FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 02 / FEB / 2021
THE USES OF AIR PHOTOGRAPHY
Nature and Man in a New Perspective
by J. K. S. St Joseph
John Baker: London, 1966
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen

The popularity of photobooks based on aerial views is evident in titles such as Earth from Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, whose full-colour coffee table production, first produced in 1999, boasts more than three million sales across its various editions. The Uses of Air Photography is a different beast. Although large-scale in format to showcase its mostly full-page black-and-white examples, the book is produced under the auspices of Cambridge University’s Committee for Aerial Photography and the emphasis is less on the photographs’ visual spectacle than on their research capacity. The volume is edited by the institution’s Director of Aerial Photography, who also produced all the photographs; the essays are mostly by committee members. Sadly, the grouping and academic position no longer exist, but its legacy, the Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photography, now numbers some 500,000 items.

Given the scholarly focus of the collection, the narrative tends towards the drily technical. St Joseph initially outlines the expertise that has built over the previous hundred years, from the curiosities produced from hot air balloon viewpoints to the military reconnaissance work of the Second World War. He argues for the wider academic application of such images which in his estimation, contain "an almost inexhaustible store of information". The editor outlines, for example, how they can provide documentation of natural resources (with a view to their exploitation) and overviews of wildlife (not least in East Africa, where ‘air photography’ seems to be a tool of colonial administration).

The potential for utility across a wide range of disciplinary areas, from geology, geography, history and archaeology, through to town planning and even wild game management, is outlined chapter by chapter. Academics even-handedly consider aerial photography’s potential and limitations, and the latter proves to be significant. The book’s purpose is to provide promotional support for the committee’s work, but it is notable that many contributors are hesitant about what the form can do that other means of survey cannot. In relation to photogrammetry – the process of making maps from photographs - there is undoubtedly new detail provided by aerial views, but there are manifold obstacles too: the images must be made in particular weather conditions at exactly uniform height, for example. Aerial photography in its vertical dimension gives no sense of height or depth, and shadows and angles can mislead and distort; the authors note the potential for embarrassing errors. For the geologist, small details are missed and vegetation may obscure the ground. For the botanist, monochrome means that differentiation of species is impeded. For those wishing to view large-scale animal formations, activity patterns are newly visible but quantification is a problem. When 52 ornithologists looked at an aerial photograph of 13,494 snow geese, for example, their estimates numbered between 3,000 and 28,000. The tedious methods for counting are outlined in the chapter on wild game. Enlargements must be scrutinised with a hand lens and each animal must be manually marked off with the prick of a pin. The technology existed in 1966 to take these images, but not to manage their contents.

The latter sections of the book are where the true value of the form can be seen. As previously documented by aerial photography pioneer and its principal promoter in the interwar years, O. S. G. Crawford, revelation is most spectacular for archaeology. Crawford showed how ancient ‘shadow sites’, invisible to the naked eye at ground level, could be magically revealed on land viewed from the air. It is no wonder that these images were of such inspiration to the avant-garde artists who read his publication, Antiquity. The ghostly traces of prehistoric planners are still exciting to see "grinning through" the layers of the modern world, as Lord Esher puts it in his final essay.

Esher’s consideration of aerial photography in relation to town planning is the most elegantly written of all contributions. He likens the organic patterns of movement by pedestrians who refuse to be contained by the pathways of planners to the vein-like patterns of drainage channels in a salt marsh. Aerial photographs, he states, reveal the grain and texture of a townscape as in a piece of wood. They offer a synoptic God-like vision of the world, one that sees what matters and, crucially, one that tidies away the junkyard, the pylon and other paraphernalia. The aesthetic value of air photographs is acknowledged in this essay, but it also bubbles up in all the others, where words such as beauty and charm are mixed with otherwise technical language. The dramatic visual abstractions of aerial photography are a large part of its appeal and the illustrations in this style are the most alluring part of the book. Their informational aesthetic has drawn the attention of a range of disciplines, but in many assessments in this volume their utilitarian value seems inconclusive. As Esher concludes, ultimately, air photography "makes almost any pattern look pretty".

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