The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 72.0°F | Overcast

William A. Garnett

William A. Garnett

By Philip Gefter
THE NEW YORK TIMES

William A. Garnett, who elevated the genre of aerial photography to a form of artistic expression with his sweeping pictures of forests, sand dunes, agricultural crops and suburban grids, died at his home in Napa, Calif., on Aug. 26. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his son, Bill.

For more than 50 years and 10,000 hours of flying time, Garnett piloted his own 1955 Cessna 170B 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.

“The polished aluminum two-seat Cessna was his studio, a private place where the imagination was released from everyday reality,” Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, said in an e-mail message yesterday.

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 photographs that possess true coherence of intention and resolution are rare, and a remarkable number of those that hold firm in our memories were made by William A. Garnett,” John Szarkowski wrote in his definitive book, “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art.”

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 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, Garnett is survived by three sons, Bill, of Pleasanton, Calif.; Jay, of Hoosick Falls, N.Y.; and Don, of Sonoma, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

“William Garnett is a vastly underrated and misunderstood photographer, whose quiet and expansive images are not only useful but conceptual and beautiful as well,” Naef said.