Pictures from airplanes, drones and satellites are pretty commonplace today, but how would you have taken an aerial photo more than a century ago?
Tie a string of kites together, attach a camera and send them aloft, of course.
That’s what photographer George R. Lawrence did to capture the city of San Francisco just a few days after the 1906 earthquake. He continued to take photos of the city for at least two years and you can see three of his original prints at the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale. They and 145 other aerial photos taken through the years and from various altitudes are all a part of “The Elevated Eye: Aerial Photography Past and Present,” a free exhibit that runs through March 8.
If the Forest Lawn Museum sounds less-than-familiar, certainly Forest Lawn Memorial-Park does not. The memorial park (do not call it a cemetery, please) has become a cultural icon among — um _ cemeteries, and the museum sits atop a hill within. The 300 idyllically, well-manicured acres are the final resting place of many Hollywood A-listers and entertainment elites. Permanent residents among the 250,000 include Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Walt Disney, Humphrey Bogart, Sam Cooke, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Debbie Reynolds and daughter Carrie Fisher — well, the list goes on.
Surrounded by such glitterati, it’s easy to see how the museum might be overlooked, but it is a gem and worth the stop.
Museum director James Fishburne, who curated “Elevated Eye,” takes us through the chambers to see aerial photos taken by everything from a “Captive Airship kite-and-wire system” to satellites in outer space. One pair of images, taken from a satellite in 2019, shows the dramatic contrast of Chicago’s lakefront in summer and winter. The latter gives us a bird’s eye view of the ice that extends three miles into Lake Michigan and definitely an appreciation for our moderate Mediterranean climate.
Another set of color photos called Linear City — three lines of images that run for 45 feet, 30 feet and 22 feet along one museum wall — follows three major Los Angeles arteries from the air: Wilshire Boulevard, the Los Angeles River and the Alameda Supply Corridor, also known as “The Trench.” Photographer Lane Barden’s work allows viewers “to traverse the metropolis and explore spaces that shape the daily lives of residents.”
Linear City also proves that, even for longtime California residents, there is much to discover about our otherwise familiar environments.
The idea for the exhibit was born of a discovery during Fishburne’s first week on the job in September 2018.
“I found the photos (original prints, not negatives) in the museum archives,” he explains. “There were so many stunning images that I immediately knew they could make up the core of an exhibition. I knew they could help tell the history of Forest Lawn, the history of Los Angeles, and the history of aerial photography.”
Additional photos were obtained from other museums and through online research.
“Some photos are loaned from the Getty Research Institute, where I worked from 2015 to 2018, and the three panoramic ‘kite’ photos of San Francisco are from the Huntington Library’s collection. I was a guest curator for three exhibitions at the Huntington, so I’m very familiar with their incredible collections.”
Curating an exhibition such as the “Elevated Eye” takes more than just hanging photos on the wall. Besides a well-versed background in the history of the topic, it’s necessary to have “a vision for how you want to tell the story through images and wall text,” Fishburne says.
It also takes persistence — lots of phone calls, emails and follow-ups, loan agreements and one-on-ones with artists.
“I want to ensure artists that I’m not simply using their work as decoration, but thoughtfully incorporating it into a historical narrative,” he adds.
Exploring this singular memorial park rounds out our day trip. A two-lane road winds up, down and around the verdant property, dotted with stunning replicas of great works of art works like Michelangelo’s Pieta and David. The air quality is good and we enjoy panoramic, museum-worthy views of Los Angeles from several vantage points. Grandiose mausoleums and other buildings also hold other sculptures, artworks and stained-glass windows. (Free maps at the park entrance.)
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Photo at top: This amazingly detailed photo was taken by George R. Lawrence 12 days after the April 18, 1906, earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco. This photo shows the western areas of the city that were spared. Lawrence took this photo from 1,500 feet with a “Captive Airship kite-and-wire system,” and sold more than 100 prints for $125 each, a considerable sum in the early 20th century. This is one of nearly 150 images at the “Elevated Eye” exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale. Courtesy photo