In 1980 the French intellectual Michel de Certeau wrote about what it was like to look down on the streets of Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. De Certeau died before those towers took on the meanings that they have had since 9/11, 2001. But his point wasn't about those towers in particular. He thought that the “pleasure” of looking down on the world from a great height was due to the way that it freed you from the pulsating and ultimately unknowable hubbub taking place at ground level. The view from above was the God-like perspective which rendered the world readable at the cost of our separation from it. Cartographers, city planners, bureaucrats, and administrators viewed the world in this way because it abstracted populations and landmasses so as to render them knowable, manageable, and malleable.
There is pleasure in aerial photography and it’s hard not to see this as connected to its power to abstract. Aerial photographs have a special kind of beauty because they both register the world and offer us a view of that world that most of the time is unavailable to us. We find it hard to connect the photographs to a world that we know: much easier to enjoy the patchwork, the shapes, the lines cut by rivers or roads. That this perspective has been associated with death, with killing is of course unavoidable. The Orson Wells character in The Third Man justifies his racketeering in dodgy pharmaceuticals with the view from the top of a Ferris-Wheel in Vienna. “Look down there” he says “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving for ever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money - or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
In a book of aerial photography that was published in 1953 (Our World from the Air: An International Survey of Man and his Environment) a foreword claims that the twentieth century is the century of the air in the same way that the 19th century was the century of the railway. Because the echo of the Second World War was still reverberating loudly it at once recognises that mechanical flight had allowed humans to drop thousands and thousands of bombs on each other, but wanted to push the reader into thinking about how aerial photography could be used by “the geologist, the archaeologist, the town-planner, the sociologist”.
Today when so many more people have had the experience of mechanical flight, aerial photography still offers an uncanny vision of the world. The view of the world you get from your budget airline passenger seat is never really vertical (unless something has seriously gone wrong) and is always mediated by the slightly cloudy double-glazing of the tiny windows. Aerial photographs have a calmness that is never available in the cramped seating of economy class.
They seems to speak more readily of some of the experiences of the young flyers who became pilots during the Second World War:
The physically amazing thing about flying, after the speed impression of taking off and low flying, is that as you gain height the sense of motion drops away. It’s nothing like looking out of the railway carriage and seeing the blurry silver worms zipping past or the ritual nodding of telegraph lines. It is impressively stable and still up there and this is the important point, the world is laid out for you in unfamiliar terms… the visual field is flattened more after the plan view of the microscope section than the elevation that everyday seeing is accustomed to.
This is the artist Nigel Henderson remembering his experience of flying. It was an experience that went from enormous pleasure to nerve-wracking fear. However familiar it may become, and however it is used for instrumental ends, the view from above is also always vertiginous and discombobulating. A god-like view is the view of someone who has no place. The view from above is also the view of someone falling to earth.