Oldies and Oddities: He Shot California

Oldies and Oddities: He Shot California

A 1921 Robert Spence photo of Venice Pier.
A 1921 Robert Spence photo of Venice Pier. UCLA Department Of Geography, Benjamin And Gladys Thomas Air Photo Archives/The Spence Collection

During the roaring twenties, Los Angeles bigshots hired Robert Earl Spence to take aerial photographs of their homes, paying $10 a picture. Spence himself did not fly; he hired a pilot and airplane. He would lean out from the open cockpit, focusing his 46-pound camera on his target at an angle instead of shooting straight down. Rather than simply showing roof and treetops, his oblique shots captured the ornamental details of a home and its surroundings all the way to the horizon.

For five decades, Spence leaned out over California and the west, taking pictures that would chronicle the growth of suburbs and freeways, along with harbors, dams, aircraft plants, and skyscrapers. He captured the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s Ben Hur, a 1928 football game at the Rose Bowl, the construction of Dodger Stadium, Disneyland as an island in a sea of orange groves in the mid-1950s, and countless marinas sprouting along the coast.

“An inveterate aerial historian” is how John Franklin, former curator of the photographs at the University of California at Los Angeles, once described Spence. “When he flew out to take a picture for a client, he would shoot on the way out and back.”

In 1971, at age 77, Spence retired and donated his collection—110,000 negatives—to the university’s geography department. Now his negatives are protected in refrigerated vaults in UCLA’s Benjamin and Gladys Thomas Air Photo Archives.

Spence saw his pictures used in many ways. As early as 1938, textbooks on architecture, engineering, and science reproduced them; to this day they show up in books on urban planning, history, and geology.

He made money from promoters too. In 1929, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce used Spence’s work to illustrate a booklet advertising the delights of the city. Eighty years later, Michelle Marquis, assistant director of marketing of UCLA’s Ziman Center for Real Estate, needed an image that would express the center’s focus on land development. She chose a Spence photo showing UCLA’s tiny campus in 1930 set amid gullies and dirt roads.

The collection is also used in ways that Spence, who died in 1974, could never have foreseen. “What has happened historically on property is incredibly important,” says Don Schmitz, a land use consultant in Malibu. Schmitz represents property owners who are frustrated by government regulations. Some agencies can declare an entire property an “environmentally sensitive habitat,” and limit the homeowner’s ability to modify it, or can simply refuse requests to construct outbuildings, additions, or even homes on their properties.

Most agencies, however, will allow exemptions if the owner can prove that the property once had a similar structure on it. That’s where Spence comes in. “The [written] records are either nonexistent or extremely thin,” Schmitz says. “So if you have photographs of a house that used to be there that was destroyed, then you’re allowed to rebuild.”

Spence photos have also been used to stop landowners from blocking access to roads running through their estates. Old pictures that show picnickers in Model Ts riding along dirt roads establish a pattern of public use and can aid in getting roads reopened.

Environmentalists value Spence’s pictures as well. His shots show rivers that have disappeared, beaches changing shape after breakwaters were built, and factories oozing oil or chemicals and creating toxic sites that were torn down or buried decades ago.

Folks still come in to find aerial shots of their grandparents’ house, or the bean field where their own home now stands—but today they pay $200.

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