Aerial Photography During Wartime

November 17, 2018

If you’ve spent much time examining photography during wartime, you’ve likely happened upon images that were clearly taken from overhead. Nowadays, that's not a big deal. Technology has led to cameras being lightweight and compact, making it easy to snap photos no matter where you are. But think back to an earlier time, before the advent of digital imagery.

The Birth of Aerial Photography

Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, considered the father of aerial photography

Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, considered the father of aerial photography

Evidence of aerial photography goes all the way back to the mid-19th century, first credited to a French photographer named Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, known professionally as Nadar. It wasn’t until World War I, however, that the practice started to see widespread use.


Aerial Photography During Wartime

Aerial photography was widely used on all fronts during World War II. We have some incredible and striking imagery from the attack on Pearl Harbor, thanks to an Army Air Forces Staff Sergeant named Lee Embree. Embree was just as surprised as everyone else at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese launched their attack, but he had to work through the shock to do a job he thought essential.

Embree provided the world with iconic photographs of the attack on Pearl Harbor that will forever capture the chaos of the tragic event. But how did men like Lee Embree capture these images of war without the technology we take for granted today? Doing so was definitely more difficult than holding up a mobile phone or operating a drone from far away.

During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Embree was flying in from the West Coast on a B-17 Flying Fortress. The plane had an opening intended for a mounted machine gun, but to extend the plane's range, its armaments had been removed. With no weapon filling the hole in the plane, Embree decided it was the perfect spot for him to lean out and start taking snapshots of the ongoing assault.

Lee Embree was a pioneer of aerial photography during wartime

Lee Embree with his Speed Graphic camera

Embree’s method of taking photographs in this improvised way was originally the only means of capturing images from a high altitude. Photographers, often using the Fairchild K-17 camera, would find a place to lean out of the aircraft and get to work. For planes like the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber, the camera operator would use the rear gunner’s position to man the oversized camera.

There was a second method that was largely used on aircraft that were flying over enemy territory. As it would be too dangerous for the photographer to lean out of the plane, it wasn’t uncommon for reconnaissance planes to trade their machine guns for cameras.

One example is the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Known for being a fighter plane, there was a version of the P-38 designed specifically for aerial photography. The craft was stripped of much of its weaponry and had cameras mounted in their place. The P-38 was later replaced by a model of the Lockheed F-5 that could hold more cameras. Since photography equipment was lighter than machine guns and bullets, craft that were modified as photo reconnaissance planes were the fastest in their class.

Aerial photography was used throughout World War II, but Lee Embree will always be remembered as the first photographer to document the war in the Pacific during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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