The Oldest Surviving Aerial Photograph

Boston as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See it. Photograph/James Wallace Black. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Photograph/James Wallace Black. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

James Wallace Black was in a hot air balloon, 2000 feet above the ground, when he used eight plates of glass negatives to make the very first aerial photographs of Boston, in 1860. He was aided in this endeavour by Samuel Archer King, a ballooning pioneer, who let him use one of his balloons christened ‘The Queen of the Air’. However, Black’s photographs were certainly not the first ever aerial images to be shot. Two years prior to his attempt, Gaspard -Félix Tournachon beat him to it by successfully making the first aerial pictures of Paris from atop a hot air balloon in 1858, and is still accredited for his pioneering work in the field of aerial photography. Unfortunately, the photographs he shot no longer exist, lending Black’s work the designation of world’s oldest surviving aerial photographs.

Apart from being one of the relics, this picture is especially significant. Much of the area photographed was destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, and thus remains to be an important evidence of what the city looked like prior to the disaster. Eventually, Black’s photographs caught the attention of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poet and Professor of Medicine at Harvard University. Holmes went on to title Black’s photograph and called it the Boston, As the Eagle and Wild Goose See It. He also went on to comment on the picture saying, “…As a first attempt it is on the whole a remarkable success; but its greatest interest is in showing what we may hope to see accomplished in the same direction.”

As camera technology progressed, Nadar’s and Black’s endeavours paved the way for several aerial photography projects. Two years after Black’s photographs, the Union Army would use balloon photography to spy on Confederate troops during the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia. Later, during World War I, airplanes with cameras were used for aerial reconnaissance, and in determining enemy positions, supplies and movement. Eventually, the cameras used for aerial photography evolved and were employed in numerous fields like cartography and archeology.

Tags: better photography, Boston as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See it, James Wallace Black, July 2016, Nadar, Story Behind the Picture