PRINT September 1988



THERE WILL ALWAYS be a photographic anniversary at hand; and this year we have a double centenary—a double excuse for the kind of dubious speculative symmetry to which we all abandon ourselves from time to time. In 1888, then, there transpired two developments of note for the history of the mechanical image. A certain Amedée Denise, about whom I have been able to find out virtually nothing, is said to have mooted the possibility of rocket photography; perhaps he doodled and perhaps he dabbled (in the manner of a Saxon engineer who launched a gunpowder-funded photography rocket in 1903)—I have no idea, and stuck as we are in an era of antibiographism, even if it's now superimposed on a new moment of historicization, we can thumb our noses at this modest ignorance, and pass swiftly along.

The second centenary comes from an origin that has not tapered off out of the historical, but to the contrary has expanded into perhaps the governing technological and popular locus of the photographic: in 1888 it was that George Eastman introduced, named, and (mass)-produced the first truly commercial hand-held photographic apparatus. This machine, called Kodak No. 1, and its teeming progeny really represent the last gasps of a long-secularized Renaissance optic, sponsoring a human-scaled, at-arm's-length, face-to-face, place-by-place, repertoire of the domestic—family, friends, domus, and visitations—scrupulously coded by the double bind of high verisimilitude and special “presence,” disseminating the perspectival order as so many little fragments of the world, almost, we could say, replacing rhyme and the other gifts of the ars memoria as the crucial mediator in our sensuous (re)construction of the past. (Proust and the imaged flashback are two of a kind.)

There were two curiosities about Kodak No. 1 that we should remark upon here. First, that it wasn't quite the object of consumer bliss that this passing centennial note might misleadingly suggest. In fact, the ordinary fin de siècle owner/operator was obliged to mail the complete camera back to its place of manufacture (Rochester, New York) in order to have its contents processed. Kodak No. 1 was an entranceless product umbilically tethered to the chemistry of its point of origin. Admittedly this was an advance over the makeshift darkroom laboratories that had to be rigged up in the exterrestrial balloon basket to supply fresh wet chemicals for the earliest aerial photographs; but it was to be another twelve years until the Brownie box camera was brought out, with its removable film container.

Secondly, there was the enterprise of naming the machine. The term “Kodak”—as consumer-familiar now as Kellogg's or Chrysler—is one of the prototypes of the consolidated efforts of would-be nonreferential corporate nominalism, which were to issue in such semantically quiescent designations as Exxon and Advil. The desire behind these names is to protect the product from any connotative contamination from either “family name” or any thing-in-the-world or effect-of-the-world; to render the name static and echoless so that it orbits luminously around the marketplace emitting endless implications of its own efficacious being-as-product. In the case of Kodak, however, we can still find traces of reference to the notion of pioneering—a name that conjures up something between a bear and a canoe and the smell of gold, the emblems or vehicles or incentives of exploration and expansionism, the coordinates of the willed-for unknown that must be controlled and domesticated.

But, consuming though they are, it is not the conjugations of the local photograph, after Kodak, upon which I want to reflect. I have in mind, rather, the accelerating professionalism, militarism, and untowardness (extra-ordinary and un-individual) of aerial photography and remote sensing as they developed (after Denise). Predicated on the rapid expansion, up in the air, of two technologies, in optics and aviation, the aerial photograph has three existences, three functions: surveillance, survey, and the esthetic—that is, control, measurement, pleasure—categories that in any instance always seem to bear at least a trace of the others.

During World War I, as is well known, aeriality became the fifth column, or the fourth dimension (outside the still-landwards arc of the shell), for combatants and noncombatants alike. It was the next front at the threshold of “total war [where] everything is a front.”1 As the strategic value of the image from above became apparent, a huge effort was exerted to mass-produce photographs,2 to protect the aircraft platform on its mission, and, as it was put at the time, to “pluck out the eyes of the enemy.” German technology and effectiveness outran that of the allies (at least until 1918), with General Ludendorff, on the first day of the last year of the war, speaking of the totalitarian dream of panopticality, complete coverage, utter visual power, demanding the achievement of “complete photographic reconnaissance with no gaps.”3

Concomitant to the development of the aerial image was the necessary rise of the associated “art” of photointerpretation. The highly nuanced photographic tonalities and minute inflections of form that made up the surface of the “primitive” remote image were reckoned, of course, actually to stand for, literally to re-present, crucial differentiations of topography, the built environment, and fauna. The interpretative methodology for explicating the latent contents of these photographs was something like formalism turned inside out; so that breathtaking flourishes of texture and grain didn't just recoil into the photographic, they became what Allan Sekula has termed condensed “indexical”4 tokens as the interrogated image released its superficial knowledge back to dimensions and Berkeleyan trees. In this procedure, the scrutinized landscape was interpreted so that its “real” forms could be destroyed, could be identified as already destroyed, or could be annexed.

As exegetical warfare heated up, combatants interposed contrivances of camouflage between the object and its reference (between the signifier and the signified) in an attempt to hamstring semiosis, to baffle the form and texture of the image, to inaugurate a “low-level language game.”5 These masquerades in front of the camera eye could be numbingly elaborate, as in the marking of highly confectioned (but staticly shadowed) craters onto airport runways, or the altering of the groundplan of the battleship Tirpitz, regaled with vast nets and canopies and geologically painted, as it crouched in Aas fjord in Norway in 1942. Yet more often than not the camera uncovered what Dewitt S. Copp called the “iron reality”6 and exposed the strategy—light is not always fooled by material.

The disavowal by Edward Steichen, who was in charge of photoreconnaissance for the American Expeditionary Force, in 1918, of interest and impressiveness in the “average vertical. . . print” is well known and oft cited.7 Less familiar, indeed perhaps completely overlooked, is the startling reinscription of contemporary esthetic reference (as a mnemonic device) in a photo-atlas prepared by the Branch Intelligence Section of the G.H.Q. Wing of the Royal Air Force in 1918.8 Thirteen terms, mostly conventional, such as “FRUIT GROWING” or “PATCHWORK QUILTING,” were coined to impress upon the young pilots for whom the publication was intended the memorable form of the landscape. But quite remarkably, given its origin in the military establishment of a country many of whose few “advanced” cultural commentators were still fulminating against the esthetic degeneracy of the continental avant-garde, two designations offered the young aces were “FUTURIST country” and “CUBIST country.” The former morphology was characterized by irregularly shaped and dispersed (but not needlelike or CRYSTALLINE) unbounded fields; the latter by abstract-seeming, also irregular, facetlike field patches broken up by occasional roads, but not disrupted by clusters of housing. (This certainly gives a new meaning to Cubism and its Enemies).9 Almost from the beginning of its history, then, the (airplane) aerial photograph was fastidiously associated with the vocabulary of Modernism, abstraction to abstraction, unreality to unlike. And the association soon became a reflex—witness Ernest Hemingway's response to his first flight in 1922: “I began to understand cubist painting.”10 Conversely, the apparently disciplined abstraction of the painted Cubist surface was frequently (and early on) associated with militarism by its critical antagonists and by contemporary painters such as Maurice de Vlaminck: “For me ‘the Cubist uniform' is very militaristic, and you know how little I am the ‘soldier-type.' ”11

If the RAF translated and relayed instantly between the esthetic and reconnaissance, tuned in on the esthetic like it was a station, then that other aerial image-making which originated outside the photographic, though was seldom unconscious of it, fought and disengaged from its own battle against the sign as pattern and form. In Malevich, spatiality becomes the token of a peculiar Modernist metaphysics read back from the later '20s onto his heyday Suprematism. In 1936, Arshile Gorky, discussing his mural Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations, utilizes the familiar logic of the formal reduction of a landscape or cityscape when seen from the air as a rationale for his pictorial “simplification” and “limitations” “which become a style, a plastic invention, particular to our time” and opposed to (horizontal) photography.12 In these and many other instances the admired technology and “real abstraction” of aeriality is put forward as a good excuse for myriad stylizations of the abstract. In a sense, then, the face of the earth can no more be closed to reference than any other living face.

Survey is perhaps surveillance without an instrument of war (without the lance). But the neo-encyclopedic euphoria of photogrammetry (measuring and mapping from photographs), purportedly disinterested and science-bound between the wars, is nevertheless always controlled by the governments and institutions that finance, develop, and commission its activities. And though that which makes a population both its subject and its object can never really be social or popular, the dominion of the aerial image has, notwithstanding, been vastly expanded. The disciplines and practices of geology, history, archeology (the creases and scars of Roman encampments visible under two millennia of ploughing; the unearthly geometries of the Nazca geoglyphs in southern Peru; palimpsests of the historical that “can be seen as the ultimate colonization, uniting the hidden fragments of history into a culturally manipulable, but also valuable, whole”13), cultural resource management, cartography, and city planning (Brasilia was apparently sited from the air)—all (and more) took to aerial photography with enormous enthusiasm from the 1920s on.

But these are disciplinary practices with rather uncommon and complex proclivities. Today, perhaps our most familiar visual experience of remotely sensed images is through the televised weather report, in which the flux of weather scuds across the static grid of the homeland in thrilling, simulated time-lapse. Nation, state, and continent are doubly superimposed with a situational and predictive signage and numerology, paged and commentaried by the faux-comic rap of weathermen (sic.) with techno-Dickensian names like Storm Field.

With the advent of RPV's (Remote Piloted Vehicles), the launching of satellites in the late ‘50s, and the staggering sophistication of contemporary remote sensing (deployed most effectively by those countries able to get their satellites and vehicles off the ground), we will soon approach the maxima of all-weather-all-time-all-place, “horizon-to-horizon” surveillance, from which moment it will only be necessary to work on the quality of image resolution and the speed of its transmission in order for us to finish being made by the structuralism of the angels’ high gaze over a world that is even now always already everywhere watched, and always already imaged and compared.

So that “vertical disorder”14 of motion which Roland Barthes demythologized in the late '50s is really a profound condition of modernity, with the high-rise, the downward, the total view, the very vertical axis of superimposition; of the metaphoric—that is, the structural dream of order outside time and history—all transfixed under the purview of the aerial eye that is the new panopticon, seeing not the subject/object from all degrees, but seeing from a single spot (S.P.O.T.: Système Probatoire d'Observation de la Terre), say a geostationary orbit, all there is to be seen (but not all there is to be known) in depth.

John Watchman, an art historian and critic, is a visiting scholar in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, New York. His column appears regularly in Artforum.



1. Lieutenant-General von Metsch, in Wie würdo en neuer Krieg aussehen?, cited in Paul Vialio, Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology, trans. Mark Polizzotti, New York: Semiotext(e), 1986, p. 75.

2. In a provocative essay on aerial photography during World War I, Allan Sekula notes that “the making of reconnaissance prints was one of the first instances of virtual assembly-line . . . production” (Henry Ford got it going in 1914.) See Sekula, “The Instrumental Image: Steichen at War,” in Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973–1983, Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984, p. 36.

3. Andrew J. Brookes, Photo Reconnaissance, London: Ian Allan Ltd., 1975, p. 33.

4. Sekula, p. 35.

5. Ibid.

6. Cited in Brookes, p. 232.

7. See, for example, Sekula, p. 42.

8. Characteristics of the Ground and Landmarks in the Enemy Lines opposite the BRITISH FRONT from the Sea to St. Quentin, Branch Intelligence Section of the G.H.Q. Wing, RAF (1918?).

9. Christopher Green, Cubism and its Enemies, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

10. Cited in Beaumont Newhall, introduction to The View From Above: 125 Years of Aerial Photography, edited by Rupert Martin, London: The Photographers' Gallery, 1983, p. 8.

11. Cited in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modem Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, p. 145.

12. Ibid, pp. 534–35.

13. Lucy Lippard, “American Landscapes,” in Marilyn Bridges, ed., Markings: Aerial Views of Sacred Landscapes, New York: Aperture, 1986, p. 56.

14. Roland Barthes, “The Jet-Ma,” in Mythologies, selected and trans. from the French by Annette Lavers, New York: Hill & Wang, 1972, pp. 71–73.