Simon Baker and George Lawrence

by Peter Nurkse

Simon Baker has had a long interest in aerial photography. During World War II he was fascinated by the analytical work performed on aerial photographs. After the war in the 1950's he did his doctoral thesis in geography studying land use on the boundary of the wet and dry zones in Sri Lanka. The Photo Survey Corporation of Toronto provided aerial photos of the area, which Dr. Baker used to create a map of land use in a 1000 sq. mile river basin.

After teaching Geography at the University of Arizona and Florida Atlantic University, and a period with the Dept. of Agriculture in Washington, DC, Dr. Baker came to East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. There in 1978 he began to teach a course in aerial photography interpretation and remote sensing.

One day he found a copy of Beaumont Newhall.s book, Airborne Camera (Focal Press, 1969), and was amazed by the reproduction of George Lawrence.s 1906 San Francisco panorama, two pages wide. However at the University library he could not find any information on Lawrence, except a vague reference to his aerial camera, with the shutter moving across a curved film plane.

In Washington a couple of years later he stopped by the Library of Congress, but could not find Lawrence in the main catalog. The reading room staff found some references in a photo encyclopedia, but mostly about his giant 1400 lb. camera developed for the Chicago and Alton railroad. They did find an obituary in a Chicago paper, which provided leads about societies and groups which might be interested in Lawrence.

But then the reading room staff suggested that since Lawrence was a commercial photographer, he might have deposited copies of his work with the Library of Congress for copyright protection, and Dr. Baker walked over to the Prints and Photographs division. There he saw full size copies of Lawrence.s aerial photos for the first time. Often they were divided into sections and mounted on cloth backing, to fit the available filing cabinet drawers, but they were still amazing achievements.

The Chicago Historical Society replied to a letter from Dr. Baker mentioning their collections of George Lawrence photographs and other materials. The Society had held a public exhibit about Lawrence and his aerial panoramas in the fall of 1960. Dr. Baker was awarded a Faculty Improvement Grant from East Carolina University to travel to Chicago, where he found more Lawrence photos of banquets and groups, also industrial plants, and other California cities from the 1906 trip. The Historical Society also was the source for the classic picture of Lawrence himself, with his trim moustache.

While in Chicago on that trip Dr. Baker met Thomas Yanul through the Historical Society, since they knew of his interest in Lawrence and panoramic photography. He found that Thomas Yanul was also astonished and amazed by Lawrence's achievement, and understood and appreciated his work. Thomas Yanul has a Web page today, www.thomasyanul.com, which includes unique pictures taken by Lawrence of the damage in San Francisco at ground level, from the Lawrence family.

Dr. Baker made another trip to Washington to follow up on a rumor of some US Navy reports on experiments with Lawrence.s aerial camera. He located the information in the National Archives, and was able to find precise measurements and weights and specifications. Lawrence made a series of cameras of different sizes, which he took with him on his last photographic expedition, to British East Africa, with W. D. Boyce, a Chicago newspaper publisher.

Dr. Baker's research on George Lawrence is available in his articles on this Web page, written over a 10 year period, from 1988 to 1997. However the articles were the result of an equally long prior period of research and investigation by Dr. Baker about Lawrence and his photographic work, and an interest in aerial photography that extends back over 60 years now. We can thank Dr. Baker for his research, and can also understand the development of an interest from World War II aerial photography, to aerial photography of land use in Sri Lanka, and then finally the discovery of George Lawrence.

Reviewing his career with aerial photography for teaching and research, Dr. Baker points out that aerial photography was not truly an analytical tool until the 1980's. It was only then that photogrammetry was sufficiently developed to match aerial photographs accurately with traditional maps, compensating for all the variables such as camera position and orientation, and also camera optical parameters. At that point precise maps, such as the USGS 7.5 minute series, could be generated from an aerial photograph alone. Today computer users can view accurate aerial and satellite imagery on their desktops, using Google Earth and similar tools.

This story is based on an April 2010 interview with Dr. Baker.