Look up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's a photographer taking pictures of cities

November 13, 1992|By San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- If born a snob, Robert Cameron couldn't have looked down on more things. Things like London, Paris, Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and now big-shouldered Chicago.

Mr. Cameron is probably the premier aerial photographer in the world, very likely the best paid and, at 81, without question the oldest. Since 1964, he has produced one glossy coffee-table book after another, each showing what a city would look like if you hovered over it.

Mr. Cameron's "Above . . ." books have sold more than 2 million copies. "That's a lot of anything," he said in a satisfied way in an interview at his Howard Street place in San Francisco. It's equal parts office, gallery of his aerial photographs from around the globe and warehouse of books on pallets ready for shipment.

Artist or businessman? Mr. Cameron doesn't care what you call him, but businessman is probably closest to the mark. His latest book on Chicago, published last month, costs $25.

"If anybody else did it, it'd be $50. My price is low because my overhead's low. There are only three of us in the company." It's called Cameron and Company, and the others include a son.

Mr. Cameron came at this career from an odd angle. He dropped out of college during the Depression to tramp through France, returned to Des Moines to work as a newspaper photographer ("Murders and so forth -- being the youngest, I got the dirty work"), went into the dry-ice business.

He was 4F, so he was excused from military duty during World War II. Hired by the War Department to photograph Army camps and factories, Mr. Cameron got his first taste of aerial photography.

After the war -- the market glutted with aerial photographers -- he sold perfume and lived in Connecticut with his wife and four children. Photography became only a hobby.

"I came to San Francisco 25 times on business, and [then] I didn't want to leave again."

He left New York and the scent business in 1960. Four years later, he published a 54-page book called "The Drinking Man's Diet" that was a huge success, spending 98 weeks on the best-seller list.

Written by Mr. Cameron and a buddy in advertising, it said weight could be lost on a diet of steak and red wine. It sold a phenomenal 2.4 million copies before it and rival diets with names like "Martinis and Mayonnaise" were debunked by health authorities.

Said Mr. Cameron, "The book launched me into the publishing business." His first book of aerial photography, "Above San Francisco," was published in 1969.

That sold 150,000 copies, as did a new "Above San Francisco" published in 1975. A third version, published in 1985, is nearing that sales total. All of them are 152 pages, and the 11-by-14 pages are album-bound.

Mr. Cameron's "Above Los Angeles" came out in 1976 and sold 160,000 copies. Another version in 1988 has sold 40,000 copies. Other "Above" books: Hawaii (1977); Washington, D.C. (1979);London (1980); Yosemite (1983); Paris (1984); New York (1988); San Diego (1990).

Mr. Cameron was awarded the medal of the City of Paris for his book. Photos from it were given an exhibit this past summer at the Mona Bismarck Foundation. Le Monde said depressingly that they'll be the only record of the way things were when all the world's cities are enveloped with pollution.

Mr. Cameron soars godlike above cityscapes in a helicopter to take his pictures. He has tried fixed-wing and blimp, but books of experience proved choppers are far and away the best platform for a camera. He bolts his Pentax to the frame of a $5,000 gyroscopic stabilizer and the image he's aiming at stays level in the viewfinder even if the plane does barrel rolls.

"When I first started doing this, I was the only one," said Mr. Cameron. "Now there must be 25 others around the world doing it."

Mr. Cameron usually gets a well-known journalist to write the text. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote the San Francisco books, Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith did the L.A. books, Pierre Salinger did Paris, New York was explained by George Plimpton, Alistair Cooke gave the bird's-eye view of London.

"I tried to get Mike Royko to do the Chicago book, but he wouldn't return my calls," said Mr. Cameron. An architect who is a member of the Landmarks Commission was hired instead.

Mr. Cameron is undecided about what city will get the eagle-eye treatment next. Atlanta, maybe, because it will host the next summer Olympic Games.

He'd like to do Mexico City but is a little leery. "I've been reading about the fecal dust in the atmosphere."

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