While growing up in northern San Diego County, Bill Dewey was aware of photography because his two grandfathers were serious amateur photographers. His maternal grandfather had studied with the photographer William Mortensen. In the 1930s, Mortensen worked as a Hollywood portrait photographer, also staging and photographing elaborate (and sometimes bizarre) tableaus using the style and techniques of the nineteenth-century Pictorialists. Dewey remembers photographs of costumed, exotic women that his grandfather made in the Mortensen style. Though he never worked in the darkroom with his grandfather, he has memories of the equipment and the chemical smell from his darkroom explorations.
Like many children growing up in the fifties, Dewey owned a Brownie camera and enjoyed the excitement of seeing the images. In his first year at University of California Davis, his younger brother, who had a makeshift darkroom in the family bathroom, showed him how to develop black-and-white film and make prints. Impressed by this “unbelievable magic,” Dewey bought a used Pentax Spotmatic from a pawn shop in San Francisco for $75.
While at UC Davis, he took an art class with the painter Wayne Thiebaud, who became an important influence. “Thiebaud had a vision and an intellectual underpinning for what he was doing and could communicate it well,” Dewey says. “Some of my images of the Sacramento Delta coincidentally mimic some of Thiebaud’s paintings.”
In 1971, Dewey was accepted at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara to study photography. Many students at Brooks were Vietnam veterans who financed their schooling with the GI Bill. However, Dewey had avoided the draft because he had no useful vision in his right eye — a condition called monocular vision. To finance his photographic education, Dewey skipped every other session of school to work and save money for the next session. He had a part-time job at the Santa Barbara Historical Society printing in its darkroom and working in its archives. He also worked part-time doing video with a documentary filmmaker. After a year and a half of school, he decided his formal photographic education was adequate and opened a small studio with a darkroom in downtown Santa Barbara.
While dating a woman who was getting her pilot’s license flying low wing airplanes, Dewey had an epiphany. He was under the impression that his monocular vision would prevent him from qualifying for a pilot’s license. After doing some research, he found that he could get a license if he would do extra flight testing in Los Angeles. Dewey took his lessons in Cessna high wing planes, which are more suitable for aerial photography. He says, “Getting my pilot’s license was all about doing aerial photography. Once I had soloed and felt comfortable enough, I started taking aerial photos. My early work was all 35mm and almost exclusively black and white. Later, when I could afford it, I did medium format black and white with a 6×7 Pentax.”
He found the Pentax to be a good tool, but heavy and bulky. In the 1990s, when Mamiya introduced the Mamiya 6 (a 6×6 rangefinder) and the Mamiya 7 (a 6×7 rangefinder), he transitioned to those cameras. He says, “The smaller size and lighter weight were a huge advantage. I used the Mamiyas until I started doing digital. I now shoot with digital Nikons, the D3 and the D7000.”
Dewey is of the same mind as many photographers who began as film photographers. “If I had unlimited money, I would still shoot a lot of film. But doing aerial photography, I’m prone to keep shooting when I see an image that I like because everything changes so fast. Digital opened the floodgates to really explore the landscape and the light.”