Chester Melvin Vaniman ( 1866 - 1912)

Vaniman was an opera singer, photographer, and aviator and is now best known for his panoramic photographs of Australia. He was born in Illinois, U.S.A, into a family of German Baptist Brethren known as the Dunkards. Vaniman was the eldest of four sons. During the course of his life he resided in many cities all over the world: Virden, Honolulu, Auckland, Sydney, Paris and Atlantic City. At a time in which ships were the main international form of transport, it was unusual that someone would have lived in so many different places, but Vaniman was adventurous and packed an extraordinarily fast-paced life into his forty-six years. His artistic endeavours included opera singing and photography and he was talented in aeronautics, engineering, and mechanics.

Vaniman’s early life was spent in Illinois where he attended Mt. Morris College, run by the Brethren, before commencing music studies in the mid 1880s at Valparaiso University in Indiana, another religious institution. Finally he enrolled in Dexter College, Iowa, after which he made a living as a music teacher. He then toured as an opera singer from 1887 to c.1900 until a plague hit the company while they were in Hawaii. Stranded there, Vaniman contacted Ida Loud, an old friend from Virden, who joined him. They married soon after in around 1900 (Tierney, 2000). It was in Hawaii that he started experimenting with photography, especially panoramas. The Oceanic Steamship Company (which ran services from USA to Australia and New Zealand and had an office in Europe) noticed his photographic endeavours and decided to hire him to take photos in Australasia in the hope that his photos would encourage tourism in those areas (Schwartzkoff, 2009). A book titled Views of Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia was published but no copy has been located.

Thus from 1902-04 Vaniman and Ida toured New Zealand and Australia. The steamship company took them first to Auckland, New Zealand, where Vaniman took photos of New Zealand cities (Tierney, 2000). Then in February of 1903 he went to Australia and took panoramic photos of Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Perth, and the New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australian countrysides (Tierney, 2000). To take the panoramic photos, Vaniman designed a camera able to use film 2 metres in length, and an elevated viewpoint by making use of tall buildings, ships’ masts, on two occasions a 30-metre tall pole devised by himself, and once a gas-filled balloon (Tierney, 2000). Alan Tierney, who has pioneered research on Vaniman, has recorded that Vaniman took 25 photos in New Zealand, 26 in New South Wales, mostly in Sydney, 40 in the five other states of Australia, and seven Honolulu, totaling about 100 photos in all (pers. comm., 2009; also Davies, 2009).

Of the hundred or so images taken by Vaniman, only 83 survive, with the largest collections being in the in the State Libraries of New South Wales (28) and of Western Australia (11) and the National Library of New Zealand (17). Some of these photos were exhibited at the Katoomba School of Arts in 1904 and over a hundred years later there were exhibitions at the State Library of New South Wales in 2001 and 2009-1010. However, it seems that Vaniman’s extraordinary photos are relatively unknown even though he made great advances in panoramic photography. Some of Vaniman’s best known photos are Sydney from a balloon (1904), Bennelong Point (1904) and Sydney Town Hall (1904) (State Library of New South Wales). Vaniman also wrote enthusiastically about Australia and especially Sydney, as he believed that Sydney had “a splendid light…and beautiful clouds: no question about that” (SLNSW).

Vaniman set sail for Europe from Western Australia in mid 1904 and arrived in Paris around August of the same year. He settled there with Ida and attempted to continue his career as a photographer but was ultimately forced to take up new endeavours due to poor atmospheric conditions (SLNSW). As Vaniman had interests in aeroplanes and engineering, he took up constructing planes in Paris. He built and tested his own triplane in 1906 and then in 1908 he achieved the first recorded successful triplane flight (SLNSW). During this time, an American journalist named Walter Wellman became acquainted with Vaniman. Wellman dreamt of becoming the first to reach the North Pole and Vaniman became interested in Wellman’s quest. From 1907 to 1910, Vaniman constructed two dirigibles but the pair were unsuccessful after two attempts to reach the North Pole.

After their failures in reaching the North Pole, Wellman and Vaniman sailed back to America to pursue their new dream of being the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. They arrived back in America in July, 1910 and began constructing another dirigible. Their first attempt on 15 October 1910 failed, but with the help of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, Vaniman was funded to construct another dirigible, which he named the Akron (Tierney, 2000). The Akron had a trial run on 14 November 1911. After the trial Vaniman and four crew members took off from Atlantic City, New Jersey, on 2 July 1912 and the dirigible immediately exploded over the ocean. Vaniman died with his crew members (Tierney).

Chester Melvin Vaniman lived a short but adventurous life. His photographic endeavours were technically innovative and it is fortunate that most of his photos have survived. Vaniman’s aeronautic achievements did end up costing his life, but the records that he set for triplane flights and dirigible construction were unmatched during that time. His panoramic achievements are unknown in the USA, however his advancements in balloon construction are celebrated (Tierney, 2000). Through the efforts of Alan Tierney and Alan Davies, the latter at the State Library of New South Wales, the achievements of the man from rural Illinois who travelled the world and lived courageously have been celebrated. ref DAAO

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