This essay will describe the key moment in the development of photographic image production when aerial photography was turned in to a weapon of war and will demonstrate how this has affected the meaning of images for today’s audiences. It will consider briefly, the origination of aerial photography, why it took nearly fifty years for the military to apply it’s potential and what effect the massive exploitation and technological developments of the weapon have had on it’s audiences over the past century.
The essay will argue that no other military weapon has had such a wide ranging, and catastrophic effect on warfare or such a profound impact on contemporary visual culture and public opinion as the aerial photography weapon. By the end of the First World War (WW1) more than ten million people had been killed. Over the preceding sixty years, the combined total killed in the Crimean War, The American Civil War, The Prussian Wars, The Boer War, The Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan War totaled just over two million.
This unprecedented toll of human lives (over 10 million killed) was mainly a result of the mass production of heavy artillery and rapid-firing weapons that were able to hit targets with previously unattainable accuracy. The reason for this accuracy was not so much the static nature of trench warfare but the increasing use of optical munitions, particularly the aerial reconnaissance photograph. Each military advantage resulted from whichever side saw the enemy first. As John Taylor says the science of sight had become one of the most notable features of the war.
So vital had this weapon become that by the end of WW1 the RAF (Royal Air Force) had increased it’s photographic staff from five in 1914 to over three thousand by September 1919. In the last ten months of the war, more than a quarter of a million aerial negatives were taken by the RAF over German territory, from which nearly six million prints were made for use by the Intelligence Staff. The insatiable demand for such quantities was a pre-indicator of the progression and development of this weapon to the round-the-clock surveillance employed today by Military Intelligence (MI) via the many orbiting satellites.
The military audience for aerial images has existed since the first battle ever took place in pre-history. To every field commander, the most vital weapon always longed for, was the one that would obtain the knowledge of their enemy’s position and movements over the other side of the hill. This only became a realistic option after 1856 when a hot air balloon was combined with the very earliest photographic equipment [note a] by the French author and artist Felix Tournachon, known as Nadar [note b]… who was.. talking to the French Military as early as the 1859 campaign in Italy… nd at the same time.. balloons were explored as platforms during the American Civil War .. as a technique for reconnaissance.
As Gisele Freund noted his highly publicized experiments opened up a world of new possibilities, particularly for the military. By the 1914-1918 war, photographic technology and air transport had developed and with the juxtaposition of fixed-wing aircraft like the de Havilland DH-4 and the Kodak A-2 camera the aerial weapon was effectively created. The irreversible had got underway.
There was considerable restraint on the availability and right to publish most of the aerial imagery produced up to that point so the impact of this material on the public audience was minimal. However, by the end of the Second World War (WW2) the technology had of course, advanced considerably and the quality, quantity and availability of images into the public domain was much greater. The affect on the visual culture of that period was uniquely important as it was the first time such images had ever been experienced by a wide public audience.
Throughout WW2 both sides prioritized control of the skies as a precursor to ground action not least for the aerial reconnaissance advantage it provided. The importance was in fact, profound. Every major operation was dependant on and indebted for it’s success to the quality of the aerial reconnaissance. The consequences of failure to read military images accurately was exemplified in no more tragic way than in Operation Market Garden in late 1944 when the British Commander, General Browning misread or ignored Intelligence surveillance and the otherwise meticulously planned operation failed.
The images of cities bombed flat [Image 5] that appeared in the post war press had a profound effect on public opinion. The death and destruction felt directly by central London and a few other British cities earlier in the war was no consolation to the eyes and minds of people all over the western world who reacted to them by universally calling for such devastation, especially as shown by the aftermath images of the Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to never be repeated anywhere again. by the aftermath images of the Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to never be repeated anywhere again.
Not only did Aerial Photography enable such specific mass destruction to happen but it also, conversely, played the key role in bringing the determination NOTE a) wet plate collodion process, a darkroom in the basket and a lengthy exposure. b) Nadar went on to become a Commander of a French company of aeronauts during the German siege of Paris where he was responsible for following the enemy’s movements and taking photographs from a balloon floating over St Pierre Square.  to the people of the world and their leaders to ensure that such events were unacceptable and should never be allowed to occur again on such a scale.
Aerial surveillance took its next great leap into orbital reconnaissance when the American capsule Discoverer-14 returned the first film to earth in 1960. The ‘cold war’ was fought entirely in the newly created cyber-space of information, mis-information, military intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. Both ‘sides’ had a balance of Weapons of Mass Destruction (massive Nuclear arsenals) so the weapon that was to once again make the difference was the technological quality of the new aerial photographer – the satellite.
At it’s peak, the Americans were able to face down the Soviet attempt to arm Cuba with nuclear missiles due entirely their advanced satellite surveillance. The speed, accuracy and advantage of Satellite sourced images in combat was first employed in the Falklands Campaign in 1982. By the second Gulf War in 2003, satellites and the new unmanned aircraft or Drones were beaming images of targets that were being viewed in real time by worldwide audiences, including bizarrely the Iraqi military.
The public audiences’ dissemination of the countless aerial images printed or broadcast has always been heavily influenced by journalists: the interpretation of individual reporters in Press or on Television. The public have always been at the mercy of the journalist for receiving its information and the published images from war zones. In western democracies, for the ‘truth’ the public have to rely upon their own interpretation of as many and varied accounts as they can obtain, analyse and balance.
However, despite massive developments in the technological processing and distribution of images of war, the public may still be unable to see what Foucault suggested could be the fantasy, or nightmare, that everything could be made visible by purely technological means. In fact, contemporary visual culture (in western democracies at least) is more sophisticated than ever due to the individual’s ability to apply their own experience, knowledge, scepticism and ethics to images presented before them. As Chris Jenkins puts it The vision of the individual is not something which has been eradicated by technology.
Rather it has been formed into a technical instrument in itself. So what does this analysis and evidence add up to? For the military, they have achieved the ultimate desires of history. However, contemporary civilian culture has had to deal with a negative fallout of these technological developments. Surveillance has become an accepted part of everyday life to the point of being almost unnoticed. The public is now monitored in every corner of the street with the widespread use of CCTV cameras in shopping malls, car parks, shops and pavements. The city, as Kevin Robins explains has become an enormous panopticon… nd is now a scanscape.. registered by the capillary powers.
The monitoring goes considerably deeper into individual’s privacy than simply cameras in public places; calls and messages on mobile phones are easily intercepted and read, personal details are easily available on mailing lists, financial details disappear down into cyberspace every time a person swipes their credit card in a cash machine or in a retailers, emails are available to any ‘hacker’ who wants to read them, information on websites visited are stored and ‘cookies’ are placed unaccountably onto PCs.