Trivia

Hard

The World’s Oldest Surviving Aerial Photograph Captures What City?

London
Paris
New York City
Boston
James Wallace Black's urban aerial photograph showing a section of Boston in 1860.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Answer: Boston

In 1860, photographer James Wallace Black hauled his gear into the basket of a hot air balloon and set sail over the city of Boston. Although Black wasn’t the first to combine the lofty elevation of a hot air balloon and a camera (that distinction belongs to the Frenchman Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, who snapped a photo from a balloon two years earlier in 1858), his photograph is the earliest surviving example of aerial photography.

Oliver Wendell Holmes described Black’s photograph in the July 1863 edition of the Atlantic Monthly as such:

Boston, as the eagle and wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its eaves and chimneys. The Old South and Trinity Church are two landmarks not to be mistaken. Washington Street slants across the picture as a narrow cleft. Milk Street winds as if the old cowpath which gave it a name had been followed by the builders of its commercial palaces. Windows, chimneys, and skylights attract the eye in the central parts of the view, exquisitely defined, bewildering in numbers…. As a first attempt it is on the whole a remarkable success; but its greatest interest is in showing what we may hope to see accomplished in the same direction.

Despite more than a century of photographic developments since the work done by Tournachon and Black, we’ve never, if the popularity of satellite image services like Google Earth are any indicator, lost our love of seeing the same places as very different objects from a more bird-like vantage point.

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