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hat does an aerial photograph reveal? On the one hand, the reconnaissance image is purely military, intended only for technical or “instrumental” purposes. On the other hand, this mode of representation makes possible an array of meanings and uses while foreclosing others. As an artifact of the era of air power, the aerial reconnaissance photograph offers the promise of revelation itself through the application of specialized techniques of photographic production, display, and interpretation. In the analogue era this meant special planes and cameras, multiple trained personnel, innovations in flash photography and film development, and new conceptions of time and space linked to the analysis of “covers” of discrete units of terrain. From the Cuban Missile Crisis onwards, the United States and many other countries came to depend on the high-altitude reconnaissance image for state of the art intelligence. Mid-century satellite initiatives like the Corona program bridged the analogue and early digital modes of accruing visual data and reinforced yet again the truth-value of aerial views.
The belief that the view from above reveals both the larger universal perspective as well as the potential for drilling into portions of the image in great detail drives the ubiquity of this form of representation in modern times. The potential of the aerial view for aesthetic as well as military purposes has been embraced since the first “manned” balloons were launched in the late eighteenth century. Yet, the assumption of visual realism that human flight offered, particularly since the mid-nineteenth century once Félix Nadar and others figured out how to take a successful photograph from a balloon, is as much a style or constructed mode of viewing as any other. That is, as aviation moved from lighter-than-air to heavier-than-air forms of transportation the naturalization of the photographic image in the same time period coincided with, and even helped to generate, the ideology of an instrumental, objective aerial view. The integration of aviation with warfare in World War I and the craze for municipal aerial surveying in the two decades that followed reified the merging of camera and aircraft, bringing earth sciences, demographics, real estate, and agri-business into close coordination with military social science practices. The same period after World War I inaugurated new modes of entertainment and arts that drew heavily on “god’s eye” or “bird’s eye” views. Throughout the twentieth century, aerial imagery brought together military instrumentalism, photographic realism, arts of interpretation and visual analysis, and governmental technoculture to create a belief in the testimonial validity of an image taken from above.
The revelation of information in aerial imagery is tied to the question of scale–how close or how far is the view from what it purports to represent. As Charles and Ray Eames explored in their iconic documentary first made in 1968 and revised in 1977, The Powers of Ten, the farther away from the targeted image that camera is positioned, the more abstract and indistinct it will appear. And yet, as the Eames’ demonstrated, the close and closest image becomes extremely transformed as well. All of these images are “real” but to whom are they of use? Even in their great diversity of scale, are there views that cannot be accounted for or that become impossible to “see”? Aerial imagery’s famous “flattening” effect is both useful to defamiliarize and therefore introduce fresh elements to the observer but also unhelpful in other regards. The “closed” hermeneutic loop of the aerial reconnaissance photograph can only be “opened” through a critical historization of the emergence of the components of the image; its many elements of production as well as interpretation.