In 1918, war photographer Aron G. Grootenboer described in an article for Camera Craft the dangers that a war photographer faces while photographing from airplanes. Almost 100 years later, as drones become increasingly popular tools for aerial photography, Grootenboer’s article provides a fascinating perspective on early aereal photography in war zones.
The part that photography is playing in the present war is an essential one, few realizing its actual importance. The camera today may well be considered as being the eyes of the army. Every time the reader encounters a newspaper reproduction of a war photograph he can, if he will but give it a thought, realize the importance of these photographs in the making up of the history that follows this world’s war. And, have you, as a reader, given thought to the dangers the war photographer must face in procuring these most interesting photographic records?
Aerial photography plays a still more important part, and some account of the means employed and the use to which the results are put will perhaps be of interest. The work is hazardous, as all flying naturally must be, but when the risks of being shot down are added thereto, and it is the greatest delight of the enemy to shoot down a camera plane, it becomes doubly so.
The use of the camera quite naturally followed the introduction of aeroplanes as an essential requisite in war equipment. The camera entered the filed, when, in the fall of 1914, the British were being forced back and aeroplanes began to play an important part in the war. At that time the only information obtainable concerning enemy activities was that brought in by the observers in the form of maps and memorandums. Upon returning from one of these flights, an observer reported a large body of troops concentrated at a certain point on the enemy lines, although there were no definite indications of unusual activity on the part of the enemy in this sector. It was here suggested that the observer take along a camera and, if possible, photograph these troops. This was done, and, upon returning, the photographs were produced, and from that time on photography took a part of ever-increasing importance in modern warfare.
Since then there has been great improvement made in both equipment for and in the practice of, aerial photography. The United States entering the war, she at once gave attention to this form of war activity, with the result that the Americans are today practically leaders in this new and important filed. The cameras are mostly plate, using ones of the magazine type, permitting of as many photographs being taken as may be found necessary during an ordinary flight. Some of them are automatic in action, requiring only that the photographer pull a lever in order to take the photograph.
Orthochromatic plates are mainly used because of the haze which nearly always hangs slightly above the earth, a haze that the ordinary plate is unable to penetrate. In addition, these color-sensitive plates give rendition of the different colors of the earth. Some places may be red, others may be gray; and, when the camouflaging of the enemy is taken into consideration, this advantage of the color sensitive plates is important.
Upon returning from a flight, the photographer hastens the plates to a photographic laboratory, where the exposures are developed by a special process, fixed, washed and dried; enlargements or lantern slides being then made. The enlargements go through a special process, and in a half an hour the prints are on their way to headquarters; while, in special cases, the large guns may be already trained upon the positions photographed.
Anything of value at the moment is noted, and the photographs then placed aside to be compared, in a few days, when the position is again photographed. If, at that time, anything new is shown, it is known that the enemy is becoming active at that point, and it is then generally advisable to stop, if possible, such activity before it can be carried too far. One little incident that occurred “over there” in the summer of 1916, may serve to show the importance of aerial photography.
A photograph had been taken of a certain enemy location, and, as usual, hastily developed. It was then plotted or located, and in looking it over, there was found a small line extending from the first line trench into no man’s land. The record was consulted, it was found that the line was a new one, and, of course, it was then up to us to find out what that line meant. Preparations were made for an attack on the position that evening, and, that being duly launched, the position was captured. What was found was a newly constructed machine-gun position, one from which, had they been given time, the enemy could have secured complete control of some of our trenches and placed us in a bad position on that sector.
Sometimes positions are so carefully camouflaged that it is almost impossible for the camera to search out all of the desired information. In such cases as these, the shadows often serve a good purpose. In a chance photograph there may be found a bunch of trees; and while it looks quite innocent, here and there through these trees may be seen a much worn foot path or a small gauge railroad. This shows that there is a gun of some kind hidden in the immediate vicinity, and here the artillery plays an important part. The bunch of trees is located on a map, the position telephoned to the nearest battery thereto, and the shells begin to fall. Aviators are by this time in the air directing the firing of the guns, and usually a few well placed shots render the carefully hidden gun of the enemy useless. This done, the position is again photographed in order to show the result of the firing.
The shadows play an important part in this work, because they point more or less towards the north, according to the time of day when taken, and this greatly assists in locating the point photographed, on the map. A photograph showing a high building, a water tower, or the steeple of a church, will, in many cases, fail to show the steeple or the height of the tower of building by reason of the camera being directly over the subject when taken, for such pictures are taken oblique only on special occasions. But, the approximate height of the building or tower can be easily estimated by looking at the shadows that they cast. The area embraced by the photograph varies with the height at which the plane is flying at the time it was taken, as well as with the lens used. By a simple mathematical calculation, however, the area covered can be easily figured out upon a basis of the altitude and the focal length of the lens.
The dangers and hazards that must be faced by our war photographers are many and varied. The flying end, as we all know, is only in its infancy, and as yet by no means perfectly safe, despite the great strides that have been made in aeroplane construction. Flying is fairly safe as long as the motor keeps running, but the latter sometimes stops when most needed, with a sometimes resultant large drop that means all is over. In addition, there are the anti-aircraft gunners who are sometimes very clever and always able to make things rather interesting for the airman and his partner. Then the machine guns must be taken into account, for all photographs cannot be taken at safe heights, because of low hanging clouds that at times cover the battlefront. When Mr. Photographer is sent out to get photographs of a certain section he is expected to produce them, no excuses being wanted.
And finally, there are the enemy war planes to contend with; and, in this game the camera plane is almost useless, as it is not built for fighting battles in the air. For this reason a number of attending battle planes are sent along to act as a guard and protect the smaller machine that is to get the desired photographs. The writer has seen as many as ten planes accompany one camera plane sent out in order to get some particular information wanted. And each and every one of those attending planes was almost constantly busy keeping the path of the camera plane open and drawing artillery fire in their own direction, in order that the photographic information might be secured and brought safely back to our lines. This, dear reader, is the sport an aerial photographer is enjoying “over there.”
The photographer working on the ground has his sport, as well. He stands a good chance of being gassed, caught be a sniper, or being hit by a stray bullet, not to mention sharing hardships of the men in the trenches. He is, however, quite cheerful and enthusiastic in his work, and can usually be found where the fighting is the hardest and the danger most pronounced.
A war photographer myself, I have tried to convey some idea of what aerial photographers are doing today, leaving it to the reader to judge for himself in the photographers in this war are not doing their share of the work.
This essay by Aron G. Grootenboer first appeared in Camera Craft, October, 1918.