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William Garnett with his 1956 Cessna



Snow Geese with Reflection of the Sun, Buena Vista, CA, 1953


(1916 - 2006)

About the Photographer


I was discharged and heard you could hitchhike on the transport taking GIs home. The airplane was full, but the captain let me sit in the navigator's seat so I had a command view. I was amazed at the variety and beauty of these United States. I had never seen anything like that.... in a book, in school, or since then. So I changed my career.

--William Garnett

William Garnett took his first cross-country flight after serving as a United States Army Signal Corps cameraman during World War II. What he saw below inspired him to learn how to pilot a plane so he could photograph the American landscape. Garnett's aerial photographs resemble abstract expressionist paintings. As landscapes, they lack the grounding of any horizon line and reveal astonishing patterns unimagined from the ground.

Garnett honed his elegant design sensibility well before earning a pilot's license. He attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Later, he headed the police photography lab. In the 1940s and 1950s, he began flying countless hours around Los Angeles, speaking out about the area's increasing air pollution. He illustrated Nathaniel Owing's American Aesthetic about environmental land-use practices.

During 10,000 hours of flying, Garnett mastered the skill of simultaneously piloting a plane with his foot while photographing out the window-traveling above every state and many parts of the world. His light 1956 Cessna plane allowed him the flexibility to angle easily and capture subjects with precision. At first, he experimented with a variety of camera formats and films but found that a Pentax 6x7 and two 35mm cameras (one loaded with black-and-white film, and another with color film) best suited his artistic needs.

Garnett's work defies the stereotype of aerial photography as purely scientific and devoid of artistry. He became the first aerial photographer to earn the prestigious Guggenheim Award (in time he would be the recipient of three) and his photographs shown in countless major museums around the world.


William Garnett - Original Silver Gelatin Photographs

William Garnett - Original Cibachrome Photographs

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