Peter Breinig – San Francisco Chronicle photographer

Peter Breinig, a longtime cigar-chomping San Francisco Chronicle photographer and airplane pilot who snapped some of his best news pictures while leaning out the window of his single-engine plane, has died. Breinig, 80, died Friday on his houseboat on Richardson Bay after a brief illness.

"Photography is communication,'' he liked to say. "You don't take pictures to win newspaper contests. You take pictures to tell the story. The better the picture, the smaller the caption you need.''

Breinig, whose evocative pictures needed little or no caption, was a Chronicle photographer for nearly three decades. He photographed presidents, crooks, forest fires, jazz singers, train wrecks and, memorably, a giant chicken that wanted to take a nip of his shutter finger.

Colleagues remembered Breinig as a cantankerous, friendly, gruff, compassionate old-school colleague who was not above cussing a blue streak when the occasion warranted, which was often. He was known for shaving with an electric razor while driving to photo assignments, occasionally while keeping his eye on the road ahead. He favored smelly cigars of humble origins, saving the cigar bands to make finger rings for colleagues' children.

While Breinig would say with a smile that his editors sent him and his camera aloft in order to save the cost of hiring a separate pilot, he rarely failed to return with dramatic pictures. From the air, he photographed fires, floods, Yosemite rock climbers, freak Bay Area snowstorms and artist Christo's famed 24-mile-long Running Fence sculpture that snaked through Marin and Sonoma counties in 1976.

At Yosemite, while photographing a climber nearing the summit of El Capitan, Breinig maneuvered to the very edge of the monolith, opened the airplane window and, at the precise instant, snapped the photo with one hand on the camera shutter and one hand on the control stick.

"Flying and taking pictures at the same time is not difficult to do,'' Breinig said. "The airplane wants to fly itself. You can even let go of the controls if you know what you're doing. It's easier for me to take the picture myself - I know exactly where I want the plane to be and exactly when I want it to be there, without having to tell someone else.''

Breinig, known to his colleagues as "Flyboy,'' also built his own airplanes. In 1968, he cobbled together a single-seat plane from scratch in the basement of his Potrero Hill home, then tied the contraption to the top of his Chronicle photo car, drove it to an Oakland airstrip and took off for New York.

"The trip took a while,'' he recalled. "I stopped in Santa Fe and wound up meeting a young lady, and that delayed me for four or five days.''

A native of Los Angeles, Breinig moved at the age of six with his schoolteacher mother to Monterey. His older half-brother, who built a small darkroom under the stairs of their Monterey home, introduced Breinig to photography as a small boy.

After graduating from Carmel High School, Breinig repaired aircraft radios for the U.S. Army in India during World War II. He worked as a freelance photographer before spending seven years on the staff of the Monterey Herald. He joined The Chronicle in 1959.

After retiring from The Chronicle in 1986, Breinig became a part owner of Commodore Seaplanes, based just north of Sausalito on the edge the bay. He took tourists on half-hour sightseeing rides and gave flying lessons. He built and rebuilt airplanes in a small hangar next door while listening to his beloved collection of classic jazz recordings. Afterward, he would walk a few steps to his home -- a houseboat from which he could practically reach out and touch his seaplane bobbing at the dock.

Breinig, a bachelor, is survived by three nieces and two nephews. Plans for a memorial gathering are pending.

By Steve Rubenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle

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