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William A. Garnett  

b. 1916 Chicago, Illinois, d. 2006 Napa, California

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I was discharged and heard you could hitchhike on the transport taking GIs home. The airplane was full, but the captain let me sit in the navigator's seat so I had a command view. I was amazed at the variety and beauty of these United States. I had never seen anything like that--in a book, in school, or since then. So I changed my career.

--William Garnett

William Garnett took his first cross-country flight after serving as a United States Army Signal Corps cameraman during World War II. What he saw below inspired him to learn how to pilot a plane so he could photograph the American landscape. Garnett's aerial photographs resemble abstract expressionist paintings or views through a microscope. As landscapes, they do not have the conventional grounding of a horizon line. All reveal astonishing patterns that are not seen from the ground.

Garnett honed his elegant design sensibility well before earning a pilot's license: Before the war, he attended Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Later, he headed the Pasadena Police Department's photography lab. In the 1940s and '50s, he began to rack up flying hours around Los Angeles, speaking out about the area's increasing air pollution. He illustrated Nathaniel Owing's American Aesthetic , a book about land-use practices.

During 10,000 hours of flying, Garnett simultaneously piloted a plane while photographing out the window-traveling above every state and many parts of the world. His light 1956 Cessna plane allowed him to fly to just the right location to capture subjects with precision. At first, he experimented with a variety of camera formats and films but found that two 35mm cameras (one loaded with black-and-white film, and another with color film) best suited his needs.

Garnett's work defies the stereotype of aerial photography as purely scientific and devoid of artistry. He became the first aerial photographer to earn the prestigious Guggenheim Award.

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Strip Farm / Garnett
Strip Farm

American, 1951

Sewage Tank / Garnett
Sewage Tank

American, 1953

Dry Soda Lake / Garnett
Dry Soda Lake

American, 1974

Farm Fields, Pipes / Garnett
Farm Fields, Pipes

American, 1953

Rice Field / Garnett
Rice Field

American, 1953