Ruth Agnes McCall Robertson (1905-1998)
Photojournalist, War Correspondent, and Explorer
Ruth Robertson was born in Peoria, Illinois in 1905 and one of her “firsts” was becoming the Peoria Journal Star’s 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.
In 1942 she moved to Chicago and was hired by Acme Newspictures (later United Press International) as a news editor, By 1944, many male news photographers had followed General MacArthur to the Pacific, so newspapers were scrambling for people who could cover events. This opened the door for Robertson to take on new assignments. As a photojournalist, she was assigned to cover both the 1944 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, both held in Chicago that year. She also was the first woman to photograph baseball games from the infield at Wrigley Field in Chicago, and the first woman to photograph football games from the 50-yard line at Northwestern and Notre Dame.
During the mid-1940s, Robertson and another journalist decided to form their own bureau, the Press Syndicate. In 1945, Robertson applied for war correspondent status and was one of three (the only woman) assigned to the Alaskan-Aleutian area in Fairbanks.
Expedition to Angel Falls in Venezuela
After World War II, Robertson found being back in New York City too boring, and she accepted a job that took her to Venezuela. She had heard of a “mile high” waterfall in the area, and she aspired to photograph it. After her arrival, she used her spare time to find pilots who were willing to fly her to the falls, but she was dissatisfied with the photographs that resulted. She resolved that she needed to go in on land and get her photograph from the base of the falls.
Four previous land expeditions to the falls had failed but Robertson was determined. She knew they would need to travel part way via river and then hack there way through the rain forest, and she began to line up funds, select a team, and organize supplies for her trip.
On April 23, 1949, her group set out traveling in dugout canoes up the Rio Acanaan, eventually stowing the boats and traveling through thick underbrush. On May 12 they finally saw the waterfall. Robertson’s expedition was the first land group to ever reach the base of the falls. She not only got her photograph, but the group brought back the first-ever measurement of the falls: Angel Falls rises 3,212 feet above the jungle—fifteen times the height of Niagara Falls (twice the height of the Empire State Building). Newspapers around the world reported on her success, but her own story with photos appeared in the National Geographic.
Ironically, the falls were named for Jimmy Angel, an American bush pilot who was the first to see the falls from the air. Ruth Robertson, the first to get there on foot and the first to photograph them, received no recognition.
To see the photograph that is considered the most valuable in her collection, visit Ruth Robertson’s website: www.ruthrobertson.org. It is spectacular–but just as I posted it I noted that there is a surprise. She must have ultimately determined that her most dramatic picture of the falls was from the air as there is clearly a plane wing in the photo! Nonetheless, she made the trip, measured the falls, and came back to tell her story.