The Face of the Earth … Masked by Beard, Glasses and Wig

130 year-old man from Minnesota, from László Moholy-Nagy, Von Material zu Architektur (1929)

In Von Material zu Architektur (1929) (later translated to English as The New Vision), László Moholy-Nagy introduced a remarkable portrait of a 130-year old Minnesota man to demonstrate a point about photography and the perception of time. Remarking on the deep wrinkles that spread crevasse-like across the surface of the man’s skin, Moholy-Nagy reminded readers how the photograph was “essentially a time-compressing view of the alterations in the epidermis: an airplane view of time” (“Fliegeraufnahme der Zeit”).[1] This equating of physiognomy with aerial views is an important concept and deserves further scrutiny. In one sense, physiognomy became a metaphor for aerial photography of the landscape. Like the Minnesota Man’s skin in the photograph, the landscape was also an epidermis. The successive layering of soil and vegetation corresponded to the deep incisions of time visible on the Minnesota Man’s face. The “airplane view” became a heuristic for recording evidence of the passage of time, but only showing the latest stages of this passage. It only captured the evidence of change at the very point an image was captured on the photographic plate.

O.G.S. Crawford (1886-1957)

Moholy-Nagy’s contemporary, the English archaeologist and geographer Oswald Guy Stanhope (O.G.S.) Crawford (1886-1957), offered something closer to a method, one that would give this physiognomic aspect further temporal dimensions with the invention of the discipline he called “aerial archaeology.” In works like Wessex From the Air (1928) and Air-Photography for Archaeologists (1929), a manual he wrote as the Ordnance Survey’s self-appointed “archaeological officer,” Crawford defined aerial archaeology as a method “to indicate what kinds of ancient sites are suitable for air-photography, and what is the best time of year and day” for the examination of such sites.[2] On a first glance, Crawford’s texts were primers detailing the various procedures for taking and interpreting aerial photographs of archaeological sites in England.

(Top) Crawford, Wessex From The Air (1928); (Bottom) Air-Photography for Archaeologists (1929)

Yet Crawford’s version of aerial archaeology amounted to an attempt to understand the relationship between the physical remains of ancient English settlements and the various geological—and historical forces—that shaped them. Art historian Kitty Hauser explains how Crawford “thought prehistory should be approached not through texts (as many archaeologists preferred) not through fetishized ‘finds’ (like those collected and admired by antiquarians), but through the spatial logic of geography.”[3] Yet it must be pointed out that the very things that Crawford looked at through his aerial cameras were remains of buildings. Almost all of the plates from Wessex From the Air and Air-Photography for Archaeologists show evidence of ancient foundations and walls—evidence of architecture. It is an interesting notion, for before Crawford became famous for his promotion of aerial photography techniques for field archaeology, he would gain some amount of fame among preservationist circles for his remark, “[T]he surface of England … is a palimpsest, a document that has been written on and erased over and over again.”[4] The very skeleton key needed to uncover and decode the layers of this palimpsest, to peer x-ray-like at the ancient structures on the ground, summoning them from their peaty graves, was the aerial photograph. Taken from vertical or oblique angles, Crawford’s aerial photographs operated as a way of organizing visual information beyond their sensory characteristics into a system of categorized knowledge. He arranged his images into three general categories—”shadow-sites,” “crop-marks” and “soil sites”—each describing the light and topography in which a particular archaeological feature was found. As method, however, Crawford’s aerial archaeology became a kind of aerial physiognomy of the land—an endoscopy of landscape. As a method to document what reviewer “visible and hidden face of England” through the examination of its surfaces, Crawford believed that aerial archaeology allowed one to gain some understanding about England’s history—and by inference—character.[5]

Screen captures from Harun Farocki, Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges: (Second and Third from Top) Albrecht Meydenbauer’s treatise on photogrammetry; (Fourth and Fifth from Top) Marc Garanger’s Femmes Algeriennes 1968

To further articulate the physiognomic nature of aerial photography, consider these moments from Harun Farocki’s 1988 film, Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Images of the World and the Inscription of War). As the female narrator reads a carefully constructed rumination on the creation of images and the waging of war, Farocki shows images of texts and handbooks dealing with photogrammetry and physiognomy. He begins long sequences intercutting German architect Albrecht Meydenbauer’s photographs of building façades and French Army Photographer Marc Garanger’s portraits of unveiled Algerian women. In these texts, each reading of faces has a different, yet specific purpose. Whereas Meydenbauer used photographs of buildings’ faces—façades—to generate scaled architectural drawings, Garanger’s took his photographs in 1960 to create identification cards for Algerian citizens. In each instance, then, the photograph has an ostensibly utilitarian rote. But as Farocki jump cuts between images of heimat buildings and faces of Algerian women, his investment in history becomes clearer—and more controversial. The narrator remarks how Meydenbauer’s catalogue of building façades, Das photographische Aufnehmen zu wissenschaftlichen Zwecken, insbesondere das Messbild-Verfahren (1890) anticipated a historical preservationist movement resulting in the creation of the Prussian Monumental Archives. As for Garanger’s photos showing faces which, like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Minnesota Man, equate facial wrinkles with a kind of landscape, Farocki reminds viewers how “when one looks into the face of an intimate, one also brings in something of the shared past.”[6] This reference to the capturing and representing of the past in a photograph is necessary to an understanding of composition of history. In other words, the photogrammetry of Prussian building façades and the inventory of Algerian faces both captured the effects of change over time.

Screen Captures from Farocki’s Bilder der Welt: (Top) Luftbild-Lesebuch; (Middle) Aerial view of a restaurant; (Bottom) Aerial view of a farm house

Farocki also recognized that capturing such change over time presented its own problems. It is not long before Farocki trains his camera on books dealing with aerial photography and military reconnaissance to demonstrate this point. In one instance, he shows excerpts from a book called Luftbild-Lesebuch. Published in 1937 by Hansa Luftbild, an imprint of the German airline Deutsche Luft Hansa A.G., this book was number 13 in a series dealing with aerial photography. Vertical views of a hay harvest, farm house, tables and chairs in a restaurant, and laundry hanging on a line are all touted as examples of a “new world picture.”[7] As further evidence of this view, Farocki also shows photographs of carpets. The narrator reads, “This is how a carpet must look to a cat. The pattern of the carpet is woven for people standing upright, for the view from above.”[8]

(Top) Luftbild und Vorgeschichte—Luftbild und Luftbildmessung Nr 16 (Hansa Luftbild 1938); (Bottom) Crawford’s “Cat’s Eye View”, from “Luftbildaufnahmen von archäologischen Bodendenkmälern in England” in Luftbild und Vorgeschichte (1938)

These images come from Crawford’s 1938 essay, “Luftbildaufnahmen von archäologischen Bodendenkmälern in England” (“Examples of Aerial Photographs of Earthen Monuments in England”). Published in a text called Luftbild und Vorgeschichte (1938) (Volume 16 in the same series as Luftbild-Lesebuch) the essay features two images illustrating of what Crawford calls the “Cat’s Eye View.” The first, a carpet seen from the point of view of a cat (“Wie eine Katze aus ihrer Augenhöhe ein Teppichmuster sieht”) shows a blurry suggestion of a carpet pattern.[9] The second, showing the point of view from above, comparable to an aerial view (“Dasselbe Muster, wie es der Mensch von seiner Ausgehöhe sieht”), shows a distinct carpet pattern.[10]

These two images stand for something beyond the proposition that such patterns are more difficult to discern from the ground than from the air. In one way, these images call attention to the ways in which the aerial view is either too generalizing or too nominalistic. Showing a carpet pattern from the air recalls Moholy-Nagy’s observation that an aerial, or “airplane” view revealed “large-scale relationships.”[11] This point of view seemed to defy his conceptualization of the aerial view as a “space compressor,” an extension of vision that collapsed the distance air and ground. The separation between the ground view and aerial view are thus of vital importance—it is only from the air that a viewing subject can see something as clearly and unobtrusively. A pattern viewed from the air therefore reveals something of the same magnitude as the close reading of an aerial photograph.

This distinction between the ability to discern general patterns from the air and the inability to do so from the ground suggests that, under some circumstances, vision is unreliable. This speaks to the vital difference between the methodologies and sensibilities of vision—in other words, the organization and categorization of visual knowledge becomes a way to address problems in seeing. Farocki’s film uses Meydenbauer’s text to address this point. The narrator thus reads Meydenbauer’s words, suggesting that with the images of building façades, “one does not see everything, but one sees many things better than on the spot.”[12] Farocki affirms this “capacity to see better” when he shows pages from Baron Elard von Loewenstern’s 1938 text, Tarnung und Täuschung (Camouflage and Deception), a manual detailing the various uses of wartime camouflage.[13] Recalling the relation between physiognomy and aerial photography, the narrator reads from von Loewenstern’s book, suggesting how recognizing camouflaged patterns from the air is, in essence, seeing the “face of the Earth … masked by beard, glasses and wig.”[14]

(Top) AEF Interpretation, Plate 42, Photo 2, After 1918, Aerial Expeditionary Force with Edward Steichen, Silver print, National Air and Space Museum, Aerial Expeditionary Force Photography Collection; (Bottom) Alphonse Bertillon, Tableau synoptic des traits physionomiques: pour servir a l’étude du “portrait parlé” (1909)

Some more ruminations on the relationship between aerial vision and physiognomy are in order. For his discussion of “The Airplane Eye,” art historian Christoph Asendorf made an important connection between Edward Steichen’s aerial photoreconnaissance methods from 1918 and Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics. For Steichen, aerial photography of enemy positions created problems of interpretation. He required pilots to fly at equal altitudes, making multiples passes over a target below so that “through the standardization of the recording process, the terrain could be provided independent of the subjective view….”[15] Asendorf equated this procedure with Bertillon’s system of identifying criminal traits according to facial features: an example of the “technique of the objectification of visual information.”[16] Asendorf called the taking of photographs via “The Airplane Eye” as “Landscape Bertillonage.” And yet, this comparison is somewhat incomplete, for aerial photoreconnaissance offered something that the Bertillon method could not. Asendorf concluded by observing how aerial photoreconnaissance provided not a single image “but an uninterrupted sequence, the systematic capture of the landscape in the categories of space and time.”[17]

It is this notion of a systematic capture that would become the most important aspect of Crawford’s brand of aerial archaeology. His photographs of ancient settlements half-buried in the English appear as evolving objects, complements to the time-worn epidermis of Moholy-Nagy’s Minnesota Man, or as well as Farocki’s revelations of Meydenbauer’s and Garanger’s works. All of these share a common trait, as they become methods for capturing the character of the landscape below, for constructing a literal, historical point of view.