Cities From the Sky

Sherman Fairchild, the photographer who transformed aviation

(Smithsonian Institution)

Conducting aerial surveys in the 1920s took an intrepid soul. The airplane’s open cockpit—and it was always open—was windy, cold, and frequently wet. The ride could be bumpy, causing the bulky aerial cameras of the day to occasionally plummet over the side. “Pilots and photographers,” wrote Anthony Brandt for Air & Space (“Sherman Fairchild Looks at the World,” Oct./Nov. 1990), “often complained about the harsh conditions: oxygen deprivation, severe cold, and noise and fumes from the engines all had to be endured.” It was an altogether unsatisfactory situation.

So aerial photographer Sherman Mills Fairchild decided he’d build his own airplane.

After spending the summer of 1925 brainstorming in a dank cellar with pilot Richard DePew, Fairchild came up with the perfect camera platform. His airplane, the Fairchild Cabin Monoplane (FC-1), had—oh, luxury!—a heated cabin, excellent visibility, and the ability to fly like a truck. With this aircraft Sherman introduced two innovations: the world’s first fully enclosed cabin, and wings that could be folded for storage or transport. The Curtiss Flying Service immediately ordered six. By 1927, Fairchild had become one of the largest commercial aircraft producers in the world.

For the next four decades, Fairchild Aerial Surveys provided top-notch aerial images to news services, city planners, real estate developers, and other clients. In the mid-1960s, that branch of the company’s business closed, and Fairchild’s huge stock of prints and negatives was dispersed to archives and universities, where they remained—many never looked at again—until urban historian Thomas Campanella of the University of North Carolina began his research. See the gallery below for photographs from his 2001 book, Cities From the Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America, reprinted here by permission of the Princeton Architectural Press.

Boston from the Sky

(Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

Fairchild Aerial Surveys would frequently send pilot-cameraman teams to photograph subjects such as skyscrapers and hotels, then try to sell the images. During the 1920s, Fairchild opened sales offices in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Boston (the latter seen here from above in 1932). But even before the Great Depression, most of the company’s real estate contracts had dried up, and Fairchild turned to conducting aerial surveys for the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Agriculture.

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