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Air Photo Archives

  • By Cynthia Lee
  • Published Aug 1, 2002 8:00 AM

Had it not been for an alert UCLA geography graduate student, a priceless UCLA collection could have been lost. The student, who was working at the time for Aero Service Corporation, noticed boxes of old photographs and negatives sitting on a loading dock. Aero had recently acquired an aerial photography business, Fairchild Aerial Surveys, for its map-making technology. It had no use, however, for Fairchild's stock of 40,000-plus old aerial photographs and negatives.

The student rushed to call Professor Ben Thomas, then-chair of UCLA's geography department, who immediately rented a truck and dispatched a group of graduate students to the loading dock.

"The students showed up with the truck and just started tossing the boxes in," recounts John Franklin, curator of what is now the department's Air Photo Archives. "They didn't really know what they were getting."

The collection that Aero gave to UCLA comprises an invaluable visual record of the growth of America, a black-and-white history documented by aerial photographers who crisscrossed the country from 1921 to 1965, flying at low altitude over countless towns, cities and geographic landmarks from California across 30 states to New York.

"Fairchild photographed most of New England and the eastern seaboard in great detail," Franklin says. Much of the history of New York City, as it developed over the first half of the 20th century, unfolds in 780 shots dating from 1921 to 1955. "Some are fabulously beautiful, taken at sunset or through thick fog," Franklin says.

In addition to the Fairchild Collection, the Air Photo Archives include the Spence Air Photos, primarily focusing on Southern California from 1918 to 1971. All in all, many consider the Air Photo Archives to be the best repository for aerial oblique photographs in the nation.

Aerial photos taken at an oblique, rather than vertical, angle have the singular advantage of capturing a scene in superb detail. Rather than a flat view of the landscape, taken with a camera pointed straight down from a plane, oblique photos show the horizon and the undulating hills and valleys of the entire landscape.

"You can see right into people's yards, the signs on buildings, and people working," notes Franklin. "You see the cars parked out front of the houses, the foliage on the trees, the lay of the land."

The archive draws hundreds of visitors each year, who pay $30 an hour to peruse the collection. Homeowners caught in disputes with city inspectors or with neighbors over property lines search for historical evidence in black-and-white. Environmental consultants look for evidence of past pollution, scanning early photographs for any sign of a chrome-plating plant, gas station or other possible source of pollution that could lead to heavy cleanup costs for their clients. Some visitors come seeking a link to the past, searching for photographs of empty or barely developed land where their sprawling housing tract now stands.

A new book by Tom Campanella has been recently released featuring 150 photographs from the Fairchild Collection: "Cities from the Sky," Princeton University Architectural Press.