In the 1930s, when the last unexplored regions of the world were being “found,” Martin and Osa Johnson, an American couple from Kansas, delighted audiences in theaters with films of their aerial safaris throughout Africa and Borneo. Both pilots and photographers, the Johnsons explored Kenya and Tanganyika in 1933, taking the first aerial photograph of Mt. Kilimanjaro and documenting herds of wild animals on the Serengeti Plain.
One of the main forces behind the popularity of early safari films, Martin Johnson developed a passion for photography whilst working at his father’s Eastman-Kodak franchise. A keen traveller, he left home at 14 to explore Europe, returning as a stowaway and with precious time to spare, joined Jack London’s round-the-world expedition in 1907.
Officially on the expedition as a cook, his culinary skills reportedly left a lot to be desired but he returned with a wealth of interesting photographic work. Touring the U.S. with this display, he met his future wife Osa and they married in 1910. Spending several seasons on the vaudeville circuit they raised enough money for their first expedition, setting off for Vanuata and the Solomon Islands in 1917.
Their accompanying film, Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (1918), was one of the most successful of the early ‘exploration come documentary’ productions and was followed in quick succession by Jungle Adventures (1921) and Head Hunters of the South Seas (1922).
Best remembered for their safari work, the couple reputedly began working with wildlife after receiving a cable from their financers reading, “Public tired of savages. Get some animal pictures”. In 1921 they embarked on their first African expedition and returning numerous times they released many films about the landscape, the animals and its people. In contrast to modern day wildlife features, the couple were just as quick with their rifles as they were with their cameras. Osa’s impressive marksman skills became the hallmark of their work, and in 1928 their popular travelogue Simba was released, including her famous showdown with a charging rhino.
The 1930s saw them producing Congorilla (1932), the first ever film with sound authentically recorded in Africa, and Baboona (1935) for which they flew the length of the continent. In 1937, whilst completing a lecture tour with footage from their final trip to Borneo, the Johnsons’ plane crashed in bad weather and Martin died the following day from his injuries. Ironically, after all their adventures flying around the world themselves, they crash while on a commercial flight. Badly injured in the plane crash, Osa refused to interrupt the lecture tour they had been conducting and by the end of the year was back filming in Africa.
1940 saw the publication of her autobiography I Married Adventure and in the years that followed she conducted lectures and made various television appearances, mostly reflecting on her and Martin’s early work. Osa Johnson died on 7th January 1953.
Their expeditions flew two Sikorsky amphibians, the twin-engine S-38C Osa’s Ark, painted in zebra stripes, and the single engine S-39B Spirit of Africa (and later Borneo), sporting giraffe spots. These planes allowed them to land on backcountry rivers, lakes, and plains to meet native tribes and move efficiently around 60,000 miles of bush country.