Friday, October 30, 2009

The Greatest Aviation Photo Ever

On the morning of December 17, 1903, a lifeguard named John T. Daniels activated the trigger of a 5x7-inch glass plate camera, set up on a tripod by Orville Wright, and took a picture of an airplane taking off. At the time, to put it mildly, this was a novelty. The resulting photo, usually cropped to eliminate the empty space and missing piece of glass on the left, is one of the most famous of photographic images.

People, especially aviation buffs, are so accustomed to this photo as a historical document that it is rarely, if ever, evaluated as a photograph. But it is well worth close scrutiny.

The photo is technically excellent. At the Library of Congress web site, you can download a scan of this photo that is 7500 x 5406 pixels, consuming 232 megabytes. (That's about 40 megapixels, for any digital users interested in how far photography has "advanced" since 1903, and the negative probably could support an even higher resolution scan.) At that resolution, every bracing wire on the plane and every fold in the Wrights' clothing can be seen in sharp relief. The exposure is perfect, and the tonal range would do credit to Ansel Adams. Someone with today's best equipment would be hard pressed to do as well.

More to the present point, the photo is a great aesthetic success. Compositionally, its main elements are the two slightly drooping white wings and the running figure of Wilbur, with the launching track leading the eye to the plane and pointing directly at Wilbur's chest. The action is caught precisely at what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call the decisive moment; the airplane is clearly flying, but has not yet left Wilbur behind. Wilbur's presence provides scale and dynamism to the picture, and also makes it satisfying for those with knowledge of what the photo depicts: both of the airplane's co-inventors at their moment of greatest triumph. The background with its indistinct horizon heightens the sense of flight into the unknown, but the vague shadow of the airplane clarifies what otherwise would be an ambiguous spatial relationship with ground, sky, and Wilbur.

It would be hard to overstate the fame of this photograph. The compositional structure of the photo is known to every visually literate person in the developed world. Draw a sketch of two drooping white slivers joined by a forest of sticks with a running figure just to the right, and almost anyone can tell you what it is. It has been adapted on many media, from the North Carolina 2001 state quarter-dollar to countless pieces of kitsch. It may be not just the greatest aviation photo ever taken, but the only great aviation photo ever taken, from the standpoint of the overall history of photography.

It might be objected that my evaluation of this photo's aesthetic merits is tainted by the famous historical event that it depicts. To this there are three responses. First: So what? Many photos are great partly because of the significance of their content. Joe Rosenthal's photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, would not be so well regarded if it had been taken on a training field at Camp Pendleton. Second: a momentous event does not necessarily produce a great photo. Other important events in aviation history, such as Louis Bleriot's first crossing of the English Channel and Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, were extensively covered media events, yet all of the photographers present failed to produce an iconic image that has come to symbolize the achievement. Finally: This photo helped to create the historical significance of the event it documented. The Wrights waged a campaign for decades to establish themselves as the inventors of the airplane and this moment as the airplane's birth, and this photograph was their most compelling piece of evidence. And like so many photos, it stretches the truth. Viewing the image of the craft floating serene and level, apparently under full control, one would never imagine that, as aerodynamicists and replica builders have learned, it could barely fly. Not only was it incapable of a controlled turn, but it could be flown only under a highly specific set of conditions and probably only by one of the Wrights, with their vast experience in its predecessor gliders of similar configuration. The aesthetic brilliance of Daniels' photo should be understood as a cause, not just an effect, of its historical significance.

I'm presenting this as the first post to this blog for a few reasons. I want to start on a high note, showing you a picture I like and explaining why. I want to convey something of what this blog is about: using aviation photography to explore the aesthetics of both airplanes and photographs, within the historical contexts of both. In future posts, I'll be talking more about photographic icons like Adams and Cartier-Bresson, about aviation photos and photographers, and a little about camera gear and techniques. I hope you enjoy it.