A Look Back at the First Aerial Photo Shot in the United States

To mark the 159th anniversary of the first aerial photo in the United States, CBS Sunday Morning aired this 2-minute Almanac segment about the landmark photo by photographer James Wallace Black and how aerial photography has developed since then.

Black was born on February 10th, 1825 in Francestown, New Hampshire, and he dabbled as a painter in Boston before turning his sights on the world of photography. His starting job was as a daguerreotype plate polisher.

Two years after the French photographer Gaspard-FĂ©lix Tournachon (popularly known as Nadar) became the first person to ever shoot aerial photos in 1858 (by photographing Paris from a balloon with the wet plate collodion process), Black hitched a ride on a hot-air balloon named Queen of the Air, operated by balloon navigator Samuel Archer King.

From 1,200 feet (~366m) above Boston, Black exposed 8 glass negative plates. Only one of the eight photos was any good, and Black titled it “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It.”

“Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It” (October 13, 1860) by James Wallace Black.

This photo was the first clear aerial photo of a city ever made, and because Nadar’s earlier experiments have been lost, it’s also the oldest surviving aerial photo in existence.

In the 16 centuries that have passed since Nadar and Black pioneered the niche, aerial photography is now being captured from planes and helicopters, using satellites, by flying drones, and more.

CBS Sunday Morning points to photographer Vincent Laforet as an artist who’s at the forefront of modern aerial photography. Laforet has received acclaim in recent years for his nighttime aerial photos of cities around the world, captured from an altitude of thousands of feet while hanging out the open door of a helicopter.