December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Bill Mayfield was only fourteen years old in 1910 when he boarded the Wright brothers’ “Exhibition B” Flyer with Orville Wright at the controls. He had his bulky camera loaded with a four-by-five-inch glass plate and, when airborne, he hung on to a strut with one arm and clicked the shutter once with his free hand, aiming the lens at the Wrights’ hangar, which sat about where Wright Patterson Air Force Base is today.
As soon as he had the picture, Mayfield recalled, he motioned to Orville to “take me down. I was scared to death.” The Dayton Daily News didn’t publish the shot (the editor complained there weren’t any people in it), but, Mayfield said, “No one ever disputed the fact that I was the first person to take a photograph from an airplane.” Bill had two glass plates with him that day in 1914; Orville used the other to take a picture of Bill at the controls.
William Preston Mayfield had been born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1896, but his family moved to Dayton, Ohio, when he was very young. He worked for the Daily News from 1910 to 1937, but like most photographers of his day, he had to be a generalist; he filmed newsreels and took pictures for commercial clients as well as for his newspaper. Cameras were heavy then, and he had to carry around a lot of lights to get the shots he needed. Back in the darkroom he constantly experimented with chemicals to get his prints to match what he saw in his mind’s eye. In his best pictures this workmanlike care brought him close to something very much like art.
In common with other newspaper photographers, he had opportunities to shoot the famous people who passed through town: William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford. But although his career spanned sixty years—he died in 1974—many of Mayfield’s finest pictures are his early scenes of Dayton, of the texture of life in an ordinary American city made exceptional by the fact that two brothers there were at work on a project that would change the world.