What is the Oldest Surviving Aerial Photograph?

Caitlin Dempsey


With the advent of drones, aerial photography has become a cheap and quick to acquire.  Before the age of plane and drone-driven aerial photography, creative minds used balloons, kites, and pigeons to capture the view from above.

While photographers captured aerial imagery from as early as the late 1850s, those pictures no longer exist.  

The oldest surviving aerial photograph was taken on October 13, 1860 by James Wallace Black.  Flying 1,200 feet over the city of Boston in a hot air balloon, Black captured apartment buildings below in albumen silver print from glass negative that he titled, ““Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It.”  

Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It, Albumen silver print from glass negative, 1860, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It, Albumen silver print from glass negative, 1860, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The photographs that Black captured that day were the first aerial photographs taken of an American city, two years after Gaspard Felix Tournachon, a French photographer operating under the pseudonym Félix Nadar, captured the first ever documented aerial photography over the city of Paris, France.  

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

The photograph of Boston is of historic important in part because much of the scene captured in 1860 was later destroyed in the Great Fire of 1872.

First Aerial Photograph of a City in the United States

The photograph of Boston captured the eye of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in the July 1863 edition of the Atlantic Monthly:

We believe this attempt of our younger townsmen to be the earliest in which the aeronaut has sought to work the two miracles at once, of rising against the force of gravity, and picturing the face of the earth beneath him without brush or pencil.

One of their photographs is lying before us. Boston, as the eagle and the wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its eaves and chimneys…. Windows, chimneys, and skylights attract the eye in the central parts of the view, exquisitely defined, bewildering in numbers. Towards the circumference it grows darker, becoming clouded and confused, and at one end a black expanse of waveless water is whitened by the nebulous outline of flitting sails.

~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Doings of the Sunbeam
Atlantic Monthly, Volume 12, July 1863

See Also

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.