WMU News

Historic aerial photos of Africa on display

Nov. 12, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- When Kalamazoo's Mary U. Meader hung her camera out of a plane in 1937 and took more than 1,000 aerial shots of Africa, she may not have known the historical or geographical significance of those photos.

But every student of geography and member of the American Geographic Society since then sure does.

Now Western Michigan University will share more than 70 of those photos in a special exhibition titled, "Over Africa," that will run from Nov. 16 through Nov. 30 in the Dalton Center Multi-Media Room on WMU's campus.

The night before the exhibit opens, a leading African geographer, Dr. Harm de Blij (De-BLAY) will present a lecture on the photographs at 7:30 p.m. in Putney Auditorium at the Fetzer Center. De Blij, a Distinguished Professor of Geography at Michigan State University, has often appeared as a commentator on Africa for ABC's "Good Morning America" program. Meader and her husband, Edwin Meader, a familiar Kalamazoo face and former instructor in the WMU Department of Geography, are expected to attend the lecture, as is WMU President Elson S. Floyd. The lecture is free and open to the public.

According to Dr. David Dickason, chairperson of the Department of Geography and one of the exhibit's organizers, when Meader's photos first appeared in the 1938 book, "Focus on Africa," written by her first husband, Richard U. Light, the pictures caused quite a sensation.

"At that time, 'Focus on Africa' was only the second such book to show aerial photos. Until then, the only way that people saw the world and its terrain was from the ground," explains Dickason, who became familiar with the photos four decades ago as a college student. "Today, aerial photography isn't a big deal, but back then these were considered very high tech and gave us views of the earth we had never seen before."

The photos have such resonance, according to the exhibit's other organizer, Dr. Tom Bailey, WMU associate vice president for academic affairs, that "the prints are still studied and widely known by geographers and anthropologists today."

"They captured Africa in a particular time and way that can never be duplicated," he says. "They are truly stunning things."

After the publication of "Focus on Africa," Meader's photographs and negatives disappeared into the archives of the book's publisher, the American Geographical Society. That collection was later donated to the Golda Meir Library at the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Dickason decided this past spring to hunt down the photos. The negatives had long ago given way to dust, so Dickason selected 100 of the 5-inch by 7-inch photographic prints and digitally scanned them. Returning to WMU, he used the high-tech digital software and equipment housed in the University's Geographical Information Systems Center to enlarge and print the images.

"To use an audio term, you would say I 'digitally remastered' the photos. But I didn't alter them. There has been no editing or removal of spots or defects, " Dickason says. "The photos are printed as duotones, or digital sepia prints, which brings out a lot of detail in the shadows that isn't immediately apparent on the old prints. As a result, the photos are much more interesting and detailed than they were as contact prints."

The photos were taken when Meader, just 21 at the time, and Light made an airplane trek from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt. The pictures document the adventure that began when the pair flew their Bellanca Skyrocket plane to Rio De Janeiro, disassembled it, sailed to Cape Town, reassembled the plane, and flew north for four months across the African landscape. Meader, described by Bailey as "just a slip of girl" then, had rigged a special sling to hang the aerial camera, which weighed 20 pounds, out of the plane in order to take the pictures.

According to Bailey, this exhibition of Meader's photos is unique not only because of the significance of the work but because, since 1938, the public has not been able to see the actual photographic prints.

"These photos have been shown in the book and in slide presentations since, but have never been shown in this way," Bailey says.

The "Over Africa" exhibit is free and open to the public. The Dalton Center Multi-Media Room is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Fridays.

For more information, contact David Dickason at (616) 387-3410, or Tom Bailey at (616) 387-2383.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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