Artists have been imagining aerial views of cities for centuries – but it wasn't until the advent of photography that artists could capture a city in an image.
In 1858, Gaspar Felix Tournachon became the first to successfully take an aerial photograph of a city when he photographed a small French village from a hot air balloon. In the United States, James Wallace Black took the first aerial photograph in 1860 when he captured a view of Boston.
The history of urban photography is full of daring tales of adventure. In 1901, photographer George Lawrence tried using a hot air balloon to take aerial photographs, but the basket carrying him detached, and he tumbled to the ground, his fall only broken by telephone wires. Lawrence’s fall convinced him to try a new method, however – flying a camera from a contraption with 17 kites. Other photographers stuck with hot air balloons or began to experiment with airplanes and rockets.
These stunning early photos of cities reveal the bustling metropolises of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and they capture key moments in history. Alphonse Liébert photographed the just-built Eiffel Tower in his aerial view of the Paris Exhibition of 1889. Lawrence’s photograph of San Francisco in 1906, directly after the earthquake, appeared in newspapers around the world. And the 1937 photograph of the Hindenburg passing over New York City – flying the Nazi flag – was taken just hours before the zeppelin crashed in a ball of flames.
Old photos of American cities also remind us of how far many of our cities have come in the last 100 years. Brooklyn’s peaceful neighborhood is almost unrecognizable today, and the photograph of Los Angeles shows a city before the Hollywood boom brought millions to Southern California.
These amazing aerial photos of cities are a glimpse into our past, using the most cutting-edge technology of their day.