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 Amazon.com)is 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.