TO MARK THIS week’s return to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held on the University of Washington campus, we must give credit where credit is due — to French ingenuity. From coq au vin to kitesurfing, movie cameras to motorcycles, France has perennially delighted the world with marriages of innovation.
The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, had launched the first piloted aeronautical ascent in 1783 (to this day, hot-air balloons in France are called montgolfières in recognition). Meanwhile, Louis Daguerre, creator of the daguerreotype photographic process, had captured the earliest cityscape portraits in 1838.
In 1858, an inspired Paris photographer, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (known by the sobriquet “Nadar”), wedded the two technologies. Leveraging unwieldy equipment into a hot-air balloon basket, he single-handedly invented aerial photography. Fifty-one years later, this came in handy at Seattle’s first World’s Fair.
Our AYPE aerial photo, though not high-tech for its time, offers breathtaking spectacle, showing off the exposition’s Beaux Arts structures (merci again, France) that partially encircle Geyser Basin. Looking northwest, this view features the imposing, domed U.S. Government Building, while the ornate, curved structures on both sides of the basin focused on mining and agriculture.
The UW’s Drumheller Fountain (aka Frosh Pond, where first-year students once were dunked in ritual initiation) later was constructed on the watery footprint of the 1909 basin. But few other AYPE artifacts endured. Meant to be as ephemeral as a stage set or a wedding cake, the AYPE’s gleaming “white city” soon gave way to the more permanent and austere structures of Collegiate Gothic architecture.
A wider version of this panorama appeared Sept. 19, 1909, in The Seattle Times, filling Page 3 below a banner headline, “Remarkable View of Exposition Taken from Captive Balloon.” A subhead explained, “After Many Futile Attempts Camera Artists Succeed in Getting Fine Bird’s-Eye View of Exposition Grounds.”
At first, the weather had refused to cooperate, ruining hundreds of negatives. But finally, The Times reported, “the haze which has been hanging over the grounds for the last month lifted, and atmospheric conditions for aeronautical photographs were ideal.”
The balloon’s cramped basket accommodated no more than two photographers outfitted with bulky cameras (sans tripod) and must have supplied equal parts claustro- and acrophobia. Augmenting that anxious mix, “the great gas bag,” The Times said, “pulled heavily on the retaining wire and shifted about in the wind.”
A single exposure turned out “particularly fine.” Snapped just 30 minutes before rains resumed, the photo was “as distinct as if it had been taken from the ground.” Despite the difficulties, proclaimed one photographer, “we are more than satisfied with the result.”