A view of Boston taken from a hot air balloon in 1860

    World’s Oldest Surviving Aerial Photo

    The first known aerial photograph was taken in 1858 by French photographer and balloonist, Gaspar Felix Tournachon, known as “Nadar”. In 1855 he had patented the idea of using aerial photographs in mapmaking and surveying, but it took him 3 years of experimenting before he successfully produced the very first aerial photograph. It was a view of the French village of Petit-Becetre taken from a tethered hot-air balloon, 80 meters above the ground. This was no mean feat, given the complexity of the early collodion photographic process, which required a complete darkroom to be carried in the basket of the balloon! Unfortunately, Nadar’s earliest photographs no longer survive, and the oldest aerial photograph known to be still in existence is James Wallace Black’s image of Boston from a hot-air balloon, taken in 1860.

    Following the development of the dry-plate process, it was no longer necessary carry so much equipment, and the first free flight balloon photo mission was carried out by Triboulet over Paris in 1879.

    “After Southworth and Hawes, the partnership of John Whipple and James Black was the most important in Boston. Black’s career began humbly in 1845 as chief plate polisher in two local daguerreian studios. By 1852 he was apprenticed to Whipple, and within four years he was a partner in the firm.

    Between 1857 and 1860, Black managed the business single-handedly, while Whipple completed a three-year scientific exploration of celestial bodies at the Harvard College Observatory. Less interested in astronomy or abstract science, Black left Whipple in 1859 to focus the camera on his own planet.

    Best known for his photographs of Boston after the devastating fire of 1872, Black launched his solo career in 1860 with the production of a series of aerial photographs taken from Samuel King’s hot-air balloon the “Queen of the Air.” Black’s views of Boston were the first aerial photographs made in America; two years earlier the Frenchman Nadar had made history making similar views of Paris.

    Black’s photographs caught the attention of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poet and professor of medicine at Harvard, who gave this photograph its title. In July 1863, Holmes wrote in the “Atlantic Monthly”: “Boston, as the eagle and wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its eaves and chimneys. The Old South [Church] and Trinity Church [left center and lower right] are two landmarks not to be mistaken. Washington Street [bottom] slants across the picture as a narrow cleft. Milk Street [left center] winds as if the old cowpath which gave it a name had been followed by the builders of its commercial palaces. Windows, chimneys, and skylights attract the eye in the central parts of the view, exquisitely defined, bewildering in numbers….

    As a first attempt [at aerial photography] it is on the whole a remarkable success; but its greatest interest is in showing what we may hope to see accomplished in the same direction.” Only two years later the Union Army would use balloon photography to spy on Confederate troops during the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia.”

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