Nicole Lawrence’s presentation:

The Aerial Perspective


In 1742, the elaborately named Jean-François Boyuin de Benneto launched himself from the terrace roof of his house in Paris, on what is now known as the Quai Voltaire.  In an attempt to take to the skies, he attached four large oval panels to his arms and legs, which he beat furiously as he jumped from his roof.  Apparently, he managed to cover 656 feet before falling heavily onto the roof of a riverside laundry, breaking his leg in the process.  This ill-fated Icarus-like escapade was to set a precedent for many other experiments of flight over the capital.  While there, of course, had been other attempts to fly prior to the eighteenth century – the most famous example being Leonardo’s human-powered ornithopter – one could say that in eighteenth-century Paris something was both literally and figuratively ‘in the air,’ as many of its citizens became obsessed with aerial inventions, and hence aerial viewpoints.  Or perhaps, one could say their interest in elevated viewpoints led to their experiments with aerial technology.  Nevertheless, this fascination was to reach its apex in 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers successfully launched the first ever hot air balloon.  They reportedly climbed to a staggering 3,000 feet, floating over Paris for nearly half-an-hour before finally landing, in what must have been a rather elaborate event.  Considering that the highest viewpoint in the capital prior to the invention of the balloon was no more than 300 feet, the possibility of seeing Paris from this perspective would have most certainly been a dramatic, if not slightly disorientating, experience, to say the least. 


Claude Chastillon, topographic map of Paris
Claude Chastillon, topographic map of Paris, part of the Topographie Française


As a brief digression, I wanted to show just a few examples of pre-aviation, and in this case pre-photographic, aerial standpoints.  Conceived from a fictive ‘bird’s eye view’, this seventeenth-century map of Paris precedes aerial photography.  Although, the production of this topographical landscape is not unique to Paris alone – there are numerous examples from almost every European city within the Conway collection – I thought it was significant to begin to consider why we, as humans, have always seemed intent on seeing the world from above.  If this is indeed a universally pre-conditioned desire, Paris, as a case study, is an arbitrary choice.  And yet one cannot deny that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Parisians, perhaps more than any other, became interested in the aerial standpoint.  While this presentation will not attempt to explain the reasons behind this phenomenon, I would like to explore, by way of the Conway photographs, the dialectical relationship between philosophical viewpoint and physical standpoint, and how this relationship is connected to the development of aerial images. What exactly propelled us to first imagine our surroundings from an aerial standpoint?  While navigational needs likely reign as the most immediate answer, these topographical maps aestheticize man’s creations beyond their practical value.


Aerial images enable us to conceive of the city as an immediate whole entity, rather than as a place only visible through its divisible parts. With the invention of the balloon in the late eighteenth-century and then the airplane, the fictive standpoints of the earlier aerial maps became real inhabitable positions, and the ideological implications associated with the physical standpoint became a subject of wide spread debate particularly amongst the Parisian intelligentsia.  For many, the aerial standpoint signalled the promise of objectivity, where physical distance could be equated with subjective detachment.  Just as the mirror revolutionized man’s perspective of himself in relation to the world, the aerial standpoint could be said to have had a similar effect on our modern understanding.


cartoon of Nadar


The balloon was to cast an impressionable shadow over the citizens of Paris.  A nineteenth-century postcard from the Conway collection depicts a memorial to the Aeronauts who, in the Siege of Paris in 1870-71, carried people, mail, and pigeons out of the city across the Prussian enemy line.  Because the hot air balloon was invented over a hundred years earlier, this would not have been the first time that Parisians would have witnessed them lofting over their city, nor would this have been their first confrontation with the prospect of physically inhabiting an aerial standpoint.  In 1853, Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, had attempted to record Paris from above.  The initial results of his photographs were disappointing, but by around 1858, he had succeeded in taking the first aerial photographs in history from a balloon anchored at a racecourse on the west side of the city.


Sacré-Coeur Sacré-Coeur


Aside from these man-made aviatory inventions, Parisians seemed to have held a unique fascination with elevated standpoints.  Scattered throughout Paris are many places that provide viewpoints that look out over the city.  Despite now being the city’s third most elevated point, crowds today still climb the stairs of Sacré-Coeur to gaze out at the city, just as the people in these photographs are doing.  This attempt to reach the highest standpoint is exaggerated in the photograph on the right, where the two children have climbed up onto the ledge to get an even more elevated view.  This late nineteenth-century photograph seems to dramatize the enthusiasm for vistas of the capital, which Balzac had aptly described as ‘a rage’ for the panorama, that is, a unifying viewpoint from which to grasp the distinctive character of the urban area as a whole.  Baudelaire once wrote ‘with a contented heart, I climbed the hill from which one can survey the city in its breadth – hospitals and brothels, purgatory, inferno, prison-houses, where every monstrosity blossoms like a flower.’


the Eiffel Tower


Almost twenty-five years after Nadar took to the skies with his camera, the Eiffel Tower opened.  Measuring over 1000 feet, this soaring structure firmly marked a type of pivotal location within the city, a quasi-aerial place from where the surrounding urban landscape could be viewed.  Many liked the standpoint more than they liked the building: novelist Guy de Maupassant, for example, allegedly chose to regularly eat lunch at a restaurant in the tower because it was the one place in Paris he didn’t have to look at the iron laddered structure. 


a bell tower in the city of Yaroslavl in Russia a bell tower in the city of Yaroslavl in Russia


While the Eiffel tower would have dwarfed any pre-existing viewpoints from churches or buildings, or natural elevations for that matter, this would not have been the first time that a city would have been seen from such a lofty location.  This photograph, for example, taken from a bell tower in the city of Yaroslavl in Russia, can illustrate the same ideas (the two photos taken from the belfry can also be pasted together to make a rather neat panorama). 


Bruges Bruges




Bell towers were and are a common location from which to take photographs of the surrounding city.  Take for example, these images of Bruges.  The eighteenth-century French author, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, was known to climb the heights of old cathedrals in order to enumerate on ‘the palaces and the poor houses, the theatres and the prisons,’ and reflect on the grim prospect of natural disaster.   For Mercier, it seems that, like the tower of Babel, the higher the standpoint from which the world is viewed, the more devastating man’s prophetic fall would be.

Early aerial maps could have aroused similar sentiments based on their point of view.  Such images do not only inform spectators, but also arouse emotion.  Gazing down at the city provided not only an opportunity to marvel at the vast labyrinth of streets and buildings, but also a moment to reflect on philosophical questions, as the interplay between social and spatial perception becomes united.  As Walter Benjamin reminds us, when people went to view a panorama, they wanted to see the ‘true’ city, that is the whole city, vulnerable and impoverished, resistant and prosperous.  For some, the only thing that stood in the way of a communal understanding was the perceptive limitations enforced by physical proximity, and, therefore, the more one was able to see by way of a high viewpoint, the more miniscule and insignificant differences would become. 


Cathedral, Saint-Lo, Manche, France

Cathedral, Saint-Lo, Manche, France (Photographer: US Signals Corps): Aerial view of town and cathedral in 1944, showing bomb damage


However, the aerial standpoint could perhaps also have the reverse psychological effect, making the viewer feel omniscient and god-like, thereby encouraging moral and ethical disconnect to what exists below.  Although Noa Turel touched on the topic of war photography in the last session, I wanted to reconsider these images in relation to the development of the aerial standpoint.  Up until World War I, aerial photography remained devoid of any civil or military utility.  It was not until World War II that aerial photography was expanded for military use by aviators such as Fred Zinn. What had previously been an aesthetic or moralizing viewpoint in the eighteenth and nineteenth century increasingly became a neutralized, or rather sterilized, perspective, as physical distance came to stand for either psychological or emotional distance or even moral superiority.  


St Germain, Argentan

St Germain, Argentan, Orne, France, Aerial view, liberation of Argentan 20 August 1944 (image of actual bomb).

When viewing the urban city from up above, death could easily be seen with a sense of indifference.  In focusing on the general event, and thus refusing to centre upon individuals, the personal relevance of any given situation is considerably simplified and the impact of one’s actions reduced.  In the context of war, the aerial standpoint is a powerful tool for encouraging and promoting an estrangement between people and place.


St. Andrews Cathedral in Scotland St. Andrews Cathedral in Scotland


After the war, aerial photography became a useful analytical tool for visually collating topographical data and documenting architecture, as this image of the foundations and remaining gable of St. Andrews Cathedral in Scotland shows. 

While many of us have had the privilege of witnessing our cities from an airplane, there is a new virtual standpoint that offers us a perspective that goes beyond our average aerial experience. Google maps ( allows us the opportunity of self-surveillance via satellite images.  No longer a standpoint in Whitney Davis’ sense of the term, such images at various distances index not the physical location of a real observer in relation to a place, but rather offer a type of universal point of view.  The Google satellite sees all. With a sliding scale on the upper-right hand side of the screen, one has the ability to instantly alter one’s virtual position in relation to the imaged location.  Instantly moving from a general overview to a specific close-up, which in some instances is so detailed that one can make out the outlines of people, cars, and basic architectural features (or in the case of my own home, even the garden pot in my front yard).  Inclusive of all differences and accessible to anyone with Internet access, these satellite standpoints seem to be the closest we have come to acquiring a type of ‘universal’ way of seeing.  However, as we have seen, what may seem to be a technical or aesthetic choice of a standpoint can also have complex sociological and ideological implications.


Campanile, Cathedral of Sv. Lovrijenac

Campanile, Cathedral of Sv. Lovrijenac

Campanile, Cathedral of Sv. Lovrijenac (St. Lawrence), Trogir, Splitsko-dalmatinska, Croatia (Photographer: Tim Benton)


And on that note, I wanted to leave with two rather Escher-like photographs taken by Tim Benton in the 1970s, from a twelfth-century campanile in the Cathedral of St. Lawrence in Croatia.  Here, vertical orientation in relation to both the physical and psychological standpoint is one of disorientation and confusion.  Ultimately, the standpoints in these two photographs make us reconsider if our viewpoints are ever as transparent and lucid as we think.



Y. Arthus-Bertrand & G. Gefen, Paris from Above, London: Hachette Illustrated, 2003.

W. Benjamin, The Arcade Project, trans. H. Eiland & K. McLaughlin, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

J. Black, Visions of the World: A History of Maps, London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003.

J. Corner, ‘Aerial Representation and the Recovery of Landscape,’ in J. Corner (ed.), Recovering Landscape:Essays in contemporary landscape architecture, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

R. Dubbini, Geography of the Gaze: Urban and Rural Vision in Early Modern Europe, L.G. Cochrane (trans.), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002 [1994].

L. Lippard, ‘All at a Glance,’ in Y. Dziewior & N. Montmann (eds), Mapping a City: Hamburg – Kartierung, Hatje Cantz, 2005.

K. Piper, Cartographic Fictions: Maps, Race, and Identity, Rutgers University Press, 2002.

C. Prendergast, ‘The High View: Three Cityscapes,’ in Paris and the Nineteenth Century, Oxford & Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992: 46-73.


© Nicole Lawrence 2006


[1] Prendergast, 55.

[2] Arthus-Bertrand & Gefen, 26.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Benjamin, 840.