About the Exhibit
High Adventure: The 1937-1938 Aerial Photographs of Mary Upjohn Meader
Developed by: Monica Barnes, David Dickason and David Fleming
On September 16, 1937 Mary Upjohn took off from her home airport in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to begin an extraordinary project. Her goal, essentially completed on January 24, 1939, was an aerial photographic transect of western South America and another of East Africa. In the pilot’s seat was her first husband, Richard U. Light. Besides being the photographer, Mary was the radio operator and co-pilot. When her three-continent journey was complete, Mary had taken over two thousand photographs and captured many important features for the first time, including Peru’s Nazca Lines and Uganda’s Ruwenzori Mountains. She used the best equipment then available, a Bellanca CH-400 Skyrocket airplane, a Fairchild F-8 aerial camera and a 35mm Leica. Unlike military photographers, Mary literally had only one shot. To keep to a demanding schedule and to conserve film and fuel, she could not wait for ideal weather.
The purpose of Mary and Richard’s expedition was to record land forms, farms, ports, and industrial facilities. Richard Light was at the beginning of a long association with the American Geographical Society. He came to serve on its Council and eventually became its president. The AGS was promoting aerial photography as a means of showing human activity on a grand scale. This approach was new at the time.
A unique set of Meader’s five by seven inch and 35mm contact prints is in the library of the American Geographical Society at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Three hundred and twenty-three of the African photographs were published in Focus on Africa by Richard Upjohn Light with photographs by Mary Light (American Geographical Society, 1941, 1945). However, many remain unpublished, and some of those are included in this exhibition.
In contrast to the African photographs, only twenty-seven of the Latin American images have been published, so most of that material on display is being exhibited for the first time. The South American photographs comprising “High Adventure” were taken less than a decade after George R. Johnson produced Peru from the Air (American Geographical Society, 1930), an album of the first published Peruvian aerial photographs, and twenty-eight years before Paul Kosok assembled the aerial photographs illustrating Life, Land and Water in Ancient Peru (Long Island University Press, 1965). Mary Meader in some ways anticipated the work of Peru’s Servicio Aerofotográfico Nacional, the Fairchild Photographic Mission to Peru and Argentina’s Instituto Geográfico Militar, all of which began major operations around the time of the Second World War. When Mary Meader flew over South America she was taking her very first professional aerial photographs.
For reasons of national security no photographs were taken over Central America except for Guatemala, nor over Colombia and Ecuador.
The exact locations where some of these photographs were taken have not yet been determined. Viewers are invited to make comments, sending them, via e-mail, to Monica Barnes (Monica@andeanpast.org).
Mary Upjohn Meader studied at Smith College, but terminated her work there prematurely to marry, raise children, and participate in the expedition that is the focus of this exhibition. Throughout her life she has made Kalamazoo, Michigan her home. She and her second husband, Edwin S. Meader are major philanthropists supporting Michigan institutions. Mary has been a member of the exclusive Society of Woman Geographers since 1942. In May, 2005 she was granted the Society’s Outstanding Achievement Award for her pioneering aerial photography. In October, 2005 she was made an Honorary Fellow of the American Geographical Society and invited to sign the AGS Flyers and Explorers Globe. Her work is featured in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s “Women in Flight” display.
The South American portion of “High Adventure” was exhibited at S.W.G. headquarters from October, 2005 until February, 2006. The African portion was displayed there in February, March, and April, 2006. In July, 2006 it was at the Hudson Museum of the University of Maine, Orono. From October to December, 2006 on was at the Brazos Valley Museum, Bryan, Texas. In the fall of 2007 it is on display at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. A selection of Mary Meader’s photographs is on permanent display at the W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change at the University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo, constructed with the generous support of Mary U. Meader and Edwin E. Meader.