William Garnett Brings Photography to New Heights

Pioneering photographer dramatically captured America from a birds eye perspective.
FITCHBURG, Mass., Oct. 1, 2011 – The Fitchburg Art Museum, North Central Massachusetts’ oldest and most treasured cultural institution, will host the stunning aerial photography of William Garnett (1916-2006). For over 50 years and 10,000 hours of flying time, Garnett piloted his own Cessna 170 airplane as he photographed out the window, using a variety of camera formats, with both black-and-white and color films. He flew above every state in the country, as well as in other parts of the world photographing images of forests, sand dunes, agricultural crops, and the American western terrain. His photos, mostly silver prints dating from 1951 to 1976, vary from pure abstraction to patterned compositions, all of which reflect Garnett’s discovery of the abstracted, dramatic, and poetic American landscape seen from the sky.
Garnett’s work falls into a tradition of landscape photography that includes the meticulous western landscapes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston’s pristine studies of organic form. As landscapes, Garnett’s photographs do not have the conventional grounding of a horizon line. Often, the natural terrain he photographed from the air is made up of surprisingly ordered geometric patterns or ambiguous organic shapes that are not observable from the ground.
“Aerial photography in the 20th century served primarily as a documentary medium. William Garnett stands out as a pioneer in turning aerial photography into an art form. Through his camera work, Garnett looked for and emphasized beauty in the American landscape. With a conservationist’s turn of mind, he found pleasure searching out details in the terrain below him,” says Stephen Jareckie, curator of the exhibition.
On Sunday, November 6, at 1:00 p.m., Fitchburg Art Museum Photography Curator Stephen Jareckie will be giving a gallery talk by discussing Garnett’s photography and his many adventures, challenges, and significance as a seminal figure in American photography. This will be free with museum admission.
William Garnett Bio:
Garnett was born in Chicago in 1916. His family moved to Pasadena, Calif., when he was four. His father left his mother not long after that, and he and his siblings grew up in modest circumstances. He became interested in photography as a teenager and with his brother set up a darkroom at home. At John Muir High School in Pasadena, he was chief photographer for the school yearbook, where his first published aerial photograph, the school campus taken from a biplane, appeared.
After graduating from high school, he studied photography at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, but financial circumstances forced him to drop out. He worked as a commercial photographer for several years, and, at 24, took a job with the Pasadena Police Department, where he was in charge of crime-scene photography. Joining the Army Signal Corps in 1944, Garnett trained as a motion-picture cameraman. On his discharge, he took a cross-country flight home in the navigator’s seat of a troop transport. Inspired by the majesty of the landscape below, he decided to get his pilot’s license and start photographing from the sky. He learned to fly on the G.I. Bill and bought his first plane in 1947. In addition to his wife of 64 years, Eula, who toured the United States as a concert contralto in the 1940s and later managed her husband’s photographic records.
In 1953, at 37, Garnett received the first of his three Guggenheim fellowships, having been encouraged to apply for the grant by his friend Edward Weston. The following year, he was included in the landmark exhibition “The Family of Man” at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1955 he was one of four photographers in a show at the George Eastman House in Rochester that included the work of Alfred Stieglitz. That year, The New York Times Magazine published a portfolio of Garnett’s work from the exhibition.
Garnett published two books, “The Extraordinary Landscape” (1982), with an introduction by Ansel Adams, and “William Garnett Aerial Photographs” (1984). Over the years his photographs were published in many books and magazines. His first published picture essay, entitled “Over California,” appeared in Fortune in 1954 in a layout designed by Walker Evans. That led to 20 years of work for Time-Life that took him across the United States, and to Asia and Australia. His photographs, widely exhibited, are in the collections not only at The Museum of Modern Art, but also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. In 1968 Garnett was hired as chairman of the department of design at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught photography until his retirement in 1984. He was also on the faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught at the Ansel Adams Workshops at Yosemite.
Garnett is survived by three sons, Bill, of Pleasanton, Calif.; Jay, of Hoosick Falls, N.Y.; and Don, of Sonoma, Calif.; and three grandchildren.
About the Fitchburg Art Museum and Photography Collection
The Fitchburg Art Museum, North Central Massachusetts’ oldest and most treasured cultural institution, is a world-class family-friendly museum with a permanent collection spanning 5,000 years. Visitors can experience a wealth of masterpieces in 12 galleries that feature American, European, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Asian, and Pre-Colombian art. Award-winning educational programs inspire all to learn about the importance of world cultures, art history, and contemporary life. The museum was founded in 1925 through a bequest of artist, collector, educator and Fitchburg native Eleanor Norcross (1854-1923).
FAM’s photography collection, now over 450 prints, grew through the help of many museum donors including major support from Jude Peterson. The collection is also an outgrowth of our photography exhibition program. Since the Simons Building opened in 1989, FAM has mounted over 40 photography exhibitions. — Three prints, images of Chartres Cathedral and of New York’s Lever House, by Charles Sheeler stand out as the museum’s first photography acquisitions; they were made through an anonymous donation. FAM also mounted two significant major shows, the first was work by Czech and Slovakian photographers and the second images by Russian photographers from the Soviet era and from the newly formed Federation.
For more information and photographs, visit www.fitchburgartmuseum.org, or call 978/345-4207.
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