs!