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PHOTOJOURNALIST, WAR CORRESPONDENT, EXPLORER

Ruth Agnes McCall Robertson (1905-1998) was a newspaper woman, a photojournalist and an explorer. The highlight of her accomplished career was her 1949 expedition to the base of Angel Falls, to prove it the highest waterfall on earth.  Four previous expeditions led by men had failed.

Starting out in 1939 at The Peoria Journal Star, she was its first "girl photographer."  After convincing the editor to try something new, Ruth's creation, Peoria and Her People, quickly gained popularity, and established her credentials as a writer and photographer.

Chicago, Glamour magazine 1945

Chicago, Glamour magazine 1945

Constantly searching for greater challenge and a better story, by 1942 she had joined Acme Newspictures (later United Press International) in Chicago, as news editor, where she met newspaperman Art Neumann, General Manager UPI Midwest.  After opening the Acme/St. Louis Bureau for Neumann in 1944, and acting as its Bureau Manager, Ruth joined forces with Neumann to form their own bureau, Press Syndicate.

By 1944, many male news photographers had followed MacArthur into the Pacific, leaving the field wide open for ambitious photojournalists like Ruth. She rose to the challenge, winning plum assignments such as the 1944 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, both held in Chicago that year.

In 1945, through Press Syndicate, Ruth applied for war correspondent status and was one of three assigned to the Alaskan-Aleutian area, Ladd Field in Fairbanks.

War correspondent with Speed Graphic Alaska 1945

War correspondent with Speed Graphic Alaska 1945

She photographed U.S. and Russian military movements, and found time to photograph native peoples as well. Ruth was a newspaper woman to the core and was prepared do just about anything to get a good story. At a moment's notice she would hop a flight to any destination. She spent hours in freezing cold bomber sites, trying to get the perfect shot. One shot she was particularly proud of is one that took 40 trips to capture hanging out an open bay of a B-24. It is of Big and Little Diomede, two islands separated by the international date line and the U.S./Russian boundary. Robertson traveled the 2,000-mile Aleutian chain of islands to the HQ of the 11th Air Force and flew with pilots who were bombing the Japanese Kuriles, escaping unhurt when a fighter plane she was in took a direct hit.

On a flight to the North Pole she met and photographed the famous explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. On another she photographed the home and progeny of Charlie Brower, member of New York society, friend to explorers, and to whose home Will Rogers and Wiley Post were flying when they crashed. With the Seabees, she watched as the first oil on Petroleum Project No. 4 came in at Point Barrow.

Demonstrating face painting with Indian symbols to ward off evil spirits, 1950

Demonstrating face painting with Indian symbols to ward off evil spirits, 1950

Ruth specialized in photodocumentary – notably the Matanuska Valley Cooperative – a method by which the U.S. Government "colonized" Alaska. Another major focus was the Lend Lease Act, tracing the operation from Great Falls, Montana straight through to the Bering Strait. This feature received wide acclaim in Flying Magazine in 1945.

After the war Ruth landed at the New York Herald Tribune, writing features for its "This Week Magazine." But after her Alaska adventures, writing about "recipes and drapery fabric was boring.” One blustery cold evening Ruth's friend, Clayton Knight (member of Eddie Rickenbacker's famous Hat in the Ring Gang in WW I, and probably best known for the Clayton Knight Committee, a group that funneled American pilots into Canada and the RCAF in WW II), invited her to meet him and a group of Venezuelan pilots at Tim Costello's Bar under the Third Avenue El. Over dinner one of the pilots asked Ruth to consider going to Venezuela to do some articles for U.S. papers on the new American pilots the airlines were hiring. 

A few weeks later she was aboard a Pan American Constellation headed South for the adventure of a lifetime. "It was cold in New York; nobody was picking up the garbage," Ruth said.  "Besides, I've always been curious about what's on the other side of the mountain. I gave two weeks notice, packed my things, and left."

 

Self-portrait, Angel Falls 1949


ACCOMPLISHMENTS

  • “First Girl Photographer”, Peoria Journal Star, 1939
  • First Woman to Photograph Baseball Games from the Infield at Wrigley Field
  • First Woman to Photograph Football Games from the 50-yard line at Northwestern and Notre Dame
  • Only Woman Photographer in the Press Pool at the 1944 Democratic and Republican National Conventions
  • Only Woman War Correspondent in Alaska in World War II
  • First Person to Lead a Successful Expedition to the base of Angel Falls, in Venezuela, in 1949

On Oil Rig, Maracaibo, Venezuela    1947

On Oil Rig, Maracaibo, Venezuela    1947