Duck Duck Book

54 – cities from the sky
12.11.2009, 11:33 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Cities from the sky : an aerial portrait of America / by Thomas J. Campanella ; foreword by Witold Rybczynski.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2001.
[MCL call number: 779.36 C186c 2001; one copy, no holds]

There is something magical about the way the earth appears as you look out from an airplane.  If you’ve flown before, you know what I mean, even if your only experiences have been in commercial jets with teensy little windows. Flying home to Portland, I nearly always find myself taken aback at the familiar but fairly awesome vista when the plane comes through the last layer of clouds and I can see the Willamette River stretched out along the valley, and the clutch of downtown skyscrapers snug between the river and the West Hills; or, approaching from the east, the incredible view of mountains all around as the plane descends over the Columbia.  Flying over your hometown in a small plane is often even better — little planes are able to dart about a bit, and they fly low, so you might be able to pick out the apple tree in your front yard, a familiar church steeple, or the playground in a local park.

Aerial photographs can give you a taste of this feeling of flying without ever leaving the ground.  Before Mapquest, before Google Earth and Multimap and all the other amazing mapping services on the world wide web, aerial surveys were special, restricted resources that most folks had very little chance to enjoy.  You might have gone to a library to look up a United States Geological Survey orthophotoquad, or you might have seen the occasional aerial survey photograph illustrating a news article or in a historical museum; but comprehensive aerial surveys used to be the provenance of specialists.  Engineers, city planners, military officials, land developers; people with a clear practical need for the information aerial photographs could provide, and with the money to fund them.

When specialists needed aerial photographs in decades past, often as not they hired Fairchild Aerial Surveys to provide them.  Cities From the Sky begins with an introductory essay explaining Fairchild’s history — and it was a pretty interesting company.  Its founder, Sherman Fairchild, spent his youth tinkering, building things, and inventing small devices of one sort or another.  After developing a new and greatly improved aerial camera for the U.S. Army Air Service, he founded the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation in 1920, which made cameras, accepted commissions for aerial images, and took aerial photographs on speculation for use in newspaper stories.  The spec photos were preserved in the company’s picture library whether or not they sold, and this vast collection of images (more than 200,000 by 1935) are the pool from which most of the content of Cities From the Sky is drawn.

The book includes about 100 giant pages of reproductions of aerial photographs, most of them angled views showing a panorama rather than the map-like earth-from-space kind.  They capture cities and towns across the United States, though about 40% are of communities in the Northeast.  The photographs would be interesting to look at just for their vantage points, but in fact they are fascinating for their historic value as well.  The great majority were taken between 1930 and 1955 or so, and so they often include geographical, urban, and societal elements that are no longer present, or that have been irrevocably changed by later developments: the San Francisco Bay has no bridges; Monterey, California’s harbor is full of fishing boats resting from their labors in the still-active sardine industry (page 108); a U.S. Navy dirigible floats above the Hudson River in New York (page 35); downtown St. Louis is missing its Gateway Arch (page 84); Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway is actively under construction (page 115); and the trains leaving Boston’s North Station are sending out enormous, picturesque plumes of steam (page 21).

* * *

Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. left a considerable record of its activities, and several libraries and archives have digitized part or all of their collections of Fairchild photographs, including the New York Public Library, the Digital Collections of the New York State Archives, Museum, and Library, Whittier College, and the Santa Monica Public Library.

* * *

Those of you who’d like to see more pictures of cities from high up in the sky should be sure to take a look at Bird’s Eye Views, by John W. Reps, (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c1998, reviewed in number 53), which reproduces 19th and early 20th century lithographs showing American cities and towns.


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