Petaluma heirs re-release dad’s amazing aerial photo book, ‘Above San Francisco’

For more than 40 years Robert Cameron hung out of a helicopter, throwing caution to the wind as he captured with his camera, a perspective of the Bay Area otherwise reserved for pilots and high-flying migrating birds. He traversed the Northern California skies, snapping from high above the sweep of the land, from the Altamont Pass near Tracy north to Santa Rosa and beyond to the Alexander Valley. His lens focused on the foamy surf lapping at the shore, fireworks crackling over the Bay Bridge, the entire City of San Francisco glowing in the last, rose-tinged light before sunset and the shadows of clouds lolling on the winter green hills.

Cameron showed the world from a hidden perspective, one both vast in its panoramic perspective and very small; landmarks like the Ferry Building clock tower, the Legion of Honor and the Sonoma City Hall, appear dwarfed like miniatures in a toy town set.

Cameron published his first set of photos in “Above San Francisco” in 1969, and updated it three times over the decades, providing a visual documentation of the transforming Bay Area as it filled in with roads and development and high tech. His photographic legacy also zooms in on neighborhood changes, like the development of the Civic Center in San Francisco and the addition of the new public library and Davies Symphony Hall.

Now, a 50th anniversary edition of that first book is soon to be published by Cameron's granddaughter, Nina Gruener and her husband Chris. The couple 10 years ago purchased the boutique publishing house Cameron+Company that her grandfather launched in 1964, moved the operation from San Francisco to Petaluma and expanded the subject offerings to include not just photography but art, food and wine, children's books and books of regional interest.

They're books, as the Grueners say, “that need to be books.” They're big, glossy and beautifully designed and illustrated. The latest version of “Above San Francisco,” which will be published in April (available for preorder at a hefty 11-by-14 inches and weighs eight pounds - something for the coffee table where the interior triptychs can be folded out and each photo can be studied in detail, most effectively with a magnifying glass.

“As an aerial photographer he had figured out the ratio. With his very first book he somehow settled on a 14 by 11 size and stuck with it the for the next 45 years,” Chris Gruener said. “It must have matched up well with the transparencies we have on record here.”

The phenomenal success of “Above San Francisco” inspired Cameron to expand the franchise to other major cities, from New York and London to Washington, D.C., Paris, Mexico City, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. By the time of his death in November 2009, the photographic daredevil had produced 19 coffee table books in the “Above” series, with 3 million copies in print. But his favorite city was the one he adopted - San Francisco. He produced four editions of the seminal “Above San Francisco.”

Cameron never retired, said his daughter Tracy Davis, who lives in Santa Rosa. At the age of 98-and-a-half he was, in typical fashion, hanging out of a helicopter with straps to snap pictures of Lombard Street, which had been converted into a giant, multicolored Candy Land board with interlocking rubber mats to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the game. He died three months after that final shoot.

Davis said her father was determined to live to 100. And although he fell short of his goal, he wrung the most out of every minute.

“It was way more than a business venture. It was a love affair,” she said. “It took him many years to get to that place. He was one of those fortunate people who never had to retire. And he was delighted that Nina and Chris wanted to take the mantle and keep it going.”

Now people are more accustomed to aerial views thanks to drones and Google Earth. But at the time, his photography was revolutionary. He learned over thousands of aerial trips, how to read the skies.

“He captured the fog so well,” Chris Gruener said. “He knew it by heart. He knew when the golden light appears and the fog blankets the sky. After photographing it for 45 years, he had it down to a science.”

In his later years he began losing his vision to macular degeneration. He didn't let it ground him. He continued to fly and photograph, drawing on memory and his deep knowledge of the Bay Area weather and skies. He got new business cards that rad, “Robert Cameron, World's Oldest One-Eyed Aerial Photographer.”

“He had some peripheral vision. Even with the light, he could feel which side of his face the sun was on,” Nina Gruener said.

Larger negative

In the beginning Cameron used a Pentax 6X7 camera, a heavier, larger format single lens reflex. Rather than 35 mm film it used 120/220 film, which produced a larger negative for sharper images. He offset the vibrations of the helicopter by mounting the camera on a gyrostabilizer. He stayed current with technology. The Asahi-Pentax 6X7 was released in 1969. By the time of his death he had abandoned film for digital.

The distinguished British-born American journalist Alistair Cooke, in a forward to the 1975 edition of “Above San Francisco,” wrote, “Cameron is, so far as I know, the first person to exploit helicopter photography as a means of combining the large, but myopic, view of the map-maker and the geographer with the intimate view of a man on his rooftop.”

Going up several times a week for half a century, Cameron amassed a huge catalog of images.

“We have boxes and boxes of transparencies that were the originals. There were four previous editions of ‘Above San Francisco' and each has a metal box assigned to it and cards that show what each page is,” Chris Gruener said. “We went through each book and chose images we thought we wanted. Then we'd go through the file and pull the transparencies out. Imagine a box from 1969; some of them might not have been stored properly every single day for the last 60 years. There was dusting and clean-up work. It was quite a beast of a project but worth it.”

In the 50th anniversary edition of “Above San Francisco,” the Grueners have included many photos of particular note to North Bay readers. In Marin, there's Richardson Bay, the blue-roofed Marin Civic Center, San Quentin and the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Then the pages move north to Sonoma County. A series of aerials show Sonoma Raceway - the old Sears Point - winding through brown hills. The change from 1975 to 2009 is profound. Cameron also takes you above Santa Rosa, and hovers over the Sonoma Plaza in 1965 and then again almost a quarter century later. He looks down on wineries, Glen Ellen and Jack London State Historic Park and the Tibetan stupas and temples of the Odiyan Retreat Center concealed in the mountains above Occidental.

Brownie beginnings

Cameron began taking pictures with a Brownie camera as a child growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. After dropping out of the University of Iowa, he spent his tuition money, instead, on a six-month fling in Paris. When he returned he took a job as a photographer for the Des Moines Register. He was introduced to aerial photography during World War II when he contracted with the U.S. Army to take pictures of exploding ordnance and tracers at night.

He later became a partner in a perfume company in New York and worked for Esquire Magazine. But, tired of the east's cold winters and steamy summers, he decided to declare his heart was in San Francisco, a place he had frequently visited on vacation. He moved his family to “The City” in 1960 and started Cameron and Co., selling quirky products like champagne shampoo, a Corkomatic to remove corks and other offbeat wares.

He was enraptured by San Francisco, which he referred to in the feminine as ‘She.”

“He loved beautiful women,” Davis said, “and he loved beautiful San Francisco.”

Once he hit the west coast he followed his entrepreneurial spirit. That led him to self-publish a little pocket-sized book called “The Drinking Man's Diet,” in 1962. The Swinging 60s diet, that he said was passed on to him by a female friend in the early 1960s, purported to melt pounds with “two martinis before lunch, and a thick steak generously spread with Sauce Bearnaise.” Basically a low carb diet years before Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, it became a national fad, adopted by housewives and movie stars alike. A photograph of Dean Martin posing with a copy of the book in one hand and a drink in the other has become something of a cultural meme with the revival of the cocktail culture. And in the 1960s comic Allan Sherman recorded a song parody, “I'm on the Drinking Man's Diet.”

“I used to work downstairs for him, packing boxes and boxes of ‘The Drinking Man's Diet,'?” Davis said.

But he had always been a passionate photographer, snapping endless family photographs that he promised his sometimes exasperated subjects that they would appreciate later. He developed his own prints in a home darkroom in the basement.

It was “The Drinking Man's Diet” that gave him the capital to follow his photographic dream into the skies.

The franchise quickly became a big success. In 1971 he produced a film version of “Above San Francisco” that played at The Cannery for besotted tourists.

A young Chris Gruener, who grew up in Seattle, was one of them. When he was a boy his family came to San Francisco on vacation. He toted home a signed edition of “Above San Francisco” as a prized souvenir. So imagine his surprise when, on an early date with Nina - the pair met when they are students at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles - the subject of her high-flying photographer grandfather came up.

In this newest edition of “Above San Francisco” the Grueners have included 450 photos as well as a sprinkling of historical photos for context and to show how much the Bay Area had grown even by the time Cameron began his photographic love affair. They have reprinted the forwards from each edition, including those written by the legendary San Francisco columnists Herb Caen and Art Hoppe.

Cameron+Co., which works out of offices on Kentucky Street in downtown Petaluma, also continues to produce “Above San Francisco” calendars using Cameron's pictures.

The series of photos in the book documents changes such as the Transamerica Pyramid just under construction in 1969, then as a new building in the early 1970s and again in the 1980s. But they also show how the city Cameron called “she,” aged with grace, without losing her power to seduce.

“So much of the city has not changed,” Nina Gruener said. “There are definitely new buildings. But what drew him here, the beauty and the contrast of color and the fog, so much of it feels exactly the same to me. It's almost nostalgic in a sense.”

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