Arthur Clarence Pillsbury

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Pillsbury's photo of The San Francisco Call building burning on April 18, following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

Arthur Clarence Pillsbury (1870–1946) was a United States photographer, best known for landscapes of Yosemite National Park, photos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and time lapse photography of flowers.

The son of physicians, Pillsbury was born in Medford, Massachusetts His family relocated to Auburn, California in 1883, and he became a student at Stanford University. In 1895, he rode to Yosemite by bicycle.[1]

Pillsbury's career spilled over into nearly every kind of application for photography, his career began in 1895 when as a student he documented in one hour with 60 different images the first fraternity rush at Stanford University. Pillsbury studied mechanical engineering at Stanford University and is credited with the invention of a specimen slicer (for microscopy) and a circuit panorama camera[1] before leaving college. Two years later he invented the first circuit panorama camera and soon after took it to the Yukon to capture the opening of the mining fields and towns. By 1900 he had photographed many of the notable features of the Western United States.

1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire[edit]

He used both the panorama and conventional cameras to capture the panorama images that went around the world in the immediate aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, he had worked for the San Francisco Examiner as a photojournalist from 1903 to March 1906, but left to establish the Pillbury Picture Company, based in Oakland, just a month before the earthquake.[2]

Pillsbury later recalled that he still had his Examiner press pass when the earthquake hit the following month, and he knew many of the policemen, so was able to gain access to good locations to photograph panoramas of the burning city, he took many 5 X 7 Graflex images, developed them at his new home based business in Oakland, and sent them to many major newspapers around the world.[2]

In the aftermath of the earthquake, he returned to a career as a landscape photographer when he purchased a studio in Yosemite Valley. During this period he also produced art photographs and started using motion picture cameras, producing the first nature films which he showed in Yosemite at his Studio of the Three Arrows. Here is also invented the first lapse-time motion picture camera for the specific purpose of saving the wild flowers of Yosemite that were then threatened with extinction from excessive mowing.

His candid photos captured the sense of wonder experienced by people in Yosemite as they saw its natural wonders, his inventions in later life included the microscopic motion picture camera, the X-Ray Motion picture camera and the underwater motion picture camera. His work was done without filters because his background as a photojournalist and his life philosophy had led him to the conviction that his job was to produce images and let the viewer bring to that experience the interpretation.


He arrived in Yosemite for the first time by bicycle in 1895 while still a student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, he had been drawn there by stories from an old friend of his mother's Susan B. Anthony, who was then making a tour through California speaking on the issue of women's suffrage. The young man fell in love with Yosemite and in 1897 bought a studio there, but his young wife refused to spend summers in the wilderness and left him. Despondent, he took his newly finished senior project, the first circuit panorama camera, and went to the Yukon where he photographed the opening of the mining towns and fields.

Pillsbury often visited Yosemite after returning to the lower 48 in 1899. There he photographed John Muir for Camera Craft Magazine in 1901, Galen Clark, George Fiske, and Teddy Roosevelt; these and other photos were later published as postcards by the Pillsbury Picture Company. Pillsbury had begun producing post cards with his photos as soon as this innovative form of communication was authorized by the United States Congress in 1898.

In the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and the income from his photos, Pillsbury, who had just quit his job with the San Francisco Examiner to found the Pillsbury Picture Company, was able to fulfill his long-time ambition to buy a studio in Yosemite and purchased the Studio of the Three Arrows later that same year, his background in biology and botany, encouraged by his parents who were both medical doctors, made him aware of the steady reduction in the number and types of wild flowers that blossomed in the meadows there. So in 1912 he built the first lapse-time camera, made the first nature movie showing the dance of a flower raising its face to the sun and managed to persuade the National Park Service to stop the practice of mowing the meadows to produce fodder for their horses.

His specimen cards of flowers, hand tinted at the studio, were as often framed as used in the meadows to identify the many types of plants blooming there, his work in Yosemite included both the classical production photos of such artists as Adams, d'orotones that had the depth and clarity of holograms, and his own unique work with flowers and also his candids of the people of Yosemite. That, with his inventions which later included the first microscopic motion picture camera, "Sunset Magazine, May 1927", the X-Ray motion picture camera and the first underwater motion picture camera, "Picturing Miracles of Plant and Animal Life and Popular Science, January 1929", were used on his extensive lecture tours to all the major forums and universities in the United States, England and the South Seas, his many nature films, eventually shown in theaters as well as in schools, clubs and for his lecture tours awakened the public to the need for conservation in the wake of Muir's death in 1914. Pillsbury gave advice to photographers for shooting pictures at Yosemite National Park in a 1921 handbook.[3]


Four of Pillsbury's orotone photographs of Yosemite waterfalls were part of an exhibition on the art of Yosemite which appeared at the Autry National Center, the Oakland Museum of California, the Nevada Museum of Art and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art from 2006 to 2008.[1]

His granddaughter Melinda Pillsbury-Foster, has written a biography of Pillsbury.[4]


  1. ^ a b c Scott, Amy (2006). Yosemite: Art of an American Icon. Los Angeles and Berkeley: Autry National Center and University of California Press. pp. 120, 205. ISBN 9780520249226.
  2. ^ a b Willes, Burl (2005). The Monterey Peninsula: A Postcard Journey. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. p. 19. ISBN 9781586857837.
  3. ^ "Photography in Yosemite National Park" by Arthur C. Pillsbury (1921)
  4. ^ Melinda Pillsbury-Foster, A Voice for the Wild Flowers: The Life of Arthur C. Pillsbury, Ship Stone Press, 2005.

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