Photographic firsts #4 – the first aerial photograph

Nadar Aerial Photograph from Balloon Paris 1858

Figure 1 – Earliest remaining aerial photograph by Nadar. Over Paris in 1866 from the Wikicommons and in the public domain

I thought it would be fun today to consider another photographic first, in this case the world’s first aerial photograph.  The first known aerial photograph was taken from a tethered hot air balloon 80 m over the French village of Petit-Becetre in 1858 by French photographer and balloonist, Gaspar Felix Tournachon (aka Nadar).


Figure 2 – Earliest known existent aerial photograph. Over Boston in 1858 by John Black from the Boston Public Library and in the public domain

Now the thing is that when we think about such an event, we tend to modernize it and imagine that we climb into a balloon with our digital SLR and snap snap snap.  However, we are talking 1858 and we are talking wet collodion photographic process.  Wet plates must be developed before the plate dries that is within 20 min of exposure.   As a result,  Nadar in addition to having to lug a large view camera into the balloon with him, had to build and use a whole darkroom on the balloon.  Pretty impressive! Unfortunately, the fruits of Nadar’s 1858 efforts no longer exist.  The earliest existent aerial phototograph from Nadar was taken over Paris in 1866 (see Figure 1).  As a result the earliest aerial photograph known to be still in existence is James Wallace Black’s image of Boston, also taken from a hot-air balloon but in 1860 (see Figure 2).  It is also interesting to see a side-by-side comparision with a modern shot with the same perspective taken by S. W. Dunwell on October 13 of 2012, that is to the minute 162 years apart.

This entry was posted in Technical Aspects of Photography.

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  1. By A crazy quilt from space | Hati and Skoll Gallery on February 2, 2014 at 6:44 am

    […] that it is a black and white photograph.  As a result it connects and is very reminiscent of the first areal photograph taken from a hot air balloon over Boston by John Black in 1858. We seem to never tire of photographs from above, where we essentially watch ourselves.  Perhaps it […]