Review of Aeroscopics: Media of the Bird's-Eye View

Aeroscopics: Media of the Bird's-Eye View
by Patrick Ellis

University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2021
192 pp., illus. 65 b/w. Trade, $85; paper and eBook, $34.95
ISBN: 9780520355484, ISBN: 9780520355491, ISBN: 9780520975934 (eBook).

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
October 2021

From a librarian’s point of view, this book will be put on the shelves of the “media archeology” section, but it is definitely a must-read those for all those interested in the field of cultural history as well as art, media, and technology studies. It is a wonderful example of how to do research in a domain that may seem overcrowded (the history of the gaze), but that new objects, questions, perspectives, and above all new relationships can successfully transform into new territories.

The bird’s eye view is indeed far from being an unknown or understudied topic. It is a fundamental item in any form of film studies, while our contemporary imagination ceaselessly frames it in a context of danger and warfare (the view from above has now become the view of the drone hunting the object or place to strike). The discussion of this double commonplace is the starting point of Ellis’ work. The author opposes both our tunnel vision of the view from above (that is the reduction of a certain research item to a single field or technique) and our sloppy and lazy presentism (that is the mechanical application of current ways of thinking to the approach of the foreign country we call the past). On the one hand, Ellis brilliantly tackles the limitations of this presentism, thanks to the careful reading of little-known or neglected historical documents, words, and images alike. On the other hand, he offers a completely new framework of addressing the bird’s eye view, no longer in a purely material or optical sense, but as the result of the interaction of cultural and technical aspects. Two elements are fundamental in this approach: first of all, Ellis situates the notion of “viewing” in the wider spectrum of ways of seeing (observing, gazing, staring, spectating, identifying, mapping, double-checking, etc.); second, he opens the aerial view with the help of “five forgotten first principles” (p. 4): the aerial view is “opaque” (its meaning is not always immediately clear, we need hermeneutical instruments to make sense of it), it is “plastic” (its interpretation can change from site to site, time to time and viewer to viewer, and it never completely loses its ambivalence), it is also “slow” (objects, persons, places seen from above almost seem immobile even when they are fast-moving), it is “intoxicating” (the bird’s eye view is an embodied way of looking and its perceptual effects has a strong impact on our bodies, as shown by dizziness for instance), and it is “parallax” (meaning that it is often observed from an angle, with all the differences such a position entails).

It is the set of all these elements––namely: interdisciplinarity, the rejection of presentism, the permanent interaction between culture and technology, and the multifaceted approach of what it means to watch from above taking into account the complexity of various ways of viewing as well as the general principles of viewing from above that—that constitutes the theoretical and methodological backbone of Ellis’ research. Corpus-wise, the book mainly studies the (very) large 19th Century: it starts with the first balloon flights of the 18th Century (the Montgolfier brothers gave their first public demonstrations in 1783) and ends with the changes in flight culture during the First World War (when a dramatic shift takes place from entertainment and spectacle to a “useful” technology––useful in the military as well as the scientific sense of the word).

This history, however, is neither linear nor monomedial. It is a history of failures as much as of successes: Ellis clearly demonstrates that the successive forms of the aerial view cannot be seen as a series of supersessions and remediations, each “new” form of aerial view correcting or expanding an “older” form. Many aeroscopic machines-cum-specific ways of seeing did not survive, such as the so-called “Aeroscope” introduced at the 1915 San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a kind of observation ride designed by Joseph Strauss (the later engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge), a kind of spiraling gondola that tried to combine the advantages of the Ferris Wheel (Chicago, 1893) and the Eiffel Tower (Paris, 1889). Its failure and rapid oblivion were due to the fact that this machine was “decentered” (it did not function as the central landmark of the exhibit) as well as “centrifugal” (it lacked both the verticality of the Eiffel Tower and the regular revolutions of the Ferris Wheel). Leonardo readers interested by this no longer existing machine may have a look at a fascinating Keystone film, “Mabel and Fatty visit the World’s Fair in San Francisco, CA”, available on YouTube, where the aeroscope’s is shown in action (its ten minutes trajectory here reduced to a ten seconds sequence starting at 17.50):

This history is also a history that is not that of the bird’s eye view alone: Ellis discloses a certain number of family resemblances between media, technologies, and ways of seeing that radically change our ideas of both the bird’s eye view and other types of visualization. The most speaking example of this approach is certainly his reinterpretation of the panorama, which he brilliantly links with the observatory on the one hand and the room sized camera obscura on the other hand. 19th Century panoramas do indeed present a feature that has not always been sufficiently noticed: their point of view is that of the typical observatory (“the panorama painting is born atop an observatory”, p. 40). Moreover, the presence of room sized camera obscuras in certain observatories and later in various tourist spots, shows another connection: placed at panoramic altitude and meant to be observed vertically, on a curved circular table, they point at a different history of the pinhole mechanism, which is not only used as a the portable painter’s tool in the Western search for quasi-photographic reproduction, but which also serves as a technology at the crossroads of the observatory and the panorama.

Ellis’ book reconstructs this history in five steps (from the observatory to the first airplanes), each of them displaying a dense interplay of various technological constructions and cultural practices and interpretations. Chief in this regard is the author’s reading of the larger physical impact of the aerial view on the human body: dizziness and vertigo, of course, but also the problems triggered by watching from below (looking up to spot a plane, as people did when the sky started to be occupied by machines that became increasingly dangerous, produced certain forms of “aviation neck”, for instance). More generally, Ellis approaches the aeroscopic view as a “pharmakon”, that is as something that is both a poison and a medicine (aerial view plus speed definitely engender vertigo, but vertigo can also be reduced, if not cured with the help of flight simulators and other machines that help people adapt to different possibly painful viewing situations).

Aeroscopics Media of the Bird's-Eye View is an important book (we should also thank the author for the exceptional iconography). It opens new ground for media archeology, not just by adding a list of less-known media to the already very long list of recently rediscovered lost or forgotten media, but also by offering new perspectives on media we thought we knew, such as the panorama or the first aviation flights. It equally makes a great contribution to the broader concept of mechanical subjectivity, while healthily repeating us the danger of tunnel vision and presentism.