Aerial photos can be helpful research tools for historians. Google Earth, which provides access to a vast collection of aerial photography stretching back 20 years, is just a sampling of the many aerial photos that have been made since French balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as “Nadar”, took a photo over Paris, France in 1858.
Much of New York Sate was photographed with the camera pointing straight down, an oblique presentation that is less useful to some historians. An effort to capture all of New York in an orthophotographic perspective (corrected to a uniform scale) started in 1936 with a contract to C.S. Robinson of Ithaca, NY. These images are particularly valuable resources for historians of all stripes.
Most county clerks will have the complete photo collection, but obtaining digital copies may be difficult. In a recent trip to the Cortland County Clerk’s Office, I discovered a tall stack of these photos. I asked about the opportunity to photograph them and was told that I could only purchase photocopies.
Another source for these photos is the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. They have used these photos to map out farm crop areas and for environmental surveys and have held onto many of the oldest collections. The public domain photos for the Cayuga, Cortland, Onondaga, Seneca, Tompkins and Wayne counties are available online at Cornell University.
At the ending of World War II, a few pilots began photographing rural farms and homes in a low angle (oblique) perspective. These efforts were in the hopes that the rural land owner would want to purchase an image. The photographer would develop the photo and venture door to door displaying a photograph. If they did not make a sale, the prints would be destroyed. Many photographers also did not archive the negatives if the prints did not sell. There are two photographers that did retain their negative collections.
Vintage Aerial has digitized many of their 25 million photos and has developed a website that allows a salesperson to display the collection on your computer. By going to their website at VintageAerial.com, you can enter in your location and a salesperson will make an appointment to display the photos of your property along with those in the general area. If you are quick with the cut and paste, you can capture history while you are taken on a tour of the surrounding properties. Some major drawbacks to their collection are that the photos start in 1980 in New York State and the prices that they charge are quite high.
Another major aerial photographer was Henry DeWolf, the proprietor of the company Aerial Surveys. DeWolf was actively photographing from 1950 to 1978 and the majority of his early work was in New York State.
DeWolf’s collection consists of over two million negatives. Anyone owning one of these photos can still purchase reprints at very reasonable prices, so long as the photo has a photo number written on the back (the collection was never indexed and cannot be searched). I am attempting to develop an index by requesting those who hold Aerial Surveys photos to share with me the photo location and number. My email contact information is listed below. With the help of many contributors, I have started an index online here.
Below is a “Farm History” established using aerial surveys to provide an idea of the kind of details that can be discovered using these unique photographs. This first photo was taken prior to 1950 by either Aerial Survey or Mason Bros Flying Service.
Photos above: An aerial photograph taken in 1938 showing Syracuse in Onondaga County and the Casey Farm in 1936 (left) and via Google Earth in 2012 (right). Photos by Aerial Surveys and American Aerial Scenes reprinted with permission.