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THE FIRST NAVY

PHOTOGRAPHER

Walter Leroy Richardson


Commercial Photography Support

During the earliest years of photography, the


Department of the Navy would hire outside
commercial photographers to fulfill its
photographic and motion picture needs.

At the same time, in the Navy ranks, there


were sailors who pursued photography as a
hobby and would unofficially provide their
shipmates and commands with a steady
supply of pictures. There were no official
photographic jobs in the Navy.

In January 1914, the fledgling naval air arm


was ordered to transfer from their base at
Annapolis, Maryland. At the time, this unit
was the entirety of naval aviation.

It consisted of nine officers, 23 enlisted men,


seven seaplanes, some portable hangars and
other assorted equipment with Navy Lt. John
Henry Towers as officer-in-charge
A Moment of Fate

The unit boarded the USS Mississippi with


orders to proceed to Pensacola, Florida, and
establish a permanent aeronautic station on
the site of the old naval station, which had
closed in 1911.

When the unit arrived they found the beaches


covered with logs, bridge timbers, broken
houses, shattered boats and other
debris…the victims of numerous Gulf storms.

Lt. Towers needed to send word back to


Washington, DC, of the base’s condition.

He decided to supplement his report with


photographs to highlight the gravity of the
situation.
Talent Discovered

One of the enlisted men working with the unit


as an aeronautic mechanic was Walter “Dick”
Leroy Richardson, a Ship’s Cook, 4th Class, on
loan from the USS Mississippi.

He was also a photo hobbyist and the ship’s


unofficial photographer. Towers quickly put
him to work on the photos. Richardson used
his personal Kodak camera.

The lieutenant was so impressed with the


young photographer’s work, he had him start
to photograph all aspects of flight operations
and training, that is, when he wasn’t working
on plane engines or serving meals, of course.
Partnering with Industry

Late in 1914, Lt. Towers got Richardson


permanently assigned to naval aviation, made
a machinist’s mate (aviation) and designated
the Pensacola Aeronautic Station’s “official
photographer.” This was the birth of Naval
photography.

After experimenting with a number of


cameras in flight, it became obvious that a
proper aerial camera was essential for the
Navy’s specific needs.

In August 1915, the Naval Observatory


requested the Eastman Kodak Company
develop an aerial camera to Richardson’s
specifications.

Soon they produced the Kodak Aero Camera,


the company’s first. After proper testing and
tweaking, it was a huge success, with the
Navy ordering 20 “aero cameras and
accessories.”
Leveraging Technology

In December 1915, Richardson and pilot Lt.


E.F. Johnson performed the first recorded
aerial photography mission from the Naval
Aeronautical Station Pensacola, Florida. Soon
after, Richardson created the Navy’s first
oblique photo mosaic map.

He continued to experiment and rapidly


increased his knowledge and skill.
Richardson’s Accomplishments did not go
unnoticed by Washington.

When the United States entered World War I


in April 1917, the military requirements for
photography increased dramatically on and
over the battlefield.

The Army and Navy needed to organize their


own photographic divisions. As far as the
Navy was concerned, Walter Richardson was
their man.
Pioneering Spirit

In November of 1917, he was promoted to


chief machinist’s mate (aviation) and attended
the first class of the Army’s School of Aerial
Photography at Langley Field, Virginia, which
was taught by a combat experienced British
instructor.

On January 2, 1918, he was commissioned an


ensign in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps
becoming the Navy’s first photographic
officer.

He immediately started to organize the


Photographic Section and at the same time,
created plans for a Naval School of Aerial
Photography at Naval Air Station Miami,
Florida, and for the construction and
outfitting of photo labs at naval air stations in
the U.S., the Canal Zone and Hawaii.
Establishing Vision

One of Richardson’s first challenges was to


find a staff for the new school. He selected
four experienced commercial photographers
from among the Navy’s wartime volunteers
and enlisted them as petty officers in the new
rating of Printer (aviation). They would serve
as the first instructors. Shortly after that,
Richardson went through Navy flight school to
be able to fly his students on aerial
assignments. The rating of Navy
Photographer was established in 1921.

Recognized to be more valuable to the Navy


as a civilian, Richardson was honorably
discharged in 1926 and took a position as the
head of the Photographic Section, where he
remained until 1932. At that time, the former
ship’s cook was then designated Senior
Scientist and Photographic Inspector for the
Bureau of Aeronautics, a position he held until
his death on June 14, 1945.
Birth of Legacy

Due to his endeavors in establishing


photography as a viable Navy tool, his
research in aerial photography and cameras,
creating schools that trained thousands,
documenting history and generally being the
cornerstone of establishing all aspects of the
rating, Walter L. Richardson will always be
considered the “Father of Naval
Photography.”
Future Naval Forces

Today, Navy and Marine Corps storytellers


serve the U.S. military’s 21st century needs
through a variety of digital products; they
continue a tradition of documenting the
history and missions of the Department of the
Navy that began at the hands of a ship’s cook
more than 100 years ago.