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A Different Perspective Vaniman, the acrobatic photographer

Melvin Vaniman in Sydney 1904 Melvin Vaniman was a photographer with a head for heights. His panoramic photographs were nearly always taken from high above the ground and if a nearby building or ship's mast was not at hand, he erected his own 30 metre pole to achieve a bird's-eye view. His antics atop a pole in Katoomba Park in 1903 earned him the nickname 'the acrobatic photographer'. When his trusty pole didn't give him the height necessary to photograph the entire city of Sydney in a single sweep, he imported a balloon from America and spent months tethered 180 metres above North Sydney, experimenting with the new perspective. Vaniman even built his own camera, able to record panoramic views on film up to two metres in length and 50 cm wide in a single shot, to utilise the higher viewpoint.

He had always intended that his panoramas be seen as massive enlargements up to five metres long, but none are known in that format. Fortunately, the majority of Vaniman's panoramas survive as platinum prints, contact printed from the original negatives. These prints were expensive to produce and required exposures of between two and four hours in sunlight to produce, but their longevity and exquisite tonality have made Vaniman's persistence with the technique worthwhile.

Chester Melvin Vaniman was born to a farming family in Illinois in 1866, the eldest of four sons. His formative years on the farm gave him a lifelong interest in agriculture and experience with all sorts of machinery. Nevertheless, he studied music at Valparaiso University in Indiana and later in Chicago. He became a music teacher in Iowa, before joining a touring opera company in Louisiana in 1887 and singing his way through virtually every state of America ('except two — Florida and Maine'). It was during his 11-year singing career that Vaniman developed an interest in photography, recording the towns he visited. The opera company dissolved after a financially disastrous tour of Hawaii during a plague scare. Around 1900, he married hometown sweetheart Ida Loud in Honolulu and spent two years as an electrician, before trying photography as a profession in Hawaii in 1901. Vaniman's unusual panoramas caught the eye of the Oceanic Steamship Company, which commissioned him to photograph places visited by their vessels in New Zealand and Australia, as an incentive for tourists. Vaniman arrived in Auckland in 1902 and spent a year photographing both islands, not only for the company, but also for the New Zealand government, who wanted his spectacular images to encourage tourism. The New Zealand Free Lance described his panorama of Auckland as 'a poem that will run into several editions, and take a good deal of wall space to give it effective exhibition'. Nevertheless, his trans-Tasman photographs were mostly a precursor to the larger and technically superior panoramas he produced in Australia.

Vaniman reached Sydney in February 1903. His itinerary is not known, but he clearly spent a year, on and off, photographing Sydney. He described it as his favourite place in Australia: '... my chief love in this country is Sydney. I am very fond of it; its residents and — of its climate'. Journeys were made to Melbourne in November 1903 for the Melbourne Cup, the Blue Mountains later in the month and to the central west of NSW during December to photograph the record wheat harvest, which impressed the agriculturalist in Vaniman greatly. He travelled the New South Wales coast between Nowra and Newcastle, with excursions as far afield as Cairns and Rockhampton in Queensland; and Hobart, Launceston and Queenstown in Tasmania. After leaving Sydney in May 1904, Vaniman took panoramas in South Australia and Western Australia, before leaving for Europe the following August. He had intended to continue his balloon photography of major cities and travelled through Austria, Germany and France, but apparently was less successful because of poor atmospheric conditions. Vaniman knew that Australia's clear light was a bonus to photographers and had even commented on it in an interview just before he left Sydney: 'You have a splendid light ... and beautiful clouds: no question about that. Especially up country the atmosphere is beautifully clear, and in Bathurst I got one of the most beautiful skies I have ever met'.

Without doubt, the most technically interesting of his Australian photographs was the panorama of Sydney taken from a balloon in March 1904. This would appear to be the first such city vista in the world. Photographs from balloons had been taken in the mid-nineteenth century, but they were mostly poor snaps from terrified photographers keen to reach terra firma again. Vaniman always believed his to be the first attempt to record a city landscape. Celebrated American aerial photography pioneer George Lawrence used a balloon in 1901 and certainly recorded San Francisco from an array of kites with a panoramic camera in 1906, but Vaniman's 1904 image of Sydney seems to predate Lawrence's best known achievements. Determining soon after his arrival in Sydney that an elevated viewpoint was necessary to show the harbour city to best advantage, Vaniman ordered a balloon from America. It arrived at the end of June 1903 and tests began almost immediately, although the first successful ascent using town gas was not recorded until October of that year. Vaniman thought his cameras were not good enough for the task and built a new rotating camera, which he described as a special 'box of tricks' to counter the swaying of the balloon and the difficulty of the distant subject. After expending nearly £200 and nine months experimenting with the balloon and camera, Vaniman took his celebrated image on or about Sunday 27 March 1904.

Vaniman's lack of success in Europe curtailed his career as a photographer and sadly, his legacy of exceptional panoramas is limited to the period from 1900 to 1904. Never one to be idle, Vaniman soon turned his attention to the latest novelty of the age — aeroplanes — and became involved in their construction in France. In 1906 he tested a triplane of his own design and in December 1908 was credited with the first successful triplane flight, exhibiting the machine at the first Paris Airshow in 1909. Triplanes were to achieve great popularity during the latter part of World War I, the most famous machine of the period being the Fokker triplane of Baron von Richtofen (the 'Red Baron'). It was in France that Vaniman made the acquaintance of Walter Wellman, an American journalist and newspaper proprietor, who wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole. Wellman had used dog sleds in his unsuccessful 1894 and 1899 attempts and decided to use a hydrogen filled dirigible for his next expedition in 1906. He employed Vaniman as mechanic. The flight of the 7300 cubic metre airship America was delayed until 1907 by mechanical problems and bad weather and ultimately ended after just two hours in the air. Nevertheless, America was rebuilt for a second journey in 1909, which also proved futile, the airship being rescued from the sea by a passing steamer after only 51 kilometres. In the meantime, Admiral Robert Peary reached the Pole after eight harrowing expeditions over 12 years.

Melvin Vaniman at the top of a pole

Wellman turned his attention to a more impressive feat — the first aerial crossing of the Atlantic. Fearing a German or French airship might beat him to the honour, he made hasty preparations, aiming for the summer of 1910. The America was enlarged again to 9760 cubic metres volume, giving a lifting capacity of 12 tonnes, with a new gondola and engines fitted. Vaniman and his wife Ida moved from Paris back to the United States to complete the modifications. The dangerously overloaded America was launched on 15 October 1910 for its historic journey, with a crew of six, including Wellman and Vaniman and a stowaway cat. Kiddo was navigator Murray Simon's pet and it began to howl as the airship motors started. It was anticipated the trip would take five or six days, so Vaniman tried to jettison the unwanted cat into a motorboat speeding beneath the gondola, but in the end Kiddo remained aboard, howling piteously. After 38 hours, the motors failed and the airship drifted south, broadside to the winds. Survival became the crew's main pre-occupation and all excess baggage was thrown overboard, including the heavier of the two useless engines and some of the food. By good fortune, after 71 hours aloft, a passing Royal Mail steamship came to their rescue and its passengers were treated to the astonishing sight of the giant airship dropping a lifeboat with its occupants into the ocean ahead of them. The rescued crew were feted in New York and even Kiddo was exhibited on plush cushions in a gilded cage at Gimbell's department store.

For Wellman, the trip was a disaster and he never took to the air again, but Vaniman vowed to continue. In 1911, at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, Vaniman supervised the construction of another dirigible. It utilised a new rubberised fabric and at 77 metres long, with a capacity of 11 300 cubic metres of hydrogen, was the first American airship to compare favourably with European dirigibles. The Akron (as it was called), had two decks, with cabins above, and dining room, saloon, kitchen and promenade below. After a series of trials, the Akron set sail for Europe from Atlantic City on 2 July 1912. The balloon left its hangar and held its course for Brigantine Beach, rising steadily. After just 15 minutes, at a height of 750 metres and two kilometres from its place of launch, the Akron exploded. When the car plunged into a swamp, Melvin Vaniman and his crew of four were killed.

So ended the extraordinary career of farmer, music teacher, opera singer, electrician, photographer, mechanic, pioneer aviator, aeronaut and adventurer Melvin Vaniman. His legacy was a range of innovations for dirigibles, including orientable propellers and steel fabric; and an extraordinary series of photographic panoramas, the like of which have never been equalled.

Alan Davies
Curator, Photographs
State Library of New South Wales

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Updated: Monday 27 August 2007 11:17:14