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A stands for aeroplane


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

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A stands for aeroplane

10 May 2021 10:12AM   Views : 398 Unique : 297


My first hobby was aeromodelling, a result of reading just about every single Biggles book by the time I was ten. Making (and regularly breaking) balsa and tissue aircraft only receded when I discovered developing and printing, which was less generally destructive…

Consequently, I read a story about a particularly fine lens made for photo-reconnaissance well before I had any way to appreciate the technicalities: a single, especially high-definition lens offered the possibility of a military advantage to the nation possessing it in First World War France: and Captain Bigglesworth’s efforts to acquire it for the Royal Flying Corps were notably complex, involving extensions to the upper wings of his Sopwith Camel to enable it to climb to the altitude of the German aeroplane using it.

The problem, of course, was not only to reach the aircraft, but to force it down without damaging the camera it carried. I’ll leave the story up in the air – so to speak – and head on to the second leg of my blog’s tripod of strands, which is a book that I picked up somewhere for £4, and then forgot about – it’s called Camera in the Sky, by Charles A Sims.

Sims worked for The Aeroplane magazine, and had excellent access to both aircraft manufacturers and the British forces, and the book records incidents that would horrify current aviators: the Fairey Swordfish disappearing from view as it left the flight deck of a crowded aircraft carrier, having not QUITE achieved airspeed, and subsequently seen a few feet above the sea and climbing slowly isn’t untypical.

Early in his working life, Sims was an RAF photographer in Iraq, and later in Egypt, where photo-reconnaissance work included regular images of the Sphinx to record how the routine sand-clearing was going, and other work for archaeologists. It appears that – in those days – such things were seen as normal, good practice and good fun, and not invoiceable.

My own experience of air photography is limited – three helicopter flights, and what I could snap out of the window from commercial flights. Of these, the second, flying back from Rhodes from our first holiday abroad, was the most fun, because my wife had broken her ankle, and spent the second week of the holiday in Rhodes hospital. As we’d been on the island for the Orthodox Easter, our departure was on the first day of the main tourist season. Consequently, we flew home on a 360-seater aircraft with 60 passengers, allowing my wife the two seats she needed with an ankle in plaster, and giving me freedom to take pictures from any window I wanted, more or less.

My wife’s ambulance journey to the airport had delayed our departure, but this didn’t matter much, because there were several flights that day - and we crossed the Alps in evening sunshine. I think the pilot had some fun just before we landed: in a holding pattern for 15 minutes, he executed the tightest turns I’ve experienced – though nothing to compare with Mr Sims’ high jinks!


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dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
10 May 2021 10:13AM
The first picture from Charles Sims' book: the second from an Amateur Photographer article on cameras at war. My Alps shots have gone AWOL - I hope only temporarily!
altitude50 Avatar
altitude50 19 23.9k United Kingdom
10 May 2021 11:06AM
My two great interests since the age of about 11 are aircraft & photography. The model aircraft were a hobby on & off until about 9 years ago when I moved Sarf & couldn't find a place to fly within a reasonable distance.
One effort at aerial photography was with a Kodak disc camera strapped to the side of a KeilKraft Super 60 in about 1986. It did work but the results were grainy & fuzzy. I also fitted a keyring video camera to the end of the wing of a Multiplex Acromaster electric foam model to avoid the propeller in shot. Worked very well. Still have the video.
I have flown models off the Great Orme in 70 mph winds. (Slope soarers.) Off the tarmac at Brooklands, under the approach at Almeria Airport! And out of an apricot orchard in Spain.
One interesting model that I built from a plan when I was in Spain was the Blohm & Voss BV141 assymetric aeroplane I spent hours & hours constructing and getting the cockpit area right. I did fly it once with a four stroke engine, then retired it.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
10 May 2021 11:18AM
There were some weird and wonderful aircraft, if you only heard about them...

I've got a copy of the Aeromodeller Plans Service catalogue in the house, from the days when it cost two bob.
woolybill1 Avatar
woolybill1 Plus
16 39 79 United Kingdom
11 May 2021 9:56AM
Perhaps the greatest photographer associated with the early development of aerial photography was one Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Edward Steichen, leader of America's aerial photographic program on the Western Front during the Great War and Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in WWII. He maintained that a military introduction course in photography was not sufficient to achieve the necessary depth of understanding for the job ; the art of the photograph required a complete understanding of the photographic process.

Steichen is of course best known as a pioneer of fashion photography including the first modern fashion photographs ever published (in Art et Décoration magazine, 1911); he was chief fashion photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair between 1923 and 1938.

A magnificent, lavishly-illustrated and authoritative book, Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in the FIrst World War (Terrence J. Finnegan, 2011) contains multiple references to Steichen including at least one photograph of Steichen and prints as Appendix E the entire manifesto he presented to the American authorities on 26/12/1918. The book is relevant to all national air forces, incidentally, not just to those of the U.S.

Although aerial photography in this sense concerns the recording and interpretation of military matters I can't help thinking that we wouldn't have reached the stage we have today without Steichen (who, for anyone who reads this is unaware, was associated with Alfred Stieglitz before 1914 and Lee Miller afterwards, among a great many others).
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
11 May 2021 11:57AM
I knew of Steichen's photography, but not his military connection...

Sims' book is very anecdotal and far from an overview: but it is wide-ranging in time and geography. As far as I can see, though, he doesn't touch on technique or cameras at all, except for a Leica issued to him shortly before the fall of France during the Second World War. It was taken back by the RAF shortly afterwards and issued to another photographer, he noted with some regret...

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