"I see this more as a philosophical exhibition than a history of space and flight," says Stephen White. He's talking about "Skydreamers: A Saga of Air and Space," an expansive show of photographs and related materials — largely drawn from his collection — that's opening Friday at the Autry National Center in Griffith Park and runs through Sept. 4. "I don't know much about the technical aspects of aviation," he says. "What interests me is how photography interacts with what we call progress."
As the development of aviation led to the exploration of space, photography documented the drama — from land and air. Examples on view include pictures of a plane landing on the USS Pennsylvania in 1911 and an airship cruising over Pasadena in 1929, both by anonymous photographers; an aerial shot of the aftermath of San Francisco's 1906 San Francisco earthquake by George R. Lawrence and Co.; and a collage-like tribute to astronaut Buzz Aldrin made by Robert Weingarten in 2009.
"This is a story about man's quest to move away from the earth," White says of "Skydreamers." "It's a continuum from the Montgolfier brothers' hot air balloon to the Hubble telescope."
Well known as a dealer and collector, White opened one of Los Angeles' first photography galleries in 1975 and operated it until 1991. But at heart, he's a cultural historian who loves digging into crevices of human aspiration and unearthing pictures that lead to big exhibitions such as "The Photograph and the American Dream, 1840-1940," which opened at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2001 and traveled to the Skirball Cultural Center in 2003.
His latest project began in 1977 with the purchase of 50 images shot in 1913 from the windows of dirigibles in transit from Berlin to Vienna. In 1978, on a trip to Paris, he followed his new passion by acquiring 100 early French aviation photographs for $600.
"Six dollars apiece," he says, "and that's what really kicked off the whole thing. I was fascinated by the strange looking contraptions that people came up with in their quest to fly. I have always been interested in beginnings, including the beginnings of photography. It's amazing to see how primitive things are when they get going."