Melvin Vaniman (1866-1912)
American Melvin Vaniman arrived in New Zealand from San Francisco on 4 February 1902 bringing with him large-format panoramic cameras of his own design and construction.
Originally a musician and opera singer, Vaniman stayed on in Honolulu to become a professional photographer when the opera company of which he was a member self-destructed while on tour in Hawaii. Throwing himself into his new profession, he developed refinements in panoramic camera design and experimented in artificial vantage points for his equipment. His work caught the attention of an American steamship company, and in 1901 he was engaged to photograph tourist destinations in New Zealand and Australia.
While in Christchurch Vaniman constructed a 32 metre tall pole to photograph the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company works. In Auckland, he clambered to the top of a ship’s mast to secure a view of the waterfront. Moving on to Sydney, he realised that if he was to capture a satisfactory view of the harbour, masts and poles or scaffolding would be inadequate. He therefore imported a purpose-made balloon to carry his camera aloft.
Vaniman’s aerial success encouraged him to travel to Europe, but his plans to photograph its principal cities from tethered balloons were thwarted by unfavourable atmospheric conditions. Undaunted, he teamed up with US newspaper proprietor Walter Wellman who employed Vaniman’s ballooning expertise in two failed attempts to reach the North Pole by airship in 1907 and 1909. After Peary’s conquest of the Pole in 1909, the pair switched their attention to the Atlantic, setting new world records for balloon travel in 1910. On 2 July 1912, during a second attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean, airship Akron exploded killing its skipper Vaniman, his brother Calvin, and three others.
One of the last photographs of Melvin Vaniman (centre) before his tragic death in the airship Akron. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. AWNS-19120815-12-4)