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George Bourne and the flying machines

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George Bourne and the flying machines

Aerial photography is almost as old as the aeroplane itself. Weekly News photographer George Bourne was one of the early adopters of the genre, flying with his friends the Walsh brothers.

George Bourne with flying helmet, holding a camera on left in cockpit of plane, with Walsh Brothers. The plane is in water. Behind the men is the propeller, and in the distance a wharf.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-1976-6-9b.

New Zealand Flying School

In 1914, Leo and Vivian Walsh built a seaplane and in October 1915 they founded the New Zealand Flying School. It was located at Orakei, later moving to Mission Bay (then Kohimarama). They used seaplanes to train pilots for the Royal Flying Corps. The school employed aviators such as George Bolt, for both his flying skill and knowledge of engineering. Planes were assembled and even constructed onsite in a workshop. George Bourne took his camera to the school, and into the air, allowing a glimpse at what he saw.

Auckland by air

The ability to take photographs in the air allowed the newspaper photographer to take detailed oblique views of the Auckland urban landscape offering a completely new way of looking at the city. A similar style of photography off the side of an aircraft was employed by pilot photographers away at war. Other aerial photographs by Bourne show the wing of the sea plane as the photographer has taken a flyby shot of the ground.

The experience of flight was exhilarating. In the draft for a an article on his flying experience with the Walsh brothers, Bourne writes:

Lifting the eyes as we swept past the picturesque marine suburb of Devonport with its closely clustering houses, and delightful twin beaches, the expansive formation of Auckland city with its vast conglomeration of strangely shaped roofs, and pleasing harmony of the mingling colours and designs of its architecture, struck the vision on all its immensity.

He also makes mention of some of the hazards of aerial photography.

Bringing the camera into use I added one more sensation to my accumulating experiences through having omitted to fasten the protective cuffs of my leather jacket securely. As the arm was lifted a mighty draught of icey coldness swept up the exposed opening and circulating round the body inflated the clothes about one’s person into a balloon-like resemblance. It was what may be aptly described as a 'cool proceeding'.

Aerial view of Devonport taken from a sea plane. Taken from the Stanley Bay area looking towards Mt. Victoria and North Head.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-CNEG-C12473, PH-1977-5-88.

George Bourne wasn't the only photographer to take an interest in the Walsh brothers flying school. In 1918 Wanganui photographer and cinematographer Charles F. Newham made a film called Auckland from the skies which covers the school on the ground and includes aerial footage from a fixed camera position on the aircraft.


A montage of a seaplane flying over Auckland city with two children standing in the cockpit.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-1976-6-15.

Bourne's aerial photographs feature in some of his famous photomontages along with photographs of the Walsh brothers' sea planes. Children feature in the cockpit of the aircraft or even occasionally on the wing.

These clever images have been produced by combing multiple images into a new montage image. This can be achieved by painting out sections of a negative to allow only unpainted sections to expose. By using several of these painted negatives in succession it is possible to create a hybrid exposure that combines selected parts of several shots.

Bourne took many ground based photographs of the Walsh brothers' sea planes that feature in his photomontages, both with and without occupants.

Close examination of the bottom of the sea plane flying with children reveals an uneven painted edge to the fuselage as seen against the sky.

This playful medium allowed for scenes depicting busy skies full of seaplanes and with an assortment of parachutes, balloons, fantastic flying machines and even falling individuals all inspired by his wonderful experiences flying with the Walsh Brothers in their magnificent sea planes.

Cite this article

Higgins, Shaun. George Bourne and the flying machines. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 23 November 2015. Updated: 30 June 2017.

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