Prolific Yosemite photographer’s work stored in HBLL Special Collections

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Ryan Turner
A.C. Pillsbury wears gear for photographing and filming underwater. (Ryan Turner)

It’s a classic family history story: your grandfather was raised by feminists in the late 1800s, invented the time-lapse camera, lived in Yosemite National Park where he was a famous photographer and photographer Ansel Adams may have stolen a box of his photographs and claimed them as his own.

OK, so maybe not the classic genealogy story, but it is Melinda Pillsbury-Foster’s story.

Pillsbury-Foster’s paternal grandfather was photographer A.C. Pillsbury, famous for landscapes of Yosemite National Park, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and time-lapse photos of flowers. His inventions include a circuit panorama camera, a specimen slicer (for microscopy), the X-Ray motion picture camera and the underwater motion picture camera.

These panoramic photographs show San Francisco before and after the 1906 earthquake. Pillsbury invented the panoramic camera. (Ryan Turner)
These panoramic photographs show San Francisco before and after the 1906 earthquake. Pillsbury invented the panoramic camera. (Ryan Turner)

“He’s so much larger than life it’s hard to get,” Pillsbury-Foster said.

But Pillsbury-Foster has attempted to “get it.” In the late 1980s, her father asked her — the self-proclaimed family genealogist — to do a detailed history of A.C. Pillsbury. He wanted her to write a book.

That was almost 30 years ago. Every time Pillsbury-Foster thinks she has enough information to write the book, something new is uncovered she needs to research more, she said. In that time, she has created a website and writes extensively about her grandfather. She visited BYU this past week to catalog the boxes and boxes of his photographs held in the Special Collections section of the HBLL.

Ryan Turner
A.C. Pillsbury wears the gear and holds the camera he uses when doing underwater photography and filming. (Ryan Turner)

A.C. Pillsbury sounds like the original hipster: he and friends first bicycled to Yosemite National Park in 1895, which is when he fell in love with the park he would later call home; he paid for college through his photography and working in a bicycle shop; he worked to fight traditional gender roles; he was known as the “Wildflower Man.”

A.C. Pillsbury was a scientist at his core. His parents were both physicians and passed on a love of science.

For him, Pillsbury-Foster said, photography was a “science-based love — it wasn’t enough to look at it, you had to understand it.”

Melinda Pillsbury-Foster works on cataloging her grandfather's photography that's held in HBLL's Special Collections. (Ryan Turner)
Melinda Pillsbury-Foster works on cataloging her grandfather’s photography that’s held in HBLL’s Special Collections. (Ryan Turner)

He bought his own studio in Yosemite National Park in 1897, where he could show films to up to 250 people in the theater, and educated people through his photography. A.C. Pillsbury’s children, including Pillsbury-Foster’s father, were taken out of school six months of the year to live at Yosemite National Park where they received a “real education” from their father, Pillsbury-Foster said. This education included nature, physics and mechanical engineering.

“He was definitely ahead of his time,” Pillsbury-Foster said.

Now, Pillsbury-Foster is continuing to gather all of her grandfather’s photography and film she can find.

Brock d'Avignon, a BYU alumnus who is helping Pillsbury-Foster, shows a photograph of A.C. Foster's taken in Yosemite National Park. (Ryan Turner)
Brock d’Avignon, a BYU alumnus who is helping Pillsbury-Foster, shows a photograph of A.C. Foster’s taken in Yosemite National Park. (Ryan Turner)

“We have no idea how many films there were because he was so prolific,” she said.

BYU alumnus Brock d’Avignon is working with Pillsbury-Foster to catalog the photography. Pillsbury-Foster and d’Avignon, from San Diego, met through a mutual friend in April 2016 and having been working together to illustrate and present A.C. Foster’s life in a way it never has been before. They welcome help from interested BYU students.

“It’s sort of a mystery,” Pillsbury-Foster said. “It’s like a big puzzle.”