His photographs haunt the minds of many who see them. Astonishing vistas draw the eye to deep distances, the eyes of people, now gone, are caught in images holding trust and friendship. In another photo a flower blooms, its acts revealed; a cell lives out its destiny, dividing again and again in its dance of life. In other photos you find harsh realities of destruction, familiar figures, and nearly forgotten moments from history, also his work. Seeing his images brings a hunger to know more of the man who held the camera.
Yet understanding Arthur C. Pillsbury evades even those who spent decades studying his work and finding mention of him has been nearly impossible.
The life of Arthur C. Pillsbury is the story of the application of photography to science in ways which resulted in broad public understanding of worlds previously beyond human vision. His goal was for each of us to experience the processes of life, the multifaceted and connected world of nature, of which we are a part, for ourselves. Most of Pillsbury's inventions took place in a world where gatekeepers, then being installed through an ongoing centralization of government by corporations, were taking control of our institutions. Those years were 1909 1930.
The tools Pillsbury identified, and his goals, differed from all other photographers and scientists, as did his background. Understanding him provides insights into a world which was then changing in ways still impacting us today.
Pillsbury lived and breathed photography, working diligently to solve the existing technological problems preventing our understanding the worlds beyond human vision. Scientists and medical professionals then lacked the most direct and important source of information, seeing the processes of life as they took place. Both his parents and his older brother were physicians who constantly studied how to understand these processes in biology, hampered by lack of adequate scientific tools in the last decades of the 19th Century and the first decade of the Twentieth Century.
Using a microscope, specimens had to be dead to be viewed. Can you know the grace of a runner in motion by viewing his dead body? No. You need to see the subject moving. Pillsbury's early years were filled with discussions about what could be learned from seeing life as it really was. Growing up in Auburn, California, Arthur had cross bred chickens and exotic birds, keeping careful records of the offspring, learning scientific method and routinely using a microscope.
His childhood and family culture gave him the mission on which he spent his life.
His parents, Drs Harriet Foster Pillsbury and Harlin Henry Pillsbury, brought two microscopes with them to California in 1883. Both were born in New England and were descended from families which had participated in the Transcendental, Radical Abolitionist, Educationist, and Women's Rights movements as classical liberals. Three generations of such individuals had been bloodied by the frustrations encountered in their inability to enact substantial change for individual rights and social justice using political tools to alleviate the conditions brought on by the South, as it ignored the mandate for all to be free, and the Civil War, fought to preserve the power of government.