Boston, Massachusetts has been in the news a great deal recently; unfortunately because of the marathon bombings one week ago. But, Boston – one of America’s greatest cities, and the birth place of the American Revolution – has the distinction of being the first metropolitan area known to have been photographed from the air.
The first flight of an untethered balloon took place over Paris in 1783, and the first known photograph was taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. In 1858, another Frenchman, Gaspard Felix Tournachon, merged the two technologies to take a picture of Paris from aloft. Unfortunately, that photograph has been lost.
But, in 1860, photographer James Black managed to capture a shot of Boston from about 2,000 feet above the city. This was a major achievement, considering photography was still very much in its infancy and subjects had to remain steady while their images were embedded in the glass plates. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poet and professor of medicine at Harvard at the time, gave the photo its title, “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It,” in a July 1863 article in the Atlantic Monthly.
“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 [Church] and Trinity Church [left center and lower right] are two landmarks not to be mistaken. Washington Street [bottom] slants across the picture as a narrow cleft. Milk Street [left center] 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 [at aerial photography] 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.”
The photograph is now in the possession of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.