By Bill Dobbins
We have long taken for granted seeing photos taken from the air of such things as cities, buildings, roads and landscapes. Not only that, but with the recent introduction of drones average photographers or videographers today can fairly easily create aerial images of their own.
But before World War I there was very little aerial photography aside from pictures taken from balloons. But this is the war that accelerated the development of powered flight and the demands of combat soon lead to the idea of combining airplanes and cameras.
When the war started in 1914 the airplane was still a very new and relatively un-evolved invention. The Wright brothers are given credit for the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight in 1903 and within two years the had improved their flyer to be capable of fully controllable, stable flight for substantial periods of time. Louis Blériot improved the design and was able to make the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft on 25 July 1909.
This was only five years before the “Guns of August” and the outbreak of the first world war.
As part of intelligence efforts and the ability to plan strategy and direct artillery fire, armies had been using observers in balloons for decades. The advantages of this kind of aerial surveillance, with the ability to see the battlefield as a whole, the movement of enemy forces and increase the effectiveness of artillery was immense. As I said, some photographs had been taken using balloons, but it wasn’t long before both sides in the conflict began using airplanes instead of just balloons for this purpose. Tethered balloons have to remain in one place. An airplane, on the other hand, is free to roam over the landscape and observe such larger geographic areas.
At the very beginning, cameras weren’t used. Observers in airplanes drew maps of what they saw by hand. But once the idea of using photography was accepted, airplanes were sent up with photographers equipped with heavy box cameras ready to bring back visual information to aid in battle. This was a revolutionary development since this kind of aerial photography and the information in made available was totally new. Aerial photographers quickly evolved better and better technology and methodology in order to bring commanders on the ground better information to use in developing their strategy.
It took trained photo analysts to make sense of the aerial photo brought back to earth by the daring young photographers of the era.
This also required the training of analysts to make sense of what the photographic plates being brought back revealed.
By the end of the war, aerial photography became a huge aspect of intelligence gathering. By 1918 both sides were photographing the entire front twice a day, and had taken over half a million photos since the was began in 1914.
Of course, given the state of aircraft technology in those days these observation flights were fairly dangerous. Although airplanes improved considerably during the way, they were still fairly rickety contraptions made of wood, cloth and wire. They often crashed on take off or landing and any kind of engine or structural failure hight in the air was almost always fatal. Sometimes a pilot himself would be tasked with taking photos but quite often he was accompanied by a photographer. In that case, the photo mission was risking two lives, not just one.
But there were other dangers besides somewhat unreliable aircraft. One was ground fire. Soldiers on the ground and anti-aircraft artillery shot down observation planes whenever they could. (The infamous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, after an amazing career as a fighter pilot was finally killed in 1918 – by ground fire, not battling another aircraft.) And speaking of fighter planes, we’ve seen a lot of air-to-air combat in movies with German vs. allied biplanes engaged in savage dog fights. But in those days, while aircraft did engage in strafing and bombing runs, these types of attacks were not as important as they would be in World War II.
The main function of fighter aircraft in The Great War was to shoot down enemy observation airplanes and protect their own.
Observation airplanes, especially when carrying out photographic missions, tended to be relatively slow and cumbersome. They could not engage in a lot of evasive moment or hide in clouds when they were trying to shoot photos. So enemy fighter planes found them relatively easy to destroy. But observation planes often had fighter protection and when the two fighter forces met they would battle to achieve air supremacy.
The observation aircraft were not defenseless. Many were equipped with machine guns that could be fired from the rear cockpit and they could do damage against the relatively slow moving fighter planes of the day. But it is obviously impossible to operate a machine gun and a camera at the same time.
So an aerial photographer would find himself at perhaps 12,000 feet, in a rickety, open cockpit airplane, bundled up with a heavy coat, scarf and gloves to protect from the cold, hoping the craft would hold together with nothing breaking or going wrong, trying to shoot photos while keeping an eye out for enemy fighters intent on shooting him down.
One prominent aerial photographer in WWI was the legendary Edward Steichen, who was also active as a military photography in WWII as well as having one of the most varied and successful careers in all of photographic history.
These men were war photographers as much as anybody who has ever taken a camera into a combat situation. It was very difficult, demanding and dangerous work.
So these photographers had to be very daring, indeed.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: