Front / Recto

  • Title Aerial Incendiary Bombs
  • Negative Date 1917–18
  • Print Date 1917–20
  • Medium Gelatin silver print
  • Dimensions Image 15 1/2 × 11" (39.4 × 27.9 cm)
    Sheet 19 7/16 × 15 5/8" (49.3 × 39.7 cm)
  • Place Taken Montmédy
  • Credit Line Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Edward Steichen, by exchange
  • MoMA Accession Number 1867.2001
  • Description

    The wartime problem of making sharp, clear pictures from a vibrating, speeding airplane ten to twenty thousand feet in the air had brought me to a new kind of technical interest in photography completely different from the pictorial interest I had had as a boy in Milwaukee and as a young man in the Photo-Secession days. Now I wanted to know all that could be expected from photography.

    Edward Steichen, 1963[1]

    The introduction of airplanes as a tool for warfare in World War I led to the first organized use of photography for aerial reconnaissance. Until that point, the best aerial photographs had been taken from tethered balloons—a technology that had not changed since Nadar’s first exposures above Paris in the 1860s. The position from this vantage point was so unstable for the long exposures necessary that it was often more efficient to employ draftsmen to sketch the views below. But by the eve of World War I, a photographer leaning precariously over the side of a fixed-wing airplane, pointing his camera downward, could capture a clear view.

    By the time the United States entered the war, in April 1917, both the British and French had established photographic divisions to provide daily intelligence. At first the planes were used primarily for reconnaissance, but by the end of the war they were bristling with weapons and aerial photography had become an accurate, specialized means of mapping the landscape. In 1918 Edward Steichen was appointed chief of the Photographic Section of the Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), a newly formed division of the Allied forces, in which he oversaw the work of hundreds of photographers. He established fully operational base laboratories for the production of enlarged prints for offensive planning and for training and didactic purposes; these labs could also make copies of the assemblages of prints composed to map larger plots. Steichen’s technical experience and his zeal for the medium catalyzed the swift development of the field, leading to the production of automatic cameras that carried 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms) of 18 by 24 centimeter (7 1/8 by 9 7/16 inch) glass-plate negatives fitted into shock-absorbing carriages.[2] Field officers received instruction in annotating and reading the aerial photographs. Steichen himself commented that “the average vertical aerial photographic print is upon first acquaintance as uninteresting and unimpressive a picture as can be imagined. Without considerable experience and study it is more difficult to read than a map, for it badly represents nature from an angle we do not know.”[3]

    This photograph, with its ink inscription and north-pointing arrow, was taken near the end of the war, at the Western Front—the trenched zone in France and Flanders, where the Allied armies battled Germany. Exposed in a De Ram automatic camera, the image captures the moment aerial bombs bypassed antiaircraft fire from troops below. For all its straightforward purpose and informational density, in its minimalism and quasi-abstraction the image manifests surprising parallels with contemporary trends in artistic circles.

    —Lee Ann Daffner and Audrey Sands

    [1] Edward Steichen, Steichen: A Life in Photography (New York: Doubleday, 1963), section 5, n.p.

    [2] James B. Campbell, “Origins of Aerial Photographic Interpretation, U.S. Army, 1916 to 1918,Harpers Pictorial Library of the World War (January 2008): 82.

    [3] Edward Steichen. “American Aerial Photography at the Front” (June 1919), reprinted as “Snapshots from the Sky: The Interesting and Vital Work of Photographing the Enemy’s Activities from a Fast-Moving Airplane,” Harpers Pictorial Library of the World War, vol. 8 (New York: Harper, 1920), p. 226.

Back / Verso

  • Mount Type No mount
  • Marks and Inscriptions Inscribed in black ink on sheet recto, bottom center: AERIAL INCENDIARY BOMBS/BLACK BURSTS ARE EXPLODING ANTI-AIRCRAFT SHELLS. Stamped in red ink on sheet verso, bottom left: E. J. STEICHEN. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, bottom right: MES.0260.Z and Steichen 6.
  • Provenance Edward Steichen, New York. Sold through Sotheby's New York (sale 6973, lot 96) to Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, April 18, 1997 [1]; purchased by Thomas Walther, May 14, 1999 [2]; purchased by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001.
    [1] MacGill/Walther 2001(3), p. 21; Amy Whiteside (Fraenkel Gallery), letter to Audrey Sands, October 25, 2013; and Fraenkel Gallery registration no. MES.0260.Z inscribed on sheet verso.
    [2] MacGill/Walther 2001(3), p. 21; and Fraenkel Gallery invoice no. 3973, May 19, 1999.


  • Surface Sheen Matte
  • Techniques Enlargement
  • PTM
    Detail view of the recto of the artwork made using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) software, which exaggerates subtle surface details and renders the features of the artwork plainly visible. Department of Conservation, MoMA
  • Micro-raking
    Raking-light close-up image, as shot. Area of detail is 6.7 x 6.7 mm. Department of Conservation, MoMA
    Raking-light close-up image, processed. Processing included removal of color, equalization of the histogram, and sharpening, all designed to enhance visual comparison. Department of Conservation, MoMA

Paper Material

  • Format Metric
  • Weight Single weight
  • Thickness (mm) 0.15
  • UV Fluorescence Recto negative
    Verso negative
  • Fiber Analysis Softwood bleached sulfite 55%
    Hardwood bleached sulfite 6%
    Rag 26%
    Bast 13%
  • Material Techniques Developing-out paper
  • XRF

    This work was determined to be a gelatin silver print via X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry.

    The following elements have been positively identified in the work, through XRF readings taken from its recto and verso (or from the mount, where the verso was not accessible):

    • Recto: Al, S, K, Ca, Cr, Zn, Sr, Ag, Ba, Pb
    • Verso: Al, S, K, Ca, Cr, Zn, Sr, Ba, Pb

    The graphs below show XRF spectra for three areas on the print: two of the recto—from areas of maximum and minimum image density (Dmax and Dmin)—and one of the verso or mount. The background spectrum represents the contribution of the XRF instrument itself. The first graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the lower energy range (0 to 8 keV). The second graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the higher energy range (8 to 40 keV).

    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Al, S, K, Ca, Cr, Ag, Ba
    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Zn, Sr, Ag, Pb

In Context

Related Images

Unknown photographer. Aerial reconnaissance photograph, Lavannes, World War I. 1917. Gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 x 8 7/8" (16.5 x 22.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Edward Steichen

Related People

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