Notes on Kite Aerial Photography: Background

A Bit of History
Aerial Perspectives Imagined and Real


As I poked around in the early stages of learning about taking photographs from kites, I particularly enjoyed the slow realization that in kite aerial photography we share a set of challenges and constraints that puzzled inventors almost a century ago. The last decades of the nineteenth century formed something of a golden age for kites. During these days before the airplane, kites were explored as vehicles for lofting antennas, building materials, and even passengers. Patents were granted for nautical rescue systems, line transport and the propulsion of carriages and ships. Kite experiments led naturally to gliders and gliders to airplanes with each new development relegating its precedent to relative obscurity. Kites also offered one of the earliest aerial platforms for the nascent art of photography. Working on contemporary KAP systems offers an interesting connection to entrepreneurs of three generations ago that turned considerable inventiveness toward kites. In many ways their act is a tough one to follow.

These modest history pages will feature a few items found during my early research on alternate means for low-level aerial photography. By far the most entertaining and useful resource the catalog of a museum exhibit loaned by my friend and colleague George Loisos. Titlted "cities: from the balloon to the satellite", the catalog was published by the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona under the direction of Albert Garcia Espuche. It chronicles the developing use of aerial images their contribution to our understanding of cities and their relationship to the landscape. I'm quite impressed with this catalog and would love to find a copy for my own collection.


Kite Aerial Photography's Precursors

It must be a basic part of human nature to wonder how the world would appear from on high. One indicator is the existence of aerial views of our cities and landscapes long before human ability to fly. These early drawn aerial views are fascinating.

The City of San Francisco: Bird's Eye View from the Bay looking southwest. San Francisco, B. McQuillan ... agent for the Pacific Coast. Published 1878, this view shows San Francisco Bay teaming with the icons of modern industrial progress. (65K jpg)

The first technique for capturing an aerial view was to construct one from the principles of perspective. Among the first of these was the Vista de Venecia (c. 1500) by Jacopo de Barbari. By the 19th Century the techniques for developing constructed views were well honed as shown in the San Francisco view opposite.


Balloons provided the first human lofting vehicle and allowed observations that informed the later drawn aerial perspectives. As soon as the developing art of photography allowed, the balloon provided a platform for the first aerial photographs.

(left) Nadar "elevating photography to the condition of art", 1862, Honoré Daunier. This caricature appeared in Le Boulevard on 25 May, 1862. Albert Garcia Espuche, author of the catalog essay in cities: from the balloon to the satellite notes the irony of Daunier's caption for "what Nadar had really done was to change the level of art to the level of science and utility, from the artistic drawing to an instrument of work." (41K jpg)

(right) Boston from a captive balloon, October 13, 1860, James Wallace Black. This is the oldest conserved aerial photograph as Nadar's first works were lost. (41K jpg)

Credit for the first aerial photograph goes to French author and artist Felix Tournachon who used the nom de plume Nadar. He captured the first aerial photo from a balloon tethered over the Bievre Valley in 1858. The oldest extant aerial photograph is a view of Boston by James Wallace Black in 1860. Nadar provided the first aerials of European cities with views of Paris in 1868. The first photographs from a free flight balloon were by Triboulet in 1879 over Paris. William McMullin matched the feat years later (1893) to capture views of Philadelphia.

It is interesting to note that Nadar was talking to the French Military as early as 1859 regarding "military photos" for the French Army's campaign in Italy. Balloons were explored as observation platforms during the American Civil War with Wallace urging aerial photography as a technique for reconnaissance. It seems that from its first moments aerial photography was to have links with the military and this association has been responsible for many advances in the aerial art. The exceptions to this general rule are worth celebrating and a great place to start is Arthur Batut, the first kite aerial photographer.



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