Changing Sights From The Heights

Two panoramic shots by amateur photographer Chester Chaffee show how much Honolulu has changed in the past half century

Friday - February 17, 2006
By Lisa Asato
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Chaffee re-created the 1955 photo by shooting from the same spot on Round Top, on the same date and at the same time of day to get the same lighting and shadows
Chaffee re-created the 1955 photo by shooting from the same spot on Round Top, on
the same date and at the same time of day to get the same lighting and shadows

While showing some friends around Oahu back in 1955, amateur photographer Chester Chaffee snapped some photos of Honolulu, seen from Round Top Drive, as it stood between the milestones of war and statehood, snapshots of Honolulu before the boom.

“There’s no high rise. Aloha Tower, nine stories, that’s the tallest building,” Chaffee says of the picture that’s become the anchor of his favorite piece, a panorama of the Honolulu skyline stretching a half century in time from 1955 to 2005.

Chaffee, now 88 and having outlived his wife, says the photo “brings back memories and people I knew at that time, people that were with me when I took that picture.”

He adds, “Some of the old-timers look at this (and say), ‘Oh, I used to live right there.’”

Chester Chafee in the 1950s
Chester Chafee in the 1950s

The original pictures lay nearly forgotten for more than three decades until, as Chaffee recalls, “I was going through some of my old slides back in the early ‘90s, and I ran across these slides.”

He took them to a friend who blended the four shots into a single panorama using computer technology.

And every year since 1991, save one, he’s returned to that spot on Round Top Drive, pointing his 35 mm Olympus OM2 at Diamond Head on the left to Punchbowl on the right and at everything in between, recapturing the smallest details of light and shadows of that original August day.

Just how does he do it? He counts the days backward from the summer solstice that the original picture was taken forward from it to get the same angle of the sun. That brings him to a day in April. From there, cloudlessness over the city is a must, as is the time of day.

“Between 11, 11:30 in the morning, to get the shadow on Diamond Head. See,” he says, “(the shadow’s) on the old one. It’s practically identical to the new one.”

Chester Chafee today
Chester Chafee today

Chaffee’s not certain he’ll make the trek this year, but says he will if the weather and his health are all right.

At his home in Pearl City, larger-than-life pictures are uniquely displayed, framed, flip-style like pages in a book above the fireplace.

There’s even a 10-footer dangling from the parlor ceiling.

But it’s his Honolulu panorama that holds a place of distinction. It’s the one for which he reserves the spotlights. And the koa frame. “I wouldn’t use anything else on that,” he says of the nearly 8-foot-long hanging.

“I sold two of them 8-foot-long ones,” says Chaffee.

“One guy wanted the (original photo) so I sold him that separate. He lives out in Makiki. He says, ‘I can look out the window and see the new one.’”

Chaffee first visited Honolulu in 1951 while on leave and remembers how the “baby aircraft carrier pulled into Pearl Harbor to unload the planes. First week of February and the palm trees are swaying, and the hula skirts are swaying. I said that’s where I’m going to retire.”

It was a memorable first visit all around.

“That’s when I met the girl I married later,” he says, “a local girl.”

He enlisted in the Air Force around the time of World War II and served 24 years as an aircraft mechanic. He was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base from 1953 to 1956, and served his last year here before retiring as a master sergeant in 1969.

Chaffee, who grew up on a farm in West Lafayette, Ind., remembers getting his first camera for free in 1930. “Kodak that year put out a Brownie camera, a box camera,” he says. “They gave it to dealers and they said, ‘Give it to your customers that are 12 years old.’ That’s what started me.”

The 50th anniversary panorama is available at The Art Board, or by calling Chaffee at 455-2128. A 3-footer sells for around $50. The 92-inch-long panorama is made to order and sells for $400.

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