Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on October 13, 2012
As the balloon, “Queen of the Air”, drifted lazily over Boston at 1,200 feet of altitude, James Wallace Black pointed his Daguerreotype camera toward the harbor. He carefully opened the aperture and exposed the first glass negative to the light of the city below. Closing the aperture, he climbed under a hood and carefully removed the glass plate before replacing it with a second plate. Reemerging from the darkness of the hooded camera, he adjusted his camera’s position and again opened the aperture, timing off the seconds until he could close the aperture, return under the hood and remove the plates. He would repeat the process eight times that day, October 13, 1860 — today in aviation history — and in doing so become the first person in the world to successfully photograph a city from the air.
Eight Plates but Seven Failures
James Black’s aerial photography mission was a venture shared with a famous balloon pilot, Samuel Archer King, who had helped pioneer aerial photography. In July 1875, King had ascended with his balloon, “Buffalo” and had brought along a photographer who shot a series of photos of the ground — these may well have been the first aerial photographs in history. Three years later, Félix Nadar in France (that was his nom de photographe, his real name was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), would similarly shoot photos of the rolling European countryside. Yet this time, five years after his first aerial photographs, Black and Kind had broken new ground — photographing the complexities of a city. First, King and Black had attempted to photograph Providence, Rhode Island. While the flight went perfectly, after landing they discovered that none of the photographs were good enough — they had failed completely.
After having passed over Boston, King landed the balloon and James Black took the camera and plates back to his lab, being careful not to expose or drop the storage box of the eight, heavy glass negatives. Once in his dark room, he slowly developed each of the plates, hoping that the long exposures, chemical compounds and movement of the balloon would not spoil too many of them as had been the case in the earlier flight over Providence. The plates were heavy and unwieldy, measuring 10 1/16″ x 7 15/16″.
One after another, James Black was saddened to observe that yet again the Daguerreotype process had failed for one reason or another. Often the balloon’s movement was too great for the long exposure, sometimes the chemical compounds had not exposed properly or the plates had been inadvertently exposed to extraneous light, and so forth. Suspended under a balloon in a small basket with a big camera had been challenging, to be sure, and most certainly anything but the carefully lit and absolutely still settings of a photographer’s studio. Nonetheless, as he continued to develop the photo plates, he worried that he might have come away with nothing.
Finally, one of the glass plates proved reasonably good. There was a bit of blurring at the bottom, where the city was closest and the perspective-based lateral movement at relatively high, but it was well-framed, clear and perfectly exposed. James Black was overjoyed. He developed the rest of the plates and discovered that none of the others were good. In the end, just one of the eight had captured the image of the city of Boston, Massachusetts. It was the world’s first photograph of a cityscape from above.
Printing and Selling the Photo
As a professional photographer in the earliest days of Daguerreotypes, James Black sold portraits and still life photos. The public was amazed at the magic of the camera and viewed each photograph as if it was a painting to be hung on the wall. Black knew that he could have a market if he could display the Daguerreotype photo of Boston from above on a screen and charge admission or, barring that, perhaps selling individual prints. To add to the marketing value, he named his photograph (as artists also named paintings) with the descriptive and poetic phrase, “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It.” In fact, his Daguerreotype was a sensation. People had never seen their city from above and, looking at the photo, they could imagine themselves up there, in the “Queen of the Air”, floating high over their city.
James Black continued on with his successful career as a portrait cameraman, advertising in the local newspapers for business. It is not clear if he ever soared aloft on another aerial photography mission. Just a few years afterward, the Civil War would erupt, tearing America apart into the Union in the north and the Confederacy in the South. Balloons and photography would come of age during the war, but not in James Black’s hands.
Ultimately, James Black would add a new field to his repertoire, the so-called “magic lantern”, which was an early equivalent to the overhead projector from schools, except that the plates would be inserted in the front and a candle lit within the open-topped box in a darkened room. Through a lens, in the reverse of a camera, the image already captured to a plate would be projected onto a large viewing screen. One can only imagine how the citizens of Boston must have reacted to the aerial photograph of Boston when projected on a large screen.
Aerial photography from balloons would continue to advance and finally give way to aerial photography on airplanes.
Who invented stereo photography from aircraft and how did it work?