The technology of AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY stems from nineteenth century devices—the photographic camera and air travel—but it was conceived in social and technological forces that began at the dawn of Western civilization. It is thus central to the development of photography, even though it is rarely treated as a subject of commentary.
Aerial photographs offer a geometrically determined view of objects within a given area. The origins of this view lie in the third millennium BCE, when Sumerian priests ruled city-states through estate management and a religion based on sky gods. As conceived at the time, urban deities surveyed their domains from the sky, conveying legitimacy onto the priests, who realized the aerial view with surveying. Since then surveying has been essential to governance, and from it has come geometry and a cascade of geometric disciplines, notably perspectival drawing and classical optics, that led to the development of photography.
The uses of aerial surveys have changed little since the days of Sumer. Every day the infrastructure and citizens of advanced nations are photographed dozens of times by a vast network of cameras based on satellites, aircraft, buildings and poles. These cameras are creating real-time maps of their subjects at scales ranging from the intimate to the global, and, as the first survey maps of Sumer, these automated mapmakers aid in governance of society and the control of resources.
The relation between photographs and maps may not be immediately obvious because most photographs are vertically stratified, that is they reveal the horizontal detail of their subject. However, when the picture plane of a camera is held parallel to the surface of the earth, as in AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY, the inherently map-like nature of photography is intuitively obvious. Photographs and maps both reveal the spatial aspects of the environment, that is, the arrangement of objects on a plane in relation to one another. In both AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY and cartography, the vantage can offer some level of vertical stratification, the socalled chorographic view, or it can represent objects in their proper geometric form. Our visual intuition on the relationship between maps and cameras is backed by the historical development of the camera and the techniques of perspectival drawing that it automated.
AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY began in the mid-1800s, some thirty years after the advent of photography. In 1858 the pioneering Parisian Nadar took a camera on a series of balloon ascents, and in 1864 he published a book about the experience, Les Memoires du Gea´nt. On the other side of the Atlantic, J. W. Black and Sam King ascended 1,200 feet in a balloon to take a photograph of Boston in 1860. It was war, however, that stimulated the development of AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY. Nadar refused his services to Napoleon III in 1859, but commanded the Paris balloon corps during the siege of the early 1870s. By then the American Civil War had established a number of wartime precedents. As the war broke out in 1861 a civilian balloonist inadvertently flew over Confederate states. His report convinced the Union government to support the creation of the U.S. Balloon Corps, which operated until 1863. During that time photographers stationed in tethered balloons created large-scale maps of battlefields that were overlaid with grids to determine troop movements.
In the twentieth century, the prospects of AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY improved as did aircraft, cameras, and telemetry. Balloon reconnaissance continued in World War I, but by World War II lighter-thanair craft were replaced by airplanes. Development intensified during the Cold War. In the 1950s highperformance spy planes cruised the stratosphere, but, with the Soviet downing of an American U-2 in 1960, officials on both sides of the conflict realized that orbiting satellites were the safest option. The Soviet Union orbited the first surveillance satellite, but it was rapidly followed by the Corona program of the United States. The first generations of spy satellites ejected bulky containers of film into the atmosphere, but these were replaced by high resolution video signals.
To this day military and intelligence bureaus have been the prime innovators of AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY. Every aspect of the medium is subject to constant improvement. Airplanes and spacecraft have been improved, lenses have staggering resolution and digital technology has replaced analog signals. AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY is of such importance that its full capabilities at any given time are a state secret. Surveillance programs were kept hidden for many years, and there is a lag of decades between the collection of military photographs and their release for other uses.
The dominance of the United States at the end of the twentieth century cannot be overstated. The satellites of Russia, France and a few other spacegoing nations offer little competition to the extensive surveillance network maintained by the United States. During the Cold War aerial imagery mostly served strategic purposes, but the U.S. military is now creating systems that offer live imagery of battlefields from satellite and aircraft, notably the Predator drone used in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq in the last decade of the twentieth century. Building on Civil War technologies, computers overlay battlefield images with an information grid that provides a tactical advantage to combat soldiers.
AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY has also found ample civilian application. Commercial applications include architecture, construction, urban planning and other development schemes, the travel industry, advertising applications of various sorts, publishing, especially in such popular magazines as National Geographic, and agriculture. The AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY Field Office, Farm Service Agency is the primary source of aerial imagery for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, holding over 10 million images from 1955 to the early 2000s in an archive accessible at www.apfo.usda.gov/.
In the scientific realm, multispectral cameras have become essential tools for geographers, oceanographers, ecologists and even archeologists. For instance, an aerial archive of Middle Eastern archeological sites was established in 1978 under the patronage of Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, which consists of over 8,000 photographs and several hundred maps. AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY’s application in ecological and conservation efforts has been particularly front and center. Satellite imagery can precisely track large-scale changes in forests, deserts, oceans and other physical phenomena. Some artists have joined scientists in the skies, creating portfolios of merit, including the lush, colorful work of French photojournalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand with his massive ‘‘Earth from Above’’ series. Shown to huge crowds in venues around the world, Arthus-Bertrand’s AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY has proven to be a useful tool for ecological awareness. He has instigated a worldwide organization to raise awareness of ecological concerns, including a professional organization, Altitude, which features international aerial photographers on its website. Often the reverse can happen, with photographs taken by those who would identify themselves primarily as scientists taking on considerable aesthetic value, such as Bradford Washburn’s pioneering aerial views of Alaska’s mountains and glaciers, including such starkly beautiful images as Miles Glacier—Dead Ice at NW Edge, 1938.
AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY has become ubiquitous in the daily government of urban societies, joining cartography and surveillance as an essential tool of governance. Citizens of industrial nations can be surreptitiously photographed dozens of times a day in low aerial view by government and corporate cameras. Virtually every square meter of land in industrial nations has also been photographed in cartographic perspective from aircraft and satellites at a variety of scales. This visual information has been incorporated into Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that composite photographs with maps, political boundaries, property titles and other data. In most developed countries, private photographers also offer aerial services, often shooting homes or landscapes on commission for a range of clients, often as ‘‘portraits’’ of an individual’s or family’s property.
Many university libraries collect aerial photographs for historical and research purposes. Notable collections include the University of California, Berkeley; the Fairchild AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY Collection at Whittier College, Whittier, California, featuring historical views of that state; the AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY Collection at the University of Oregon Library, featuring some 525,000 aerial photographs of Oregon from 1925 onward; University of Waterloo Library, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; and the Aerial Archive of the Institute for Prehistory and Protohistory of the University of Vienna.
AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY is an important genre within fine-arts photography as well. From the austere black and white photography of Hiroshi Hamaya, whose striking photographs of the Himalayan mountains and deserts and wild places around the world gave new views to nature in the 1960s to Emmet Gowin’s documentation of post-eruption Mount St. Helens in Washington State in 1980–1986 and more recent examinations of the changes wrought by atomic blast sites and mining of his ‘‘Changing the Earth’’ series, contemporary photographers have created memorable aerial images.
Many nature photographers utilize AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY as one of the available vantage points to capture their subjects. Notable in this regard are Indian photographer Subhankar Banerjee with his photographs of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge at the turn of the century. Most modern AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY is accomplished through the use of airplanes or helicopters using gyroscopically stabilized cameras, but a significant number of professionals and amateurs use radio-controlled drones or even kites.
Kite AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY was in fact pioneered by Chicago self-taught photographer and businessman George R. Lawrence in 1906 to capture extraordinary wide-angle views of the devastation in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. In an era before flight and when the volatile gases used in balloons could be extremely dangerous, thus limiting AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY, Lawrence’s large-scale views caused an international sensation. Aerial photographer Robert Cameron had devoted his practice to aerial documentations of the major cities and scenic or historic sites of the world in a series of popular books such as Above London of 1980 or Above Yosemite of 1983.
AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY can also be practiced from vantage points offered by skyscrapers; Margaret Bourke-White’s pioneering efforts of the 1930s being notable examples; Oscar Graubner’s 1931 photo of her perched atop an ornament of the Chrysler Building at work with her camera is an icon of twentieth century photography. Bourke- White was also a pioneer of capturing the skyscape from an aerial perspective, creating such striking, almost abstract images as B-36 at High Altitude, Flying over Wichita, Kansas, 1951. New York City in fact has been photographed ‘from above’ by numerous photographers, from the well known such as Bourke-White to the lesser known, such as the Hungarian photographer Gyo¨rgy Lo?rinczy who documented the city in the late 1960s.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, much AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY was being accomplished through use of digital technology and remote sensing or ‘‘the science and art of obtaining information about an object, area, or phenomenon through the analysis of data acquired by a device that is not in contact with the object, area, or phenomenon under investigation’’ (Lillesand and Kiefer, Remote Sensing and Image Interpretation) had become a field within the discipline. As the human eye becomes increasingly removed from direct observation of the physical world, whether in aerial or other photography, the range of images captured and the ability to interpret them will become increasingly complex.
See also: Bourke-White, Margaret; Gowin, Emmet; Hamaya, Hiroshi; National Geographic; Propaganda; War Photography