Training the Eye: Production and Reception of Aerial Photography during the World Wars
This paper explores the entanglement between photography and aerial military operations during the World Wars, showing how, in warfare, the camera became a technology of power serving a dual purpose: 1) It was a weapon used to map the territory as well as to detect and bomb specific targets, and 2) it constituted a powerful propagandistic medium employed to circulate persuading and aesthetically innovative aerial vistas among civilians. The technological and industrial sophistication that was adapted to the modern aerial battlefield required optical and photo-developments. These technical improvements challenged military activity while also reshaping civilians’ perception and conception of the landscape as well as determining new aesthetic canons. At the core of this article there is the notion of training of the eye – understood as the process, which involved both experts and the general public, of assimilating new photographic vistas from the sky.
Using mostly the North American and German frames of reference, and interweaving military technology, visual culture, and landscape studies, this paper analyzes production and reception of “the view from above” mainly through mass-market illustrated magazines, such as the American Life and the German Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung.
Developed within the military context, the peculiarity of aerial photography became embroiled with the idea of a cold, hunting, distanced and simultaneously penetrating gaze. However, recent scholarship understands the aerial view differently, due to the latest use of aerial photography for environmental science, and with the purpose of raising public awareness on the devastating ecological impact of industrialization and militarization. The contemporary progression from aerial photography to satellite imagery can in fact be interpreted along two directions: the God's-eye view of surveillance and/or the bird’s-eye view of environmental care.