Chicago has a deserved reputation as a street-photography city—think Vivian Meier—but one of the city's unsung heroes of photography shot as far from the street as he could get: George R. Lawrence, an early pioneer in aerial photography, whose company motto was "the hitherto impossible in photography is our specialty."

Lawrence was not an artist, but he was a gifted engineer and a canny businessman. In 1900, he built what was then the largest camera ever constructed: a 1,400-pound monster that required 15 operators and took photographs that were eight feet wide and 4 1/2 feet high, in order to capture the Chicago and Alton Railroad's Alton Limited. (The photo of the balloon race in the gallery is from a seven-foot-long contact print.)

The following year Lawrence got into aerial photography, taking a balloon up above the stockyards; the basket separated from the balloon, dropping Lawrence 200 feet, when telephone and telegraph wires broke his fall. Soon afterwards he built a system of kites, the "Lawrence Captive Airship": "a kite train of up to 17 Conyne kites on a piano wire cable suspending a camera held by the specially designed stabilizing mechanism." He made $15,000 alone on sales of a picture of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, or about $375,000 today.