Pilot Chas. Widmer & Helpers Right After Plane Landing Accident

George R. Watson American

Not on view

Rarely does "compositional balance" assume such literal import as in this counterpoised view of a plane gone critically off-kilter. Amid the chaos of the crash, photographer George R. Watson finds a fleeting equilibrium. A master of split-second dramas, Watson had been courting disaster since 1917, when he was hired as the first staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times. By the 1920s, he had earned a reputation for his impeccable timing, snapping high-octane views of natural disasters and collapsing buildings, often escaping with moments to spare. Watson covered southern California's booming aviation industry, and made his own aerial views of greater Los Angeles, finding a kinship between photography and flight—two swiftly maturing technologies then transforming perception. But here he slows down, grounding his vision in structural fundamentals. The tacit accord in this picture between the figures and ground, the men and their machine, is cut through with tension and predicated on impending upset. Perched on the plane’s tail as if on a seesaw, pilot Charles E. Widmer seeks to weigh it down and thereby send its nose skyward. Below, some bystanders lend a hand as others bear witness, and even a terrier stands at attention. Meanwhile, Watson strikes his own balancing act, suspending the turbulence mid-scene to brace viewers for impact.

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