Aerial Imagery in Print, 1860 to Today, the current MoMA Library exhibition, examines the use of traditional publishing in cultivating a discourse around aerial imagery.
A section of the show focuses on 20th-century popularization of aerial photography, including its development as a tool for land use by architects, developers, governments, and the agriculture industry. Looking at some of these uses more closely reveals a persuasive element, especially regarding subtle debate about modernist approaches to architecture and planning.
Here we’ll zoom in on examples from Fairchild Aerial Surveys, which cornered the market (literally, if you think about it) on aerial photography in the U.S. Then we’ll consider this legacy in light of exciting new approaches to aerial imagery in our time.
Fairchild Aerial Surveys (1924–65) was an early venture of entrepreneur Sherman Fairchild. His career began during World War I, when he engineered an aerial camera more stable than its predecessors. Cameras based on this technology became the military and industrial standard for decades, and the company designed cameras for the early space program as well.
In her dissertation, Rebecca Ross argues that the development of aerial photography was integral to the professionalization of 20th-century city planning, examining how companies like Fairchild made possible “a productive link between the working methods of planning professionals and the broader visual culture in which they are situated.” Indeed, as historian Thomas Campanella observes, in the visual culture of the early 1920s, when the company incorporated, “Aerial imagery was . . . a wonder of modern technology—most people had never seen their own city or town from the air.”
The company’s success was based on aggressive promotion as much as technical innovation. As professor Jason Weems writes, Fairchild mobilized images such as the first aerial survey of Manhattan (1921) into “a centerpiece of his business promotions, combining fact and hyperbole to outline the advantages of using aerial photography in nearly all facets of urban planning and management.”
The combination sales and technical manual For Photography from the Air (1934) exemplifies this strategy. Featuring a colorful cover and dramatic images along with copious technical detail, one can see how the company integrated robust technological development with organized surveying to cultivate a market for aerial imagery.
Historian Dolores Hayden articulates how, beginning with photographs and now moving into GPS-based visualizations, aerial imagery has become crucial to contemporary land use discourse: “aerial photographs reveal the scale of existing and new development