Who Was Arthur C. Pillsbury?
Arthur C. Pillsbury saw the integrity of the natural world very early and used film to take the voice of the wilderness to people around the world. His first nature movie was shown on the porch of his studio in Yosemite in 1909.
From that day until he routinely filled his 250 seat theater in New Village to overflowing films shown there, as short features in movie theaters, and across America to audiences in major universities, town hall forums, and to the National Geographic Pillsbury used film to awaken in Americans an understanding of the natural world.
Arthur C. Pillsbury with his microscopic motion picture camera. 1926
Pillsbury realized early Preservationists faced an enormous problem if they were to succeed in protecting what others viewed as assets. A scientist and inventor, Pillsbury's first invention was a specimen slicer for microscopic work, which work he began while still a young child. His parents, both physicians, had brought the first microscope to California and he grew up using it with the same familiarity another child would have used a hammer. Pillsbury's viewpoint was founded on his observations of the natural world and the impact of humankind on it. He had witnessed the impact of people on the wilds of Alaska while photographing the opening of the mining fields with the panorama camera he built as his senior project at Stanford University in 1897. It was in Alaska he met John Muir, photographing him while he was accompanying the Harriman Expedition in 1899. The two men were united in a common passion for preservation, using very different methods.
When Muir began his yearly trips into the back country of Yosemite Pillsbury was along as the photographer. Pillsbury had first traveled to Yosemite on his bicycle, with a cousin and friend, from Stanford in 1895.
Standing waist deep in a meadow filled with wildflowers Pillsbury was struck with an awe which awakened in him a deep and lasting reverence for the natural world. This love would become the focus of his entire life and work. A careful observer, Pillsbury immediately saw the impact Westerners where having on the number of species of wild flowers in the Valley and was filled with a determination to persuade the Park Service and tourists to respect and protect them.
As Muir struggled to save the Hetch Hetchy from the forces of greed who saw it as a source for water and energy to benefit them Pillsbury produced the first nature movie in 1909. He had immediately seen the potential to use film as a tool to introduce people from all walks of life to the natural world. Cameras, those existing and the ones he invented to extend human vision, opened new worlds to the human eye.
From then until his time in Yosemite ended in 1927 he was known as The Wildflower Man of Yosemite. That first film was shown on the porch of the studio he had bought in Yosemite in 1906 from the profits he made with his photos of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Pillsbury saw he could take nature to far more people using film. In this way he believed he could awaken them to a love of the natural world while protecting the wilderness. Today we recognize the absolute truth of this analysis. In 1912 Pillsbury build the first lapse-time motion picture camera, allowing us to see the motion of , before hidden from sight by the different rate at which humanity moves. Pillsbury believed seeing flowers in this way, their struggles so like our own, would move us a wish to protect them. These are images which still move us today. As Pillsbury said, “"To see a flower blossoming, its life so like our own, awakens in us a love for the flower, its life so like our own, and the wish to preserve it." The movie was first shown to the Superintendents of the National Parks at their Conference in Yosemite in 1912. The assembled supervisors immediately moved to protect the wildflowers. When Muir lost his campaign to save the Hetch Hetchy in 1914 larger and larger audiences were awakening to the beauties of nature and the need to protect it through showings of Pillsbury's films, first in Yosemite, then in the Berkeley area, where he lived in the winter, across California and then across America. Dad told me everyone in the family was astonished at Grandfather's eloquence because he was generally a quiet and retiring man. In 1919 Pillsbury filmed Yosemite from the air, revealing the power and majesty of its waterfalls and cliffs from a perspective no one had ever imagined. In 1926 Pillsbury designed and built the first microscopic motion picture camera at a borrowed basement workshop at the University of California, near his home. Another world, previously beyond human vision, was opened. The first audience to view the film, showing a cell dividing, were professors and scientists from Berkeley. Seeing the processes of life resulted in an explosion of research and invention in the scientific community. Pillsbury passed no law. He started no organization, though he filmed and photographed the High Country Trips for many years and included reels showing Sierra Club events in his lecture tours. He never asked for donations. Instead, he found ways to sell enough photographs and postcards to pay for developing his cameras. To lower his production cost he built the first mass production photo post card machine. This was the only invention Pillsbury patented.His young son, Arthur F., was generally the operator until he left for college. and had lots of stories he passed on to his own children, in time. Using these cameras he changed our world by showing us the realities of nature, beautiful and true. But the flow of events was against him. The rise of corporations, who intended to own and control everything had begun. That was a problem he could not solve alone. Today, by coming together and working in our communities, we can. If you would like to read more on Arthur C. Pillsbury visit the website.