Jelly, jelly so fine

Monday, March 31, 2008

Pioneering Aerial Photographer Mary Meader flies off into the sunset.

From the NY Times:

Published: March 22, 2008
Mary Meader, who as a spunky new bride in the 1930s took off on a 35,000-mile journey to advance geographic knowledge by making unprecedented aerial photographs of South America and Africa, died Sunday in Kalamazoo, Mich. She was 91.

Mary Meader in 1937 with the 20-pound camera she used to photograph South America and Africa from the air.

The saga began when Mrs. Meader, whose name was Mary Upjohn at the time, and her first husband, Dr. Richard Light, made plans to marry. They wanted to celebrate their union by approximating the highly publicized round-the-world flight he had made in 1934. She took flying lessons and learned Morse code to be her husband’s co-pilot, navigator and radio operator.

When they were planning their trip, soon after their marriage the next year, many parts of the world had still not been photographed from above. The American Geographical Society was encouraging photographic flights to build an archive of aerial views, and the couple’s idea was to fly over huge swaths of South America and Africa that had never been captured on film from the air.

“It just seemed like a great adventure — something I wanted to do,” she said in an interview with Encore, a magazine about Kalamazoo, in 2006. “Why? I’m not certain, other than we both knew we would be doing something that hadn’t been done before.”

The couple made what may be the earliest photographs of the ancient Nazca lines in Peru. The lines cannot be recognized as coherent figures except from the air. Seen from above, their patterns range from simple designs to stylized hummingbirds and llamas.

In Africa, Mrs. Meader’s photographs showed the stunning ice dome and crater of Mount Kilimanjaro and the serrated glaciated pinnacles of Mount Kenya in beauty and detail impossible in ground photography. She provided new views of native villages, urban areas and the Pyramids of Egypt, among many other subjects.

Her African pictures were published in a book written by her husband and published by the American Geographical Society. In reviewing the book for The New York Times in 1941, Mary L. Jobe Akeley called Mrs. Meader’s photos “superb.”

“They convey a sense of the vastness and grandeur of the continent,” she wrote.

Long after the historic trip, in 2005, Mrs. Meader was invited to place her signature on the American Geographical Society’s Fliers’ & Explorers’ Globe, which her husband had signed at the time. In a tradition begun in the 1920s, the society asks noted explorers, like Robert Peary, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong, to sign it. Mrs. Meader was one of only three invited to sign twice: she wrote her name across East Africa and across the Andes.

A citation said, “The stunning quality of her photography shows not only her skill and her artistry but her passion for conveying new knowledge about remote places on earth.”

Her photographs have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, including the first photograph of the peak of Mount Stanley in the Ruwenzori range, known since antiquity as the Mountains of the Moon. Previously, clouds had thwarted attempts to photograph it from the ground.

Rachel Mary Upjohn was born in Kalamazoo on April 15, 1916. She was one of 11 grandchildren of Dr. W. E. Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Company, the pharmaceutical concern. She was a language major at Smith College, specializing in French and Spanish, but dropped out to marry Richard Upjohn Light, a neurosurgeon and former military pilot who was her first cousin. They eloped to Maryland because first cousins could legally marry there.

Dr. Light’s love of aviation began as a child when he watched the Wright brothers, friends of his father, on some of their early flights in Dayton, Ohio. His 1934 round-the-world flight enraptured fans of aviation and exploration.

His next goal was to duplicate on the first trip in the Southern Hemisphere what he had done in the Northern Hemisphere. His wife was delighted to accompany him. She gave birth to Christopher during flight training.

Aerial photography had become essential to military intelligence during World War I, and by the 1930s, some countries were prohibiting it to prevent the gathering of strategic knowledge. The Lights were barred from photographing Central America, Ecuador and Colombia, but were allowed to take pictures over Peru.

The Lights took off first in September 1937 from Kalamazoo in a Bellanca monoplane, its cabin lacking heat and pressurization. They sucked oxygen from a tank through wooden mouthpieces. Mrs. Meader wore a fur coat and boots as she shot pictures through an open window.

Since she weighed only 95 pounds, she braced the 20-pound camera on the window frame and secured it with a clothesline. She said she once nearly froze to death.

After photographing South America, they sailed across the Atlantic to Capetown with their plane as cargo. On a typical day in Africa, they would arise at 4 a.m. and fly until 11 a.m. After lunch, they visited the farms, mines and native settlements that would be photographed the next day. Weather often dictated their itinerary: they returned to Mount Kilimanjaro three times before finding the crater free of clouds, Encore reported.

They abandoned their original plan to continue their expedition to Asia, because their plane was damaged and Mrs. Meader was pregnant with her second son, Timothy. They returned home in February 1938.

The couple divorced in the early 1960s. In 1965, the former Mrs. Light married Edwin Meader, a professor of geography, among various callings. The couple became major philanthropists, giving millions to Western Michigan University, the University of Michigan and Kalamazoo charities. Into her 70s, Mrs. Light continued going to an elementary school to help children learn to read.

Mr. Meader died last year. Mrs. Meader is survived by her sons Christopher, Timothy and John, all of Kalamazoo, and Rudolph, of Ukiah, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Many years later, Mrs. Meader thrilled at her memories, including the roar of lions on the Serengeti plain after the airplane motor was shut off. For Encore, she vividly recreated a typical conversation with her husband on the plane’s crackling intercom.

“Get the wing out of the way! Slow down!” she shouted. “My word, those elephants are huge.”

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