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  George R. Lawrence

George Raymond Lawrence was born in Ottawa, Illinois on February 24, 1868 (some sources say 1869). The eldest of Michael and Margaret Tritley Lawrence's six children, he had a working class childhood and displayed a mechanical aptitude at an early age, inventing a rudimentary telegraph and developing a user-friendly washing machine for his mother. He moved to Chicago at age 20 to seek employment, finding work at the Staver & Abbott wagon factory. He married Alice Herenden in 1890, and the couple would have two sons, Raymond and George Lee.

Mr. Lawrence's interest in photography began by using photographs from which to make crayon sketches. With local photographer Irwin W. Powell, he opened the Lawrence Portrait Studio, located at Yale Avenue and 63rd Street. When Mr. Powell left the business in 1896 and left his equipment behind, Mr. Lawrence educated himself on darkroom techniques, and within a few years, his growing business was situated on 300 2-4 Wabash Avenue. Always wanting to challenge himself, he adopted the motto, "The Hitherto Impossible in Photography is Our Specialty." The first challenge he tackled was developing a magnesium compound for indoor photography "that generated more light and less smoke." This accomplishment earned Mr. Lawrence the nickname "The Father of Flashlight Photography." He then turned his attentions to aerial photography, constructing rotating panoramic cameras (manufactured by Cramer Dry Plate Company in St. Louis) that he mounted on ladders or towers. They enjoyed a lucrative market that included conventions, banquets, and legislative/judiciary sessions. It was only a matter of time before the railroad industry became interested in Mr. Lawrence's cameras, which led to the construction of the 1,400-lb. "Mammoth Camera", which required 15 technicians to operate. It was fitted with a telescopic rectilinear lens and a 10x6' plate holder that created 8x4-1/2' photographs (three times larger than conventional panoramic prints), and necessitated innovations in developing and printing. Mr. Lawrence's photographs of the Alton Limited passenger train were featured at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, and won its "Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence."

In 1901, Mr. Lawrence's 'captive balloon' experiment over Chicago met with near tragedy when the descending balloon broke from its ropes, sending the platform and photographer plunging more than 200 feet before settling on telephone and telegraph wires. Unhurt and undeterred, Mr. Lawrence shifted his focus to kite photography, and constructed a train of nine kites that could lift a 50-lb. panoramic camera some 2,000 feet. He achieved international attention when he photographed the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. On May 8, 1906, 17 Conye kites mounted with cameras were flown from a naval ship and captured amazing images with a field view of 160 degrees and utilized the sun for backlighting. He continued his balloon photography experimentation, but after an unsatisfactory "Balloonograph Expedition" to Africa in 1909, the weary photographer decided to concentrate on aviation, and sold his studio to Kaufmann-Fabry Studios. His personal life was also at a crossroads when he and his wife divorced, and Mr. Lawrence married the much younger Adele Page, with whom he would have four daughters.

Forced into retirement by the effects of a stroke, George R. Lawrence died on December 15, 1938 at the age of 70. A friend would write of this innovative photographer, "He left behind him a path of photographic achievement that marked him as one of the foremost pioneers in fields distinctive because of their daring and unconventionality." His photographic collections are presently housed in the Chicago Architectural Photographing Company, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Library of Congress.

2015 George R. Lawrence (1869-1938) (URL:

2002 Manual of Aerial Survey: Primary Data Acquisition by Roger E. Read and Ron Graham (Caithness, Scotland: Whittles Publishing Services), p. 2.

2002 Photography Genius: George R. Lawrence & "The Hitherto Impossible" by Janice Petterchak, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. XCV (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press), pp. 132-147.

2015 Remote Sensing and Image Interpretation by Thomas Lillesand, Ralph W. Kiefer, Jonathan Chipman (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), p. 87.

2010 Small-Format Aerial Photography: Principles, Techniques, and Geoscience Applications by James S. Aber, Irene Marzolff, and Johannes Ries (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier), pp. 4-5.

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