Sunday, January 08, 2012

IDAHO: Boisean captures the city’s changing skyline from high above

Chris Butler/Idaho Statesman
Bowers flew two missions over Normandy on D-Day in World War II. He remembers looking down and seeing the chop on the English Channel. His crew dropped 10 500-pound bombs during the two missions. He modestly downplays his role in the Allied victory: “Those guys on the ground, they were the real heroes.”

If you’ve ever seen an aerial photograph of Boise taken in the 1980s, it was probably shot by Chet Bowers.

Bowers enjoyed a view of Idaho’s changing urban landscape like no other photographer.

From 1985 until 1995, he owned Bowers Aero Photo, and the name became synonymous with pictures of the city from above.

Bowers, 93, estimates he has logged 3,000 hours flying his Cessna across Idaho, shooting images. Fortune 500 companies like Hewlett-Packard, Morrison Knudsen and Micron Technology hired him to document their construction sites, buildings and even empty lots. He would shoot it all.

Because land appears more expansive and expensive from the sky, Bowers’ skills were highly coveted by Treasure Valley real estate agents, as well as those hoping to sell million-dollar properties in and around Sun Valley.

He has photographed the homes of famous Hollywood types such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford, along with well-known Sun Valley resident and musician Steve Miller.

Bowers proved that not only can aerial photography be a successful business but it’s also an art form. His images are perfectly composed. Roads become lines that dissolve into the horizon, and rivers look like ribbons strewn across a canvas.

How did Bowers shoot such beautifully composed pictures as he operated his Cessna? He attached his Pentax film camera to the side window with a bungee cord.

“I had a remote on the control stick, and I had to manually wind the film,” he said.

This allowed him to steer the aircraft while banking and shooting pictures.

He did all this while traveling at 85-90 mph at an altitude of 1,000 feet.

While you might think it is a dangerous profession, it was nothing compared to his on-the-job training almost 67 years ago. During World War II, Bowers flew missions in a B-17 over Europe for the Army Air Corps. He co-piloted two missions over Normandy on D-Day.

“We tried to soften up the infantry positions on the beach,” he said. “It was windy, rainy — pretty miserable. Half those guys were seasick before they got to the beach.”

Though flying over the Terminator’s home in Sun Valley pales in comparison to the hell of D-Day, Bowers found aerial photography wasn’t without its dangers. During one flight while shooting a bank property over downtown Idaho Falls in 1990, he narrowly missed colliding with another aircraft.

“I looked up, and there was this Piper 200 yards away. I had no idea he was there.”

It took more than good flying to make the business a success.

As Bowers took the pictures, his wife, Maida, helped keep track of accounts and marketing. She also joined him on some flights. She would take the controls when her husband needed to change film. “Just hold it straight and level,” he would say.

His thousands of prints are in boxes in the Bowerses’ basement. The photographs tell a story of Boise’s tumultuous period of redevelopment through the ’80s and early ’90s. On one office wall is a large framed picture of Boise State’s Bronco Stadium. “I shot it when it was green,” Bowers said, referring to Boise State’s famous blue turf.

Bowers still takes pictures, but now it’s with both feet on the ground. These days, he prefers hiking, fishing and bird hunting with his Brittany, Jacques.

“I’ll be out there, rain or shine,” he said, as the dog slept soundly nearby.

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