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Photographer Pioneered Aerial Reconnaissance ‘For the Lives of Men’
By Dr. Gary E. Weir
“I [finally] have an opportunity to get off a letter to
Paris.... [T]he railroads are being used by the military—I only know that war is inevitable now,” the American photographer Edward Steichen wrote to his friend Alfred Stieglitz in New York in one his letters now stored in the Steichen Archive of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
It was 1914—the year the European Great Powers initi- ated a war that changed the world forever—and that mo- mentarily stranded Steichen with his family in the French village of Voulangis.
That summer Steichen sent his loved ones to relatives in Great Britain and departed himself for New York City via Marseilles on board the steamer SS Sant’Anna. The loca- tion of his French home permitted him to see some of the early fighting, to sense the change of mood in France, and to witness the effect of mobilization. He certainly had no illusions about the horror unfolding before his eyes.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, Stei- chen received a commission from the Army and shipped out with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to France as a specialist in aerial reconnaissance. Unlike many of his fellows in the art world, Steichen, a naturalized citizen from Luxembourg, felt a strong compulsion in both world wars to serve his adopted country close to the front. He also felt that his extraordinary skills with a camera would both aid the American cause and vividly demonstrate the waste and absurdity of war.
From Pigeons to Airplanes
Armies had long since realized the advantages of photographic aerial observation. In 1903 the Germans developed a 70-gram homing pigeon camera that took 38-millimeter negatives automatically every 30 seconds. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, the Army followed suit with a pigeon system that took pictures of the enemy lines.
The First World War also provided the opportunity to combine airplane technology with the still-image camera. This step gave the armed forces the ability to move, see and record the Earth in a more systematic manner. The reliability, regularity and responsiveness of the airplane
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Center for Military History.
Aerial reconnaissance captures a gas attack on the Western Front. An accomplished artist striving to make photography an art form before World War I, Edward Steichen led the wartime effort to transform aircraft photography into reliable and timely intelligence.
permitted conversion of the data gathered into reliable and timely intelligence.
Under Steichen’s direction the AEF in France success- fully made the transition to aircraft photography. An ac- complished artist in oils who struggled just before the war to raise photography to an art form, he now advised the Army on the best way to use the large, aircraft-mounted cameras. In short order he significantly improved the re- sults presented to Army senior leadership, as he regularly moved between AEF headquarters and the front lines.
Of course, security regulations and access to classified methods and materials permitted him to tell his friends via his letters home only a small part of what he did for the warfighter.
Greeting Stieglitz in one of his letters, Steichen remarked, “Well, here I am in the famous ‘somewhere
in France’—hard at it . . . and once again for photogra- phy—only this time . . . photography and plus. I suppose that means the lives of men. I wish I could tell you about it but that is naturally taboo....”
Imagery Reconnaissance Operations
Steichen eventually commanded a reconnaissance unit on the Western Front consisting of 55 officers and 1,111
Pathfinder ›› May/June 2007
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