The view of a landscape from above is said to be a commanding view. Skyscrapers are one iconic example, and films about Wall Street never get tired of showing people in power suits out from penthouses on the uppermost floors. Their gaze symbolizes their control over the cities below. Writing in 1980, Michel De Certeau suggested as much when he described his visit to the twin towers in New York City. He wrote: “To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp.” De Certeau found this power alienating. Standing on the viewing station atop the tower, he felt cut off from city life.1
The towers were destroyed twenty one years later, only to be reincarnated as One World Trade Center, once again topped by an observatory that reinforces the overhead view as one of mastery and power. In this way, skyscrapers aren’t all that different from the towers of prison guards. Towers and fortified walls have long been used to enforce control over prisoners, enslaved populations, and colonial subjects. Foucault’s exploration of the panopticon centers around a tower that enables one guard to hold dozens of prisoners in view. The guard, who can’t be seen from outside the tower, almost becomes superfluous. The tower itself is symbol enough of the potential for a guard to be looking, and the possibility of being seen itself becomes a way of controlling people’s behavior.2 In The Third Man, Graham Greene’s post World War II thriller set in Allied-occupied Vienna, the character of Harry Lime epitomizes the sadistic aspects of this view from above. Looking down from a car at the top of Vienna’s famous Ferris wheel, the Weiner Riesenrad, he likens people to fragile “dots” and asks, “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—forever?”
Lime’s lack of feeling is presented as the harrowing outcome of war. It is an extreme case of the view from above’s broader association with objectivity, with obtaining a clear picture that shouldn’t be “clouded” by emotions.3 The myth of Icarus, who fell when he flew too close to the sun, which was likened to the all-seeing eye of god, was in part a parable about whether humans have the capacity to handle knowing such more-than-human objective truths. Inspired by Icarus, the 11th-century monk Elmer of Malmesbury tried to glide from a tower and survived, albeit with broken legs. The act of seeing all isn’t only difficult for humans—it may even be too much for the gods. As the story goes, the Norse god Odin sought out cosmic knowledge, but he had to gouge out one of his eyes to get it, and he was never the same again.
Aerial photographs are one of the main contemporary inheritors of the view from above and, in the words of Donna Haraway, its “god trick of seeing everything from nowhere.”4 Aerial photos are usually taken from airplanes and satellites, and they are fundamental to everything from cartography, planning, emergency services and design, to waging war. For those with access to sites like Google Maps or Open Street Map, aerial photos are also useful for everyday activities, like making it to a dinner date or a job interview on time.
Aerial images are the outcome of a shift in dominant ways of seeing, which seem to soar ever upwards. Aerial photography began with images from tall towers and natural features like mountains, before taking off into the air via airplanes and satellites. Images taken from a great height still have a perspective to them, a noticeable angle with the ground. In contrast, aerial and satellite photos are (ideally) taken from an angle perpendicular to the ground. Through a trick of the camera, the camera’s own presence is erased from view, and the Earth revealed in aerial photos seems flat and knowable. The Earth’s roundness was discovered, it seems, only so that humans could flatten it again.
These different visions matter, because they help to create different worlds that coexist on and above the Earth. So a struggle over vision is part of contesting and creating worlds. Even so, there is no natural content to any one world. There’s no inherent reason why the view from above should be associated with control, other than the long cultural precedent. De Certeau stops short of making this point, however. As the title of his book The Practice of Everyday Life suggests, De Certeau was an advocate of the view from the ground, of serendipity and the chance encounters of everyday life, and how these add texture and nuance to the top-down impositions of modernity. He starts his chapter on top of the World Trade Center precisely so that he can climb down into the city streets. But this split between the tower and the ground implies that the view from the ground might naturally be better than that from above, that it might naturally be more contingent and egalitarian. As such, it confuses what has been so far (above as a conquering view) with what could be (a different kind of overhead view).
The view from above is a cultural trope whose power is continually reinforced, including through aerial photography, but it certainly isn’t the only trope or the only way of viewing things from overhead. The association of power with looking down is itself also very historically and geographically specific. So to begin to think of alternate worlds and ways of inhabiting the Earth, it helps to dive into the lesser known histories of vision, and to explore the worlds they create—worlds that sometimes coexist on the Earth and over the Earth, all at the same time.
Historically, there have been views taken from above that were not only about command and control. Similarly, the view from the ground can also be one of dominance. Indeed, a resurgence of dominating views, albeit from particular positions on the ground, is part of the present moment in Europe and North America. Alt-facts reject omniscient truth in favor of a partial truth that nonetheless is used to silence other views. Dominant views from both above and the ground are often combined, for example when the @POTUS account tweets personal statements, presumably from a couch by an upper floor window of a Trump Tower penthouse. Drones also combine the two views, as they vary from those specialized in high altitude reconnaissance photography to drones that operate in relatively lower altitude, providing the views used to target specific buildings or individuals from closer to the ground, and not infrequently with dire consequences for those nearby.
The history of aerial photography provides an interesting vantage point to address the specificities of these complex relationships between vision and control. One way to tell that history is to emphasize the emergence of photography from airplanes and, ultimately, satellites as providing an ever more accurate picture of the surface of the Earth. But another, more interesting, history runs alongside that one, and it is the story of hot air balloons to kites, rockets to homing pigeons, to snapshots from the windows of spacecraft.
These non-airplane means of transportation were and continue to serve as vehicles for overhead photos. Some of the photos are both partial views and commanding views from above. Others, although taken from above, try to avoid the overtones of dominance that are associated with such a perspective. Looking at them together can help us not to too-readily idealize the view “from the streets,” so to speak, while also move away from letting a commanding view from above continue to dominate photos taken over the Earth.
Photos Without Planes
Pigeons did not make the earliest aerial photographs, however. These were taken in the 19th century by kite and balloon, in Paris and then Boston, largely by “gentlemanly” photographers. Their pictures have the flavor of Around the World in 80 Days. One of the most famous early images occurred later, in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, in this case emphasizing the obliteration of the city and thus the apparent lack of control over the landscape.
Once cameras began to be used aboard planes, and particularly after World War I, aerial photography was on its way to becoming an (apparently) objective practice, one that enabled greater command over the landscape, alternately through war, colonialism, and development. Contemporary satellite photos appear to be the apotheosis of this view from above, but that is not all they represent. For there is continued use of alternative methods like balloons, and even more dominant airplane or satellite photos can be made in many ways, with varying objectives.
The politics of such open source tools are quite complex. On the one hand, by democratizing access to the view from above, the view becomes something different: in a positive sense, it becomes less monolithic. On the other hand, it is difficult to get out of the association between dominance and an overhead perspective. And there are few agreed protocols for how open data about the location of a home, for example, might be used, and by whom, in the long term. At the same time, such data also quickly become obsolete as people are forced to flee disaster areas, making tracking less of a concern in specific instances. Even so, the dangers of alternative data require ongoing discussion and engagement as situations change.
These alternative views might be called views from “overhead”, in the sense that they don’t claim full objectivity, but rather explicitly occur above particular someones or somethings. Yet they retain at least some elements, albeit modified, of the commanding view from above, like an attempt to form an authoritative and accurate picture of the land. In this respect, alternative aerial photography provides an interesting contrast to more mainstream airplane or satellite photos. For as many have pointed out, despite the best efforts of those who make them, even mainstream aerial photos represent a highly partial and manufactured view.5
Making Aerial Photos
But even for individual aerial photos taken on a cloudless day, the time of day, type of camera, and angle with the earth, all shape its content.
Even if a spherical screen were used, or if the pictures were taken of a flat Earth, they still would need extensive processing. The need to reduce an image from the size of the Earth to the size of a photo requires choices as to the scale and resolution. Otherwise you’d end up with, to paraphrase J.L. Borges and Lewis Caroll, “a map the size of the territory” which is, for all intents and purposes, useless. This isn’t solved by programs like Google Maps, which allows users to zoom in and out, because they still contain selected images at particular scales. The zooming is only made to look seamless, and after a certain point, you can’t zoom in any further.
So there are alternative ways to map from above, which aim to be less commanding. At the same time, the commanding view provided by mainstream aerial photos itself takes a lot of fabrication behind the scenes. These are two qualifications of the view from above as a view of power and control. At the same time, the view from the ground can also be about control: think of snipers or telephoto lenses.
Indeed, most of the examples discussed so far are both ‘above’ and ‘grounded’ in specific ways. Determinations of where to take aerial photos can rely on ground surveys, and the flattening and pasting together of aerial photos takes place on the ground and is stored in servers there, albeit potentially transferred through the air via satellites. None of these steps need intrinsically be about domination, although historically many of them have been.
Currently, airplanes, long a symbol of overhead flight, are being supplemented with drones that move flexibly across different altitudes. As noted earlier, drones shift from the view from above to more grounded perspectives, like being able to fly at variable angles and lower altitudes in ways reminiscent of kites and hot air balloons. Drones can be used for many things from recreation to play to war and assassinations. But the flip-side is also true. More often than not, the aspects of drones that are ‘from the ground’ happen to retain the domination that used to be the purview of the commanding view from above. This means there is a responsibility to be conscious of legacies like the view from above, and to transform technologies in ways that change their deeper implications as well as their surface, and to understand why and how views of the Earth are made.
Both Above And Below
In the end, the trip was foiled by changing air currents and a leaky balloon. It bounced in the air for several hours, then dipped so low that the basket holding the men dragged along the ice, before making its final descent, the basket and balloon both coming to rest on the ground. Andrée had brought both cameras and homing pigeons who were bred in the North, in the hope it would help them survive. Only one of the pigeons was ever retrieved. It wasn’t known then that pigeons travel using magnetic north, and being close to the pole might make it hard for them to navigate.
The photos, which were taken by Nils Strindberg, were only found thirty years later, along with the frozen bodies of Andrée, Strindberg, and the third member of the crew, all of whom died within four months of setting out. In 1930, they were accidentally discovered by members of a Norwegian expedition to collect scientific data and hunt for seals. The expedition photos reveal both a commanding view from the ground, and the failure of that command, due to a lack of recognition of the fact that ‘above’ is also a part of Earth and would be affected by the arctic cold.
Contrary to the methods Andrée used, as well as those of other colonial explorers who dragged heavy sleds over the ice, the non-indigenous Roald Amundsen made the first undisputed trip over the North Pole in 1926 by airplane. Amundsen was also famous for his land trek to the South Pole, which succeeded in no small part because he drew on technologies in use by the Inuit and indigenous Laplanders, such as fur coats, dog sleds, and lightweight skis.
Changing the angle and height of an image doesn’t necessarily or intrinsically change the way of seeing. Contemporary, grounded views like Google Street View, which adds a measure of three dimensions to Google Maps’ aerial photography, can still be used as a method of control. But there is also a hopeful side. For it means that new views can come from above, as well as from below.
Given its history as a tool of domination, it is especially challenging to rethink the view from above, but it is still possible. Making new technical objects is not enough. There is a responsibility to ensure that, in addition to new objects, technological innovations also bring new perspectives, visions, and ways of communicating, as well as new angles with the ground. This requires giving up on the desire for one all-powerful view, or one single narrative, in favor of work that is open about the limits of its own perspective.
These new views don’t need to be all-encompassing, to show and know everything all at once. Instead of one dominating worldview, they can indicate, and help to create, many possible worlds that can, and already do, coexist. The images won’t come from a single vantage point and need not only be taken on the ground. As in the past, they might equally come from pigeons, balloons, kites, airplanes, satellites—or from all of the above.
1. De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 92. [back]
2. Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 201. [back]
3. On objectivity in science, see Daston and Galison, Objectivity; Rose, “Geography as the Science of Observation: The Landscape, the Gaze, and Masculinity.” [back]
4. Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” 581, 589; on colonial observations that included ground travel experience, see Pratt, Imperial Eyes. [back]
5. Cosgrove, Apollo’s Eye; Geography and Vision; Farman, “Mapping the Digital Empire.” [back]
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Jess Bier is an assistant professor of urban sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she studies the social and political geographies of science and technology. She is the author of Mapping Israel, Mapping Palestine: How Occupied Landscapes Shape Scientific Knowledge (MIT Press, 2017).
The world described in detail in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Gethen is a world that is familiar and unfamiliar to me, at the same time. It's a planet where things that are assumed to be immutable in fact change with some regularity. LeGuin shows the profound effects that even small changes can have, and expands the notion of what is possible in both actual and imagined worlds.