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William Garnett, 89; Took Aerial Photography to Artistic Heights

September 05, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

William A. Garnett, who pioneered a fine art genre with his sweeping aerial photographs of sand dunes, swamps and the rich geometry of plowed fields, has died. He was 89.

Garnett, who was a longtime professor at UC Berkeley, died Aug. 24 at his home in Napa, Calif., said his son, Bill.

Though Garnett was not the first photographer to shoot from the sky, the images taken while flying his own Cessna 170B expanded the boundaries of what could be done with a camera from the air.

"His photographs resemble abstract expressionist paintings or views through a microscope," the J. Paul Getty Museum -- which has several of his portfolios in its collection -- says in a description on its website. "As landscapes, they do not have the conventional grounding of a horizon line. All reveal astonishing patterns that are not seen from the ground."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
William A. Garnett obituary: The obituary of aerial photographer William A. Garnett in Tuesday's California section said he died Aug. 24. In fact, he died Aug. 26.

Garnett first spotted those unique land patterns when he hitched a ride across the country after being discharged from the service at the end of World War II. The plane was full so the captain let him sit in the navigator's seat, giving Garnett an unobstructed view of the land below. He later said he had an epiphany on that flight and resolved to learn to fly a plane and photographically capture the nature he saw below.

Over the years, his most popular images, which accompany this article, were "Sand Dune Number 1 Death Valley" and "Snow Geese Over Lake Buena Vista."

Garnett's earliest exhibition in Los Angeles was held in 1982 at a gallery owned by Stephen White.

"His work was poetic and he saw the landscape in an incredibly beautiful way. I don't think there is anyone that comes close to him in doing aerial photography from an aesthetic point of view," White, now a private collector and dealer, told The Times this week.

Born in Chicago, Garnett moved to Pasadena with his family when he was 4. After his father left the family, Garnett, who battled tuberculosis as a child, and his siblings grew up in modest means. He became interested in photography as a teenager and, along with a brother, built a darkroom in the family home.

While a senior at Pasadena's Muir High School, he was chief photographer for the school yearbook. One of his first aerial images, which he shot from a biplane, was of the campus. It ended up in the yearbook.

After graduating, Garnett attended Art Center School in Los Angeles to study photography, but financial circumstances forced him to drop out. He took on commercial photographic jobs in product advertising and documentation, portraiture and architecture. He also shot football games at the Rose Bowl.

In 1940, he went to work for the Pasadena Police Department, where he was in charge of crime-scene photography. A news clipping from that period shows that Garnett made some of the first microscopic color photos of fibers to be admitted as evidence in California courts.

He joined the Army Signal Corps in 1944 and was trained as a motion-picture cameraman. But just as he was being sent to Europe, the war ended there. He took flying lessons on the GI Bill and started taking pictures from airplanes. He bought his first plane in 1947.

One of his early commercial jobs from the air was a portfolio of photographs tracing the rapid development of the Southern California community of Lakewood. In an introduction to the new paperback edition of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," author D.J. Waldie remarks on the "brilliant young photographer William A. Garnett" and his "images of the vulnerable wood frames of houses the [Lakewood Park Corp.] was putting up at a rate of 500 a week.

"Even after 50 years, those beautiful and terrible photographs are used to indict suburbia."

Garnett himself "didn't like those photographs so well," his son told The Times. "He thought urban sprawl was an ugly problem."

By the mid-1950s, Garnett was a well-regarded figure in the world of photography but still had little outside recognition. In 1954, Fortune was the first national magazine to publish a portfolio of his work. Walker Evans, the legendary documentary photographer, designed the photo pages and wrote the introduction to the essay titled "Over California." Garnett's success with Fortune led to 20 years of work for Time-Life in Asia, the United States and Australia.

In 1955, Garnett had his first solo show at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. That same year, his work was included in the influential Family of Man exhibition, curated by Edward Steichen, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Perhaps most important to Garnett, 1955 was the year he bought his Cessna 170B, which would be his working aircraft for much of the rest of his life. He shot in color and in black-and-white, using many types of cameras for his work. He liked to shoot early in the morning and late in the afternoon to get the best light, and developed most of his own work.

Garnett also loved to teach and for many years taught with his longtime friend Ansel Adams at Adams' Yosemite Workshops. In 1968, Garnett was hired by UC Berkeley as chairman of the department of design. He retired as professor emeritus in 1984. He was also on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His books include "The Extraordinary Landscape" (1982), with an introduction by Adams, and "William Garnett Aerial Photographs" (1984). His three Guggenheim awards helped finance his work over a career that spanned half a century.

To escape the sprawl of Los Angeles, Garnett moved to Napa in 1958. He searched the area from the air and when he found a location he liked, he landed and went door to door, asking people if they wanted to sell. He finally found a taker. It was the home he lived in until his death.

He is survived by his wife, Eula Beal Garnett; sons Bill, Jay and Don; and three grandchildren.

Services are private.

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