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Today the fact we know what our world looks like from the air is often taken for granted -- if not from plane travel, then from the aerial photography that's now a staple of our visual media. But, even sixty years ago a bird's-eye view was the privilege of a select few. Mainly the military and those lucky enough to fly, plus the city planners, civil engineers, and real estate moguls who could afford to hire Sherman Fairchild's Fairchild Aerial Survey Company to provide them with the big picture.

Inspired by a few Fairchild photographs he came across in his work as an M.I.T. "urbanist" and historian, Thomas Campanella has tracked down a treasure trove of the company's aerial photographs and compiled many of the best in Cities From The Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America. The result is stunning.
Published by Princton Architectural Press

Chicago, Ilinois - Wrigley Field
April 6, 1931
These oblique aerial views of American cities from the 20s, 30s, 40's, and 50's (most taken from one or two-thousand feet up) retain the curious power of something freshly seen. In fact, we have not seen these sights before, for these crystalline panoramas depict urban America in its adolescence, when our cities were gangly, sooty sprawls, before developer saddled the spit and polish of glass skyscrapers that trivialized the down towns they dominated. Unlike the ever-shifting view from an airplane window, these photographs capture our cities in their black-and-white film-noir glory: they're all stout office buildings and outdoor parking lots, sun-splashed sidewalks and grimy back streets, bright facades and black shadows.

Cleveland, Ohio - General View
July 25, 1947
I've been smitten by the idea of American cities, since I was a boy in Chicago who sometimes fell asleep trying to imagine what Pittsburgh or Cleveland looked like. My romantic view of cities is part Edward Hopper, part Walker Evans, part James Wong Howe (the great cinematographer who shot, among other films, The Sweet Smell of Success), and part sheer amazement at what cities represent: our species' unruly, but breathtaking triumph over nature.

Chicago, Illinois - Union Stockyards
September 22, 1933
Cities From the Sky is a black-and-white valentine to our century's progress. From this altitude it's easy to imagine the naked land that came before; looking down on St. Louis or Detroit or Albequerque. It's hard not to be impressed by the all the countless decisions, the monumental labor, that have gone into expressing our need for community, shelter, and beauty--and produced our cities. The photographs in this book were made possible by the genius of one man, born in 1896, the pampered only child of one of the future founders of IBM. As a youth, Sherman Fairchild was "prone to fits of mechanical experimentation," as Campanella puts it in his introduction. One of Fairchild's early inventions, a cannon, tore a hole in the family barn. After a couple of years at Harvard, Fairchild began documenting sporting events from high angles using re-engineered cameras and flash units. In the 1920's, he combined two of his great interests, photography and airplanes, to perfect the best camera yet for aerial photography. He retrofitted a large-aperture Eastman-Folmer Graflex camera with a "between the lens" shutter of his own invention and literally changed the way we saw the world. By the end of the 1920's, Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. was taking orders for aerial images from news organization, city governments, park commissioners, urban planners, and real estate developers. Fairchild's photos enabled his clients to literally map the country's future--and occasionally to discover previously unknown natural resources.

Levittown, NY - New HousingJanuary 26, 1951>
By the 1930's, the company had customers around the world, and by the 1950's had become an industrial empire making missiles and consumer electronics, engraving equipment and navigational aids. (Not surprisingly for a man on the very front lines of technology, in the late 50's Fairchild recognized the future in a small group of researchers intent on building an advanced transistor, and in doing so helped father Silicon Valley.) But no other product of Sherman Fairchild's imagination rivals these photographs for sheer splendor. Cities From The Sky includes a number of non-urban aerial shots--of dams, suburbs already developed (Levittown) and yet to be (Palos Verdes Estates)--but most striking are the portraits of our great cities, each one as unique as a human face.

Boston, Massachusetts - North Station and West End
January 18, 1934
Among other virtues, this volume is a record of our lost urban civilization, including a vista of Chicago's endless Union Stockyards; Boston's long-gone West End; and New York City's Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, the latter packed to the rafters for game two of the 1956 World Series. Perhaps more usefully, these photographs are our guides to how much what's still standing has changed in half a century or more. Anyone with an interest in history and a familiarity with our national urban life should get a few thrills from such snapshots of the past as Providence, Rhode Island in 1929 (a city so wonderfully transformed in recent years).

New York, NY - Columbus Circle
March 30, 1933
0r Manhattan's Columbus Circle in 1933 (shot from low enough so that you can make out each pedestrian and billboard); or Boston's very rudimentary Logan Airportin 1927 (three biplanes on a patch of dirt). For the baseball connoisseur, here's a fly-over shot of Wrigley Field being prepared for the 1931 season, its center- and left-field bleachers and famous -scoreboard as yet unbuilt, its outfield a patchwork of different colored sod. (Chicagoans, however, will note how little the surrounding neighborhood has changed in 71 years.) Today, there is a Web-based computer program called EarthViewer 3D which, by licensing thousands of aerial and satellite photos, now enables anyone with a computer to inspect in amazing detail much of the earth's surface, including dozens of major cities. The photographs in Cities From The Sky can't compete with that, of course, but then EarthViewer 3D can't compete with these photographs that froze for all time, and from just the right altitude, a world we still live in, but which longer exists.

Where Can I Get This Book?
To find out more on this and many other fine books exploring architecture, design and landscape be sure to visit the Princton Architectural Press website.

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