Pioneers Of Aviation Photography


This 1860 photograph of Boston from the air, is by James Wallace Black, and is printed with albumen (coal) and housed at the Boston Public Library.

Have you ever heard of Jimmy Black? Okay… his true name is James Wallace Black, and he probably went by the name James Black.

Born in Francetown, New Hampshire on February 10, 1825, he was a pioneer of aviation thanks to his chosen field of photography.


James Wallace Black

Already famous for his photo of abolitionist (of slavery in the U.S.) John Brown in 1859 (it’s in the Smithsonian Institution) and (for you Breaking Bad fans) a photograph of Walt Whitman for his Leaves of Grass poetry book, on October 13, 1860, Black used a hot air-balloon piloted (and owned by) Samuel Archer King (April 9, 1828 – November 3, 1914), and soared over Boston.


Walt Whitman

At an altitude of 1,200 feet), he photographed the city, taking eight glass plate negative images of 10-1/16-inches x 7-15/16-inches in size.

Unlike nowadays, where digital photography is practically idiot-proof, he achieved one good print, which was called: “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It.” (See image at the very top!)

It was the first successful aerial photograph in the U.S., and the first clear aerial image of a city anywhere.

As for the iconic photo’s title… why the heck did it need to mention TWO birds? The Eagle and Wild Goose? Just eagle… or just goose! No ‘wild’ necessary. We know no farm goose is up in the clouds! Whatever. I just like to point out stuff that seems odd i my department of redundancy department.

Now… I mentioned two paragraphs earlier, that the Eagle/Wild Goose image was the first clear image of a city anywhere (from a balloon).


Felix Nadar, c.1860, self-portrait.

Turns out that back in 1858, a Paris, France photographer whose nom de plume was Nadar (but really it’s Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, April 6, 1820 – March 23, 1910), flew in a balloon of his own design and took photographs of the French village Petit-Becetre.

After initially studying medicine, after his father died (and the money wasn’t there to continue), Tournachon went into working for newspapers as a caricaturist. As part of the Bohemian movement there in Paris at the time, his friends nicknamed him Tournada, which later became Nadar. Nadar is how he is best know nowadays.

He got into photography in 1853, opening his first studio in 1854, and there are some great images of Charles Baudelaire, Hector Berlioz, Sarah Bernhardt, Gustave Doré, Alexandre Dumas, Franz Liszt, Emile Zola, and my all-time favorite author Jules Verne.


Souvenir photo of Nadar in a balloon… circa 1865.

In 1858… aviation photography.

Firstly… no photograph from this event still exists. All I can find out is that they are lost… perhaps unstable, cracked, or physically lost. Still, there seems to be no disputing the fact that Nadar was the first, so perhaps these images were only lost a while after they were originally created.

Unlike Black who took the photographs in the balloon and developed them on the ground, Nadar actually had a darkroom on his balloon.

Like I said, Nadar created his own balloon.

Nadar’s photographic system utilized a wet plate Collodion process, a process by 1850 that had replaced the earliest form of photography known as daguerreotype. For the Collodion process, the photographic material must be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within 15 minutes of the photograph being taken.

As such… Nadar required his own balloon darkroom and needed to prepare the glass plates while aloft.

During the initial tethered balloon ride, while preparing the plates, he was overcome by escaping gases from the process helped in part by the balloon basket having a gas-proof cotton cover. D’oh!

His second flight ended up dragging him and his wife for about one kilometer as they attempted to land.

Le Géant 1863

Le Géant, 1863. Nadar’s Hot-Air Balloon via a stereoscope picture card for a magic lantern projector.

In 1863, Nadar had the famous Eugene Godard build a balloon to his specifications – a really big one that needed over 300 seamstresses to sew together the 22,000 yards of silk:

  • Height: h60 meters (196-feet);
  • Capacity: 6,000 square meters (210,000 cubic feet);
  • Pilots: Jules and Louis Godard – not related (as far as I know) to the balloon’s designer Eugene Godard.

Made of wicker, the balloon had two stories, including a balcony on its roof.

There were six rooms/compartments: two cabins, printing room, photography office, storeroom, and a lavatory (bathroom).

1863 Le Géant balloon gondola

Le Géant‘s wicker gondola in 1863, following a crash. Despite looking like something out of Gilligan’s Island (or vice versa), you can see wicker fencing of the wicker balcony on the wicker hut… now picture being up in the air several thousand feet and having dinner on the balcony. I love that there was also a lavatory on the main floor. But did they dump it while in the air?!

It was called Le Géant (The Giant) and later inspired Jules Verne to write his book Five Weeks in a Balloon.

After Le Géant was damaged on its second flight, Nadar readily believed that the future of aviation lay in heavier-than-air aircraft.

As such, when The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines was created, Nadar was elected president and Jules Verne the secretary.

Nadar was also the inspiration for Verne when he created the character Michael Ardan (the French traveler) in his iconic 1865 novel De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon). How cool is that?!

Nadar portrait Jules_Verne_1878

Jules Verne photographed by Nadar in 1878.

As an aside, people usually credit Verne with being some sort of genius for writing stories depicting machinery that helped inspire the future (rocketry, submarines)… but truthfully, Verne was smart enough to stay abreast of scientific concepts of the time, and was able to scientifically create reasons for them to be feasible.

However… sometimes he just got things right… like placing the lift-off site of the space projectile in Tampa Town, Florida… not quite Cape Canaveral, Florida, but dammit, this was nearly 100 years earlier!

Le Géant only made five flights.

Flight 1: October 4, 1863. Nadar, the Jules and Louis Godard and 12 passengers lifted up… flew 15 miles and then dropped to the ground roughly, dragging the basked for over two kilometers.

Flight 2: October 18, 1863: Nadar, the Godard’s and six passengers flew up to 4,000 feet.

All eventually ambled unsteadily to the balcony for a nice meal as the balloon floated towards Belgium, over the Netherlands and then Germany, traveling over 400 miles.

When dawn arrived, Nadar thought the sun’s heat would cause the balloon to burst, so he ordered Le Géant to land.

Of course, after venting gas to decent, strong winds hit as they neared the ground, and with little gas left, couldn’t rise above the strong winds, and so bounced over fields, trees, the ground… and heading for a steam locomotive.

The engineer saw what was going on, stopped the train in time, as Le Géant continued to move/bounce past, finally catching itself at the edge of a wood before bursting. The passengers had already been bounced out of the wicker basket before that finality, though all were. still aboard for the train incident.

At some point in time afterwards, after Le Géant was fixed up, Nadar used the balloon to take photos of Paris in 1863


Paris – 1863, photographed by Nadar, is his earliest surviving aerial photograph, taken while aboard the hot air balloon Le Géant.


Some of Nadar’s aerial images of Paris from an 1868 flight.

Nadar, the cynic said of photography: “Photography is a marvelous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, an art that excites the most astute minds—and one that can be practiced by any imbecile.”

As an imbecile, I agree.

Anyhow… balloon aviation photography was still seen as something that could be useful, so the French government wanted to use use it for reconnaissance, which, obviously, still goes on today.

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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