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.
ORIGIN AND FATE OF PROGRESSIVISM
Radical Abolitionists, dedicated fervently to Abolition, had demanded secession from the Union for New England with the cry, "No Union with Slave Holders," since 1844. Women, working for the right to become educated and for their own equal and inherent rights, fought a long battle to set up their own colleges, spending generations confined to low paying jobs in education. Subsidies of corporations by Congress, courts which ignored the criminal activities of the growing industry of Big Oil, manipulations of the monetary system, all of these causes angered the offspring of generations who believed in individual rights, honest work, accountability and freedom.
By the late 1800s they were confronting the question of how these changes were to be made. Political action had failed after repeated attempts and continuous diligence.
In the years coming up to 1913 these questions became increasingly critical. Frustration built. Many of that generation had given up on the idea ordinary people could manage their own lives and make their own choices. It was a socialist christian, Francis Julius Bellamy, who in 1892 ran the first successful public relations campaign for adoption of a practice intended to de-emphasize and alter the study of the ideas of freedom in schools, adopting a role for the middle class to, "create a planned economy with political, social and economic equality for all. The government would run a peace time economy similar to our present military industrial complex." That was the Pledge of Allegiance, installed through the first successful nation-wide media campaign in history which restated and reversed the relationship between the people and government.
Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the philosopher of the Women's Movement in the 1900s, became a socialist. Through the late 1900s into the 20th Century those sincerely dedicated to change kept working. Now they were using very different ideas, the concepts of individual rights and local governance directly by the people having given way to the move for top down control.
The failures of the 1800s could not be denied and resulted in the seduction of progressivism enunciated by Herbert Croly in his book, the Bible of Progressivism, titled, "The Promise of American Life," published in 1909. Croly was also the founder of the NewRepublic.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).