His photographs haunt the minds of many
who see them. Astonishing vistas draw the eye to deep distances,
the eyes of people, now gone, are caught in images holding trust and
friendship. In another photo a flower blooms, its acts revealed; a
cell lives out its destiny, dividing again and again in its dance of
life. In other photos you find harsh realities of destruction,
familiar figures, and nearly forgotten moments from history, also
his work. Seeing his images brings a hunger to know more of the man
who held the camera.
Yet understanding Arthur C. Pillsbury
evades even those who spent decades studying his work and finding
mention of him has been nearly impossible.
The life of Arthur C. Pillsbury is the
story of the application of photography to science in ways which
resulted in broad public understanding of worlds previously beyond
human vision. His goal was for each of us to experience the
processes of life, the multifaceted and connected world of nature, of
which we are a part, for ourselves. Most of Pillsbury's inventions
took place in a world where gatekeepers, then being installed through
an ongoing centralization of government by corporations, were taking
control of our institutions. Those years were 1909 – 1930.
The tools Pillsbury identified, and his
goals, differed from all other photographers and scientists, as did
his background. Understanding him provides insights into a world
which was then changing in ways still impacting us today.
Pillsbury lived and breathed
photography, working diligently to solve the existing technological
problems preventing our understanding the worlds beyond human vision.
Scientists and medical professionals then lacked the most direct and
important source of information, seeing the processes of life as they
took place. Both his parents and his older brother were physicians
who constantly studied how to understand these processes in biology,
hampered by lack of adequate scientific tools in the last decades of
the 19th Century and the first decade of the Twentieth
Using a microscope, specimens had to be
dead to be viewed. Can you know the grace of a runner in motion by
viewing his dead body? No. You need to see the subject moving.
Pillsbury's early years were filled with discussions about what could
be learned from seeing life as it really was. Growing up in Auburn,
California, Arthur had cross bred chickens and exotic birds, keeping
careful records of the offspring, learning scientific method and
routinely using a microscope.
His childhood and family culture gave
him the mission on which he spent his life.
His parents, Drs Harriet Foster
Pillsbury and Harlin Henry Pillsbury, brought two microscopes with
them to California in 1883. Both were born in New England and were
descended from families which had participated in the
Transcendental, Radical Abolitionist, Educationist, and Women's
Rights movements as classical liberals. Three generations of such
individuals had been bloodied by the frustrations encountered in
their inability to enact substantial change for individual rights and
social justice using political tools to alleviate the conditions
brought on by the South, as it ignored the mandate for all to be
free, and the Civil War, fought to preserve the power of government.
AND FATE OF PROGRESSIVISM
Radical Abolitionists, dedicated
fervently to Abolition, had demanded secession from the Union for New
England with the cry, “No Union with Slave Holders,” since 1844.
Women, working for the right to become educated and for their own
equal and inherent rights, fought a long battle to set up their own
colleges, spending generations confined to low paying jobs in
education. Subsidies of corporations by Congress, courts which
ignored the criminal activities of the growing industry of Big Oil,
manipulations of the monetary system, all of these causes angered the
offspring of generations who believed in individual rights, honest
work, accountability and freedom.
By the late 1800s they were confronting
the question of how these changes were to be made. Political action
had failed after repeated attempts and continuous diligence.
Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the
philosopher of the Women's Movement in the 1900s, became a socialist.
Through the late 1900s into the 20th
Century those sincerely dedicated to change kept working. Now they
were using very different ideas, the concepts of individual rights
and local governance directly by the people having given way to the
move for top down control.
The failures of the 1800s could not be
denied and resulted in the seduction of progressivism enunciated by
Herbert Croly in his book, the Bible of Progressivism, titled, “The
Promise of American Life,” published in 1909. Croly was also the
founder of the New Republic.
In his book, Croly lays out a plan to
regain a political and economic balance through strong federal
regulations and social programs. Arguing only programs administered
by the federal government make it possible for America to fulfill the
promise of a positive and fair democracy for the greatest number of
citizens, he began the use of the term, ‘‘New Nationalism,’’
taken up by Roosevelt as the label for his own political reforms.
carefully placed donations corporate interests built working
relationships with Progressives and Fabian Socialists. In effect,
Progressivism built the vehicle for fascism, launching the design in
1913. Using the Progressive's vehicle, Corporations took the
driver's seat and stole America.
During the same period corporate
interests, including Rockefeller, began covert funding the Revolution
in Russia to further their own interests. Both Trotsky and Lenin
were well aware of who was providing their funding. The most cursive
study of history painfully reveals whose agenda was achieved.
Arthur C. Pillsbury continued to uphold
the ideas of individualism, held by his ancestors, while facing a
world which was moving in exactly the wrong direction. Pillsbury had
personally witnessed the failure of politics, its easy corruption and
profiteering. He saw this play out in the aftermath of the San
Francisco Earthquake and Fire, where an incompetent and corrupt city
government caused enormous destruction of property and citizens were
shot with impunity by troops. He saw it in the failure to give women
their full rights, instead settling for having the right to vote.
This was an issue for which his beloved mother, Dr. Harriet Foster
Pillsbury, struggled all of her life. He saw it in the thumb
fingered, arrogant and self-serving network of bureaucratic elitists
who became the increasingly centralized Federal government from
Woodrow Wilson on. He saw it in courts, which sold decisions,
allowing the theft of his brother's estate in 1911. He saw it in the
move by Stephen T. Mather to convert the National Parks to a resort
for the 'elite' in 1915.
Academia was becoming, not a resource
for the inquiring mind, but a priesthood dedicated to limiting
inquiry. When Pillsbury began his studies of science in the late
1800s, knowledge was still open to anyone willing to learn from
available information and apply themselves.. Alexander Graham Bell,
Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, Thomas Alva Edison, and
Nikola Tesla were among the huge number of inventors who were
largely self-educated. The move towards institutionalizing knowledge
ran in absolute contradiction to what was proven to have worked.
Those years had provided astonishing leaps in human knowledge.
Pillsbury's first invention was a
specimen slicer for the microscope while still a student at Stanford
in 1895. His senior project, designed while majoring in Mechanical
Engineering at Stanford, was the first circuit panorama camera, built
in 1897 over the objections of a senior adviser who told him the
design could not work.
Over the course of his life Pillsbury
produced a series of cameras each of which extended our vision into
worlds formerly closed to us. The first lapse-time camera for plants
came in 1912. Pillsbury built the camera to persuade the Park
Service to stop the mowing of the meadows in Yosemite and begin the
preservation of the wild flowers, a problem he had seen growing ever
worse since his first visit there in 1895.
THE OPENING WEDGE OF AMERICAN FASCISM
In December of 1913 a cabal of bankers,
promising election to Woodrow Wilson, managed to pass through
Congress a central bank for the United States. In parallel,
corporate interests worked for and succeeded in passing a Federal
Income Tax and granted a monopoly for the practice of medicine to
the American Medical Association, this motivated by the desire to
profit from holdings in pharmaceutical companies. The move to
centralize control through government brought into existence the
alphabet agencies which reversed the relationship between government
and Americans. The installation of Stephen Mather as head of
National Parks was just one of these.
Grants from corporations to academia
began to provide the bulk of the funds available to previously
independent, academic institutions. Sun Oil, which funded and
controls today the tens of thousands of yearly grants, amounting to
millions of dollars to individuals, began installing the means to
manufacture opinions useful to them. By determining who would, and
who would not teach, write, and provide opinions for policy under
consideration by Congress. Pew, and other corporations, began
reformatting America's colleges and, by extrapolation, which ideas
would shape our world.
Unlike the majority of his
contemporaries Pillsbury neither bought in to the opportunities for
personal gain or gave up on the ideas of freedom. Instead, he chose
another course. Identifying a problem he could solve, he applied
himself to providing the means for individuals to see and know the
world with their own eyes. He called this the Knowledge Commons, an
early version of today's Open Source.
Through the 20th Century
awareness of the diametrically oppositional viewpoints for human
organization, hierarchical vs. networked cooperation, would remake
the world as the fascism of corporations grew expert in using the
power of government to negate opportunities, choices, and a free
market, manipulating academia, founding 'think tanks' to enforce
their streams of income, and a media they had purchased to justify
Pillsbury, in 1913 raising his three
adopted children, supporting his wife, and now caring for his invalid
mother, refocused his life as he watched these events began to
In 1922 he lowered his costs by 75%,
increasing his profits, by inventing the first mass production
postcard machine, Patent No. 1,574,687. He was, through those years,
the largest producer of post cards on the West Coast. He identified
more products to sell and worked on enlarging his catalog of images.
These included packets of small photos for tourists and gold backed
glass photos known as d'orotones. He also began producing short
films for Hollywood as he designed a microscopic motion picture
camera, remembering the problems his parents and brother had faced
along with other scientists.
Microscopes could not penetrate the
living processes of biology or botany, the theories remained theories
absent seeing the processes in life.
No one then living understood this need
better than Pillsbury. His brother had been forced to leave Cooper's
Medical College, where he was then teaching, in 1900 over a
disagreement on germ theory, determined not objectively but by the
force of authority which lacked access to seeing the process under
In his book, “Picturing Miracles of
Plant and Animal Life,” published by Lippincott in 1937, Pillsbury
wrote,” “One of the first reactions of seeing a reel of
flowers growing and opening is to instill a love for them, a
realization of their life struggles so similar to ours, and a wish to
do something to stop the ruthless destruction of them which was fast
causing them to become extinct. At that time no attempts were made
to protect the flowers in any National Park, but soon enough
agitation was started to show the necessity for it, and Mr. Lewis,
the superintendent of Yosemite, asked me to name six flowers most
necesary to protect. This was done and the next year six more were
added to this number.”
Pillsbury, a modest man, does not
mention it was his own work which elicited the outcry for
preservation. Through his movies of nature, begun in Yosemite in
1909, and lectures to garden clubs, he had done much to plant the
necessity for conservation in minds across California and the nation.
Giving people visual proof worked. As
Pillsbury's commentary in his book continues he provides insight
into his technique for enacting change in the world, “The
Yosemite Park service had been mowing the meadows for the small
amount of grass they could get as food for the service horses,
killing off the meadow flowers in that way. It happened that there
was a conference of Park Superintendents and the Director of Parks
in Yosemite that fall. I showed my pictures, talked conservation and
the necessity of all parks to protect them as a valuable asset. I
had still pictures of the meadows taken in early days in '95 showing
them covered with flowers waist high and the same meadows as they
are at this time. As a result, the next day all flowers and all
living things were protected in every National Park, and the mowing
machine, as the people in Yosemite expressed it, “was put on the
From the first popular and easily used
camera produced by George Eastman in 1888 an explosion had rippled
out across the human consciousness, witnessed by Pillsbury first
hand. Cameras were in the hands of ordinary people and the world of
movies was beginning to take shape. Here was a medium which crashed
past the gatekeepers, Pillsbury realized. He made and sold film
shorts which most Americans saw before the feature movie started in
the 20s and 30s, viewed in school, or at one of his own lectures. In
1926 his personal lectures were heard by 32,000 people from 57
Pillsbury's inventions each had in
common the ability to extend the scope of human vision, making these
insights available to the larger public. Each of these inventions
was built, published and kept in public domain, the instructions
included in “Miracles of Plant and Animal Life.” He refused to
patent them, understanding the dangers of corporate acquisition and
In the article on the microscopic
motion picture camera, published in Sunset Magazine in 1927 Pillsbury
is quoted, “
I believe this discovery will be of inestimable value in bacteriology
and probably will lead to much greater knowledge of communicable
diseases, their cause, prevention and cure.” Said Pillsbury to the
writer. Then he added: “This invention is to be dedicated to
educational purposes. I could not think of even attempting to make
money out of it. I will not commercialize it.”
The use of photography opened the human
mind to the idea it was possible to 'see' into worlds never before
penetrable to the human eye, allowing the human mind understand the
processes dynamically taking place, and move on to treating and to
innovation. This has taken place in every arena for science over the
last 75 years. The innovation which allowed this to happen, first in
botany and then in biology was the microscopic motion picture camera,
invented, built and funded by Arthur C. Pillsbury.
It is impossible to imagine science
today without these applications of photography and its related
technologies. It was a revolution, born through the remembered
frustrations of the 1800s and the advances of corporate power he
witnessed. One person can change the world, if he, or she, is
1884 – 1890 – experiments with
cross breeding birds,selling livestock, Arthur C. Pillsbury
1894 – Shoots first Rush at Stanford,
Arthur C. Pillsbury
1895 – Invention of first specimen
slicer while a student at Stanford, Arthur C. Pillsbury
Builds first motorcycle in California,
Arthur C. Pillsbury
1897 – Invention of Circuit Panorama
Camera, Arthur C. Pillsbury
1897 – 1899 – Chronicling the
opening of the mining fields and towns in the Yukon, Arthur C.
1902 – John Muir photographed for
Camera Craft Magazine, Arthur C. Pillsbury
Ansel Adams born in San
1903 – Tahoe in the Winter, Camera
Craft Magazine, photos and article, Arthur C. Pillsbury
1906 – San Francisco Earthquake and
Fire photographed by Arthur C. Pillsbury
California Missions photographed by
Arthur C. Pillsbury
Studio of the Three Arrows in Yosemite
contracted by Arthur C. Pillsbury
1907 – George Fiske and Galen Clark
photographed by Arthur C. Pillsbury
Beginning of Pillsbury's
photography as art period.
1908 – Best photo of the entry of the
White Fleet to San Francisco, Arthur C. Pillsbury
1909 - First Nature Movie made and
shown, Arthur C. Pillsbury
Aerial photographs of San
Francisco rebuilding, Arthur C. Pillsbury
The First Nature Center is
established, Pillsbury Studio, Yosemite.
1910 – First ship to ship photos at
the Dominguez Hills Air Show, article in Sunset Magazine about show,
first in the US, Arthur C. Pillsbury
1910 – Hawaii, articles and photos by
Arthur C. Pillsbury
1911 – Adopts orphaned children of
End of Pillsbury's
photography as art period.
1912 – First lapse-time camera
showing the blooming of a flower, Arthur C. Pillsbury.
1913 – Friend from the East spends
time in Yosemite, awakens Pillsbury children to issues for Miwok.
1914 – John Muir dies. Sierra Club
membership is below 1,000
1915 – Half Dome ascent by students
photographed by Arthur C. Pillsbury
Ansel Adams spends all his
time at the Pacific Exposition, parents let him drop out of school.
Stephen T. Mather appointed head of National Parks. Immediately
pushes for accommodations suitable for the 'elite.' Appoints
Desmond as chief of concessionaires. Yosemite Lodge begins
construction to serve this purpose.
1916 – First Trip to Yosemite by
Ansel Adams, then 14
Contracted to photograph
the building of the Glacier Point Hotel, Arthur C. Pillsbury
Studebaker on Overhanging
Fourth of July celebration run by
1917 – Cup offered by Desmond for
first car into Yosemite won by Pillsbury.
1918 – Cup offered by Desmond for
first car into Yosemite won by Pillsbury
1919 – Ansel Adams hired as
caretaker for the Le Conte Memorial.
Cup offered by Desmond for first car
into Yosemite by any means won by Pillsbury
1922 – First mass production machine
for production of photo post cards, Arthur C. Pillsbury
1924 – Studio of the Three Arrows,
first to move to New Village, Pillsbury receives concession for 15
years, longer than anyone but the Curry Company. New Studio is
large, including a theater which holds 250 people for nature movies.
Curry Company starts
producing its own postcards, until this date Pillsbury provided
Pillsbury photographs the
High Trip by the Sierra Club to Mt. Lylle.
Sale of 6 foot by 6 foot d'orotone to
the head of a studio for $26,000, Arthur C. Pillsbury.
1925 – High Trip, Sierra Club, Arthur
1926 – High Trip, Sierra Club, Arthur
Through his lectures in the
East Pillsbury presents to 32,000 people from 57 organizations on
science and Yosemite. Scheduled by The Players.
1927 –High Trip, Sierra Club, Arthur
Ansel Adams hired as janitor
for Pillsbury Studio
1928 – Ansel Adams acts as
photographer for High Trip for the Sierra Club
1929 – Invents the first X-Ray motion
picture camera, Arthur C. Pillsbury
1930 – Builds the first mobile
underwater motion picture camera, Arthur C. Pillsbury
Films the first underwater motion
picture, Arthur C. Pillsbury
1934 – Ansel Adams elected as
director for the Sierra Club
1942- Pillsbury identifies the process
of osmosis in plants. Popular Science.