Modernism in the Air

Fairchild Aerial Surveys. Fairchild Plant, N.Y. 1949. New York State Archive

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.”

Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. For Photography from the Air. 1934

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 [and they] can be understood by people without technical training, in a way that zoning maps, zoning codes, satellite surveys, and traditional site plans cannot.”

In these contexts, one thinks of aerial images as anonymous information sources striving for objectivity and usefulness, rather than authored photographs. At top, for example, is a typical survey image, courtesy of the New York State Archive. Titled Fairchild Plant, N.Y. (1949) it’s one largely unremarkable image in a vast survey of New York State. Even though the photographers were barnstorming their own workplace in Woodside, Queens, the image is consistent with all the others: utilitarian and dispassionate.

But by examining how Fairchild images like these circulated, we can see how they became instrumentalized in debate about modern architecture and planning. An excellent example is found in The Disappearing City (1932), Frank Lloyd Wright’s manifesto against conventional urbanism and preview for his vision of Broadacre City. Of the numerous aerial views in the book (note the abstracted map on the cover), the opening Fairchild photograph depicts New York City as a smoke-choked, dehumanized dystopia, out of touch with the natural landscape. It clearly illustrates Wright’s opinion of the vertical city as “Tier upon tier the soulless shelf, the empty crevice, the winding ways of the windy, unhealthy canyon. The heartless grip of the selfish, grasping, universal structure. Box on box beside box. Black shadows below with artificial lights burning all day in the little caverns and squared cells.”

From left: Frank Lloyd Wright. The Disappearing City. 1932; Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. Frontispiece in The Disappearing City. 1932

Now let’s compare that with a Fairchild view from the Museum’s Photography collection: The Mount Everest of Manhattan: The Silvered Peak of the Chrysler Building (1930). Here the vertical city is heroicized through numerous photographic choices: the composition is dynamic, with the “spark plug” tower jutting vertically into the frame and the street grid tipped on to the diagonal. The perspective is deep yet every building is in crisp focus. The light is bright and shadows are at a minimum (to get that effect, Fairchild photographers would buzz by skyscrapers at mid-day).

Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. The Mount Everest of Manhattan: The Silvered Peak of the Chrysler Building. 1930

How might such a photograph have been used? The Museum’s print came from New York Times, and while it’s not known if this image appeared in the newspaper, the visible crop marks indicate publication in some form, and a search of the Times’ digital archive shows regular use of Fairchild images, usually illustrating articles with a positive spin on New York City’s ambitious architecture. The upbeat attitude is underscored by the dramatic title, in which the Chrysler Building (a stack of offices, after all) is compared to the world’s tallest natural wonder–very different from Wright’s rant against vertical urbanism.

The new century is an exciting time for aerial imagery, especially in mashups of digitized and born-digital maps. For smartphone users, Google Maps (and Pokemon Go) are now part of everyday life, and librarians, data visualizers, and artists are mobilizing geospatial data in new and revealing ways. Just as with the earlier images, these are very much situated in time and place, reflecting today’s broader visual culture.

An example is the NYPL Digital Labs Map Warper, which layers digitized traditional maps onto their born-digital counterparts. For example, here’s a “rectified” map of Woodside, Queens, made by Fairchild for the New York City Chief Engineer and used for “estimate and apportionment.”

Fairchild Aerial Surveys. Fairchild Plant, N.Y. 1949. New York State Archive

At its simplest, the mashup enables us to time travel between 1924 and the digital now. For example, it’s hard to tell from the earlier map (above) if Fairchild had set up shop, but on today’s map (below) the facility is long gone while Kennedy Airport looms large. What was it about this area that lent itself to air travel?

But more subtly, the rectified map reveals curvature distortions around the edges of the original, characteristic of lens-based images. In fact, the way that the shape of the image slightly thrusts to the right suggests the direction the plane was flying, more precisely situating its making in time and space. One can imagine a team like this, photographed just a year after the first map was made, doing the flyover.

Fairchild Aerial Photography Crew. 1925

Comparisons like this remind us of the constructed nature of both: one made by a person in an airplane holding a camera and pointing an 8×10 sensitized negative at the earth, and the other compiled of layered, coded, and dynamically generated satellite data. Both reflect the technologies with which they were made and both are open to interpretation by historians, officials, and planners–as well as by you and me. We’ve come a long way from barnstorming skyscrapers.