The most surprising, and interesting find during my PhD candidature has been the historical aerial photography that is available for the city of Melbourne, Australia. The aerial photography of Melbourne, taken in 1945, is one of the easiest examples to view online, thanks to the work of Nathaniel Jeffrey.
The internet and a corresponding increase in accessible, digitised information has literally changed how we see the world. This can be most clearly illustrated with aerial photography. Today, we can easily access high-resolution, colour images of how locations appear from above, using websites such as Google Maps or Bing Maps. But such imagery is aimed at users who are interested in how a given area looks in the present, not in the past.
In Australia, aerial photography was primarily utilised by the military for topographical mapping in the 1920s and 1930s. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Royal Australian Air Force continued to photograph population centres, such as Sydney in 1943. Around the same time, the Australian state governments of Tasmania and Victoria set up their own aerial survey agencies, with the photography undertaken by commercial operators. In Victoria, much of the aerial photography was created by a company called Adastra Aerial Surveys, including composite photographic mosaics of the state’s capital, Melbourne.
As someone who is interested in how particular areas around Australian cities have been modified over the decades, particularly due to the conversion of agriculturally productive land to suburban housing, these maps are a wonderful resource as a snapshot of how things appeared in 1945. But they are also interesting as a product of their time, and how much the process of creating these aerial survey maps differs from digital aerial photography in the present.
In the twentieth century, and as now, the plane would undertake “runs” where it flies in a straight line over the target area, while the view beneath the plane is photographed. Where film photography was used, the images were developed and printed, and laid out in the surveying company’s offices. Knowing the order of photographic “runs” enabled a mosaic of photographs to be created, by matching the photos together by where features overlapped. In the Melbourne mosaics taken in 1945, the overlapping edges of photographs were torn, to make these overlapping edges less obvious.
Once the photographic mosaic was made, details such as the names of major roads and waterways were added before it was then photographed using a ceiling-mounted camera. The result is a detailed birds-eye view that appears to be a single image.
Aerial photography now uses digital cameras, and while the images in Google and Bing may look seamless, they are also composed of a mosaic of images that have been stitched together through image manipulation. But the same practice of sending an aeroplane up to photograph an area of interest in detail has not been superseded by satellite technology yet!
By referring to the 1945 photo mosaics of Melbourne, we have a view of the city that would likely never be seen by most of its residents. But they are a valuable record of how areas, that would otherwise not be photographed on the ground, appeared at the time. They also are a timely reminder of how our view of the world really has changed. We have become accustomed to seeing the world from the air, or even higher via satellite, even though we may never be seated on an aeroplane undertaking a photography run ourselves.
 David R. Hocking, “Natmap early days, map compilation from aerial photographs 1948-1970s.” The Globe, No. 47 (1998): 16-33.
*Acknowledgements: This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship, and a La Trobe University Research Postgraduate Scholarship. I would like to thank Zane Bruce, Jax Saunders, Cary Lenehan, and Alasdair Muckart for their generosity in sharing information about their experiences using aerial photography and for comments on this post.
*Featured image credit: Aircraftwoman Merle Steele (Goulbourn, N.S.W.) enlarging aerial views for mosaic work, ca. 1941-1945. Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria. Accession no. H98.105/272.
- The RAAF in non-military operations;
- Adastra Aerial Surveys;
- Historic Aerial Photo Maps (in the state of Victoria);
- National Library of Australia’s Aerial Photographs Collection;
- Melbourne 1945 Photo-Maps, held by the University of Melbourne.
Some interactive maps of assorted Australian cities:
- Sydney 1943;
- Melbourne 1945 by Nathaniel Jeffrey;
- Wollongong Spy Glass, 1948-1951 to 2014.