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Before drones, people hung out of planes with cameras

W.L. Richardson taking a photograph from a plane.
W.L. Richardson taking a photograph from a plane.

Modern aerial photography tends to be taken by drones — but it wasn't always that way. When aerial photography first began 100 years ago, it was mainly thanks to amateurs wild enough to stick their cameras out of planes — even when it meant risking their lives.

The first pioneer? W.L. Richardson, the man considered the inventor of naval aerial photography. But he didn't start off as a trailblazer.

He began as a cook.

How a Navy cook created a whole new form of photography

W.L. Richardson

W.L. Richardson (Library of Congress)

Walter Leroy Richardson was born in 1889 and enlisted as a ship's cook in 1911, getting his start on the USS Mississippi. In his spare time, Richardson was a photography hobbyist who wanted to record it all.

Those skills came in handy when the military began using planes in Pensacola — because there were few photographers, the Navy had amateurs do most of the documentation of daily life at sea and ashore. Richardson's photos were good enough that he was quickly appointed the Navy's first official photographer, a job that soon included aerial photography.

In 1916, Richardson became the first person to take a Navy aerial photograph, departing from Pensacola, Florida with a camera that looked like a cigar box. It was closer to a wild experiment than a focused effort: he went into the air, tripped the shutter, and became a historical first. But that first picture was the beginning of a long career pioneering a new style of photography that was both reconnaissance and art (photography geeks will note that he started with a 5x7 speed Graphic camera and a 7x7 Press Graflex).

W.L. Richardson pointing a camera from a plane.

Richardson pointing a camera. (Navy Archives)

On January 10, 1917, the Navy made aerial photography official and issued the first order for equipment. Richardson quickly became Chief Photographer of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics and a new art form — and military strategy — was on the books.

Richardson once had to escape from an exploding zeppelin

Richardson in the sky.

Richardson in the sky. (Popular Mechanics Archive)

The Navy's photographers started off documenting gunnery exercises — recording where shots from ships actually hit the water. Soon, photographers were used for a wide range of purposes, from scenic aerial surveys to studies of the seascape. Since early aircraft were often unreliable, the job wasn't always safe.

Richardson survived the 1925 crash of a US Navy zeppelin, the USS Shenandoah. He clung to the wreck until it hit the ground, when his ankle was caught by a wire and he was dragged underneath it. Fourteen crew members died, but Richardson survived.

That wasn't even his most notable experience in a dirigible. In January of that same year, he and his longtime partner climbed atop the dirigible Los Angeles to take photos of a solar eclipse. 8,000 feet up, he snapped photos even though his face was freezing.

A long career with a memorable legacy

W.L. Richardson and his co-pilot

W.L. Richardson and his co-pilot (Navy Archives)

Richardson, of course, wasn't the only air photographer: as a teacher, he instructed others how to take pictures from the air. During later conflicts — including World War II — that work became important to the military's efforts.

Discharged in 1926, Richardson died in 1945. A Navy building was eventually named in his memory, but the legacy is better than the building. That will last longer.

Richardson and a partner taking a photo.

Richardson and a partner taking a photo. (Library of Congress)

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