‘Aerial Photography without the Airplane’ by Jess Bier

— Melissa Mesku

Given its history as a tool of domination, it is especially challenging to rethink the view from above, but it is still possible.

If something can fly, then chances are that, at some point, someone has strapped a camera to it.

The advent of pigeon photography is attributed to Dr. Julius Neubronner, a pharmacist in turn of the century Germany. Neubronner often used homing pigeons to deliver prescriptions to a sanatorium a few miles down the road, and eventually had the pigeons relay medications from his supplier in Frankfurt, ten miles southeast. When one of his pigeons failed to return, only to mysteriously arrive four weeks later, Neubronner was curious. What had that bird got up to? Neubronner went about devising a tiny aluminium breast harness to which he affixed a time-delayed miniature camera, and the pigeons began bringing home film taken from a birds’ eye view. In 1907, Neubronner applied for a patent, and was granted one a year later after he furnished photographs taken by the birds themselves. (In a parenthetical attributable to Wikipedia, Neubronner later learned that his lost pigeon had been in the custody of a restaurant chef in Wiesbaden, nearly 15 miles southwest.)

In the following years, Neubronner brought his pigeon photographers to the world stage. At expos in Frankfurt and Paris, they were met with delight; crowds watched the birds fly around with their mini-cameras, and the photos they took were developed and sold on site. Given the times, Neubronner’s invention surely had an application in the coming war effort. But the airplane proved a superior vehicle for photography, and Neubronner’s birds became a footnote of history. What was once a flight of fancy became a precise science, and now satellite imagery and flattened aerial shots from planes have come to dominate our conception of the view from above.

Jess Bier’s essay on aerial photography examines a curious notion, that of the “commanding view” that images from above provide. Despite aerial photography’s early reliance on pigeons, kite flyers and hot air balloonists, over time it’s become less about the view than it is about the command. Edited, highly accurate images from satellites and planes exemplify the power and control seemingly inherent in the perspective from above. From penthouse vistas to Foucault’s panopticon, aerial views have a broader association with objectivity, with obtaining a clear picture that shouldn’t be ‘clouded’ by emotions. But Bier argues that such images shouldn’t suggest one dominating worldview, even though [t]he view from above is a cultural trope whose power is continually reinforced. This is perhaps hard to imagine, particularly in our era of drones and surveillance. That’s what makes this argument so interesting. Maybe a resurgence in aerial photography, conducted by hobbyists armed with nothing more than curiosity and flock of homing pigeons, could help provide a counterbalance. Perhaps only then, what we regularly conceive of as a God’s-eye view—that of the state, of an all-seeing eye—would be restored to what it was originally: merely a birds’ eye view.