Steichen began to value photography’s capacity to transmit and encode information, and he soon proved his savvy as a collaborator and producer rather than a solitary auteur—new skills that enabled his subsequent groundbreaking career in magazines.
These have been sitting in the write-somthing-about-this queue for a few months. Kukkurovaca’s most-recent Minor White post however reminded me of them. It’s not just that these are interesting technologically* and biographically,** they’re also worth thinking about as communication.
*Adding photography to the list of aerial advancements made during World War 1.
**Marking a key moment in Steichen’s development as a photographer
In their execution, they remind me of the scientific photographs—micrography, aerial surveys, etc.—that found their way into the early attempts at photographic abstraction, except that in White’s case, they are not valuable purely for their aesthetics but for their potential to transmit an understanding that could not be put into words.
This is especially interesting given how I was looking at Doc Edgerton last week and feeling like all those stop-motion photographs felt more gimmicky than anything else. I think the main difference here is that many of the stop motion photos don’t really communicate much beyond “this looks cool”* whereas aerial photos do. It’s not just “I can see my house from here” but the kind of thing that invites us to think about our interactions with the land from a different perspective.
*The best Edgerton photos actually tend to go beyond that and reveal interesting things about the way objects behave— e.g. how the milk coronet elegantly shows fluid dynamics.
We already know how maps are so different than directions in terms of explaining a place and how to navigate it. Aerial photos take the sense of a map but invite us to really think about the real world implications of what’s depicted. At the same time, like with maps (and any other kind of photography), they’re an obviously abstracted version of the world.