Civil War balloon photography.
May 22, 2007 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Are there any extant photographs taken from balloons during the American Civil War?

I would prefer photographs (should they exist) referenced online. I would also be interested in other photographs taken from balloons during the late 1800s.
posted by viewofdelft to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There are claims that photographs were taken from balloons for military purposes during the Civil War, but none survive. [1]

The oldest surviving photo taken from a balloon was taken just before the war; it is this one, shot over Boston in 1860. [2]
posted by gubo at 3:53 PM on May 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

Photography wasn't a very mature technology at that time; it required long exposures even in daylight. A balloon would not have been a stable enough platform.

Photographers of the era learned certain tricks. For instance, the earliest good pictures of ships all show them at low tide, when they were sitting on the bottom. That meant they didn't move constantly with the waves, and made it possible to get a sharp picture using long exposure.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:47 PM on May 22, 2007

More on the US Army Balloon Corps here.
posted by cerebus19 at 6:50 PM on May 22, 2007

Best answer: Boston from a captive balloon, October 13, 1860
posted by ormondsacker at 7:16 PM on May 22, 2007

Best answer: According to this page on Charles Benton's Aerial Kite Photography site (scroll down to the end):
Credit for the first aerial photograph goes to French author and artist Felix Tournachon who used the nom de plume Nadar. He captured the first aerial photo from a balloon tethered over the Bievre Valley in 1858. The oldest extant aerial photograph is a view of Boston by James Wallace Black in 1860. Nadar provided the first aerials of European cities with views of Paris in 1868. The first photographs from a free flight balloon were by Triboulet in 1879 over Paris. William McMullin matched the feat years later (1893) to capture views of Philadelphia.
The page contains what seems to be another version of James Wallace Black's 1860 Boston photo linked by gubo. And here's yet another one by him, from the Met: Boston from a Hot-Air Balloon, October 13, 1860.

The balloon that Nadar built was no ordinary one -- it had a two-story gondola to carry up to 50 passengers and was equipped with its own darkroom. (Sidenote: the balloon apparently inspired his friend Jules Verne to write his Five Weeks in a Balloon.) Here are a few of his photographs online:
- One of his first aerial photos of Paris, 1858
- The Arc de Triomphe and the Grand Boulevard, Paris, from a Balloon, 1868
(both from UCSB Geography Department.) [same department for cerebus19's link]

The page also mentions Civil War aerial photography, but there are no references to specific examples. I checked out some pages for Thaddeus Lowe, who was "chief aeronaut" of the Union Army Balloon Corps, but only found photos from the ground.

If it doesn't have to be photos specifically from balloons (and you're interested in aerial photography from that era), the next page of the Aerial Kite site has an aerial image of Labruguiere, France in 1889 by Arthur Batut, the father of kite photography. There are a couple of other late-19th-century images of the city at the Arthur Batut Museum site (choose "Le cerf-volant").

This 1903 issue of the magazine Photo Miniature on aerial photography contains lots of good images (both balloon and kite); unfortunately only a few are dated, but I'd guess most are from the late 1800s. It's a great article for aerial photography history and mentions many of the important names in the field, including Nadar, Black, Batut, etc. and features photographs by William N. Jennings and William A. Eddy.

And if you're going to go the library/book route, this NASA geomorphology page includes an interesting bit of information: "In 1899, Albert Heim published his photographs and observations made during a balloon flight over the Alps; he is probably the first person to use aerial photography in geomorphological research." Heim wasn't a photographer by trade, but a geologist.

[On preview: ormondsacker beat me to Benton's kite photography page! but I hope the rest of what I wrote is helpful.]
posted by macguffin at 9:20 PM on May 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

This 1903 issue of the magazine Photo Miniature on aerial photography contains lots of good images (both balloon and kite)

Don't want this to sound misleading, so I should clarify that among the photos in the magazine, there are six from balloons, two from kites, and six from the tops of high towers/domes (not airborne).
posted by macguffin at 10:01 PM on May 22, 2007

And now, a correction about the first Nadar photo I linked:

- One of his first aerial photos of Paris, 1858

I got the date from the caption on the page, but it's probably wrong, since a number of references indicate that Black's aerial photo of Boston in 1860 is the oldest extant photo and that Nadar's first photos were lost. So it was likely taken post-October 1860 -- I just don't know when. Sorry for missing that error earlier.
posted by macguffin at 10:22 PM on May 22, 2007

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