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Portraits of an Era: The Aerial Photography of Howdy McPhail.

Portraits of an Era: The Aerial Photography of Howdy McPhail

by Bill Waiser

Fifth House, Calgary, 2009

192 pp., illus., $40 hardcover


As a person who spent a lot of time with aircraft, albeit largely in a museum, I find it refreshing to see the world from a different perspective. Enter a book about pilot and photographer Howdy McPhail, who recorded large areas of Western Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, when aerial photography was in its heyday

McPhail left a massive legacy: some two thousand images taken while flying aircraft such as a piper J-3 Cub. In portraits of an Era, author and historian Bill Waiser describes the difficulties the pilot went through to get his shots, such as steering the plane with his knees so that his hands were flee to hold and operate the camera. Amazingly, McPhail's black-and-white landscape photographs contain minute and exquisite detail.

Waiser also provides insight into the man behind the pictures. Born Hugh Duncan McPhail in 1915, the boy who was known "'for being something of a prankster" went on to a variety of careers. He was a good athlete, graduated with a bachelor of science degree, and then enlisted in the air force in World War II, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross.

His civilian life took a relatively predictable course--marriage, three children, and work as a Saskatchewan Wheat Pool field man. In the early 1950s, McPhail was once again able to satisfy his love of flying, and with his wife's encouragement he purchased his own airplane.

It was while crop spraying that he decided to include aerial photography in his flying business. For McPhail, this may simply have been another way to earn a living, but he has nonetheless left us an impressive visual record of the farms, towns, and cities of an era gone by--B.T.

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Publication:Canada's History
Date:Aug 1, 2010
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