Military photography

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PHOTOGRAPHY, MILITARY. Since its invention in 1839 photography has come to have an increasing number of military uses. Both still and motion-picture photography document combat, provide military intelligence and topographic data, aid military training, and help in mapping terrain. The first recorded use of photography for military subjects was a series of daguerreotypes of the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. Popular journals used the daguerreotypes, taken during battlefield lulls, to illustrate their accounts of the action. During the Crimean War (1854–1856) the Englishman Roger Fenton became the first person to photograph battlefield scenes under fire. Because of bulky equipment and slow photographic materials, he could photograph only landscapes and portraits.

Most photographs from the American Civil War, such as those of Mathew Brady and his assistants, were

taken for a primarily civilian audience, although Union forces attempted on at least one occasion, in 1862, to take aerial photographs from a balloon. Because of technical limitations, photography principally captured images of the battlefield dead and ruins; few pictures depicted actual battles. Photography in the Spanish-American War of 1898 also had the primary aim of informing the general public.

World War I witnessed military recognition of the utility and technological improvements of photography. In 1915 the British at Neuve-Chapelle, France, used aerial photographs to prepare trench maps of enemy lines. By the end of the war each of the rival powers was taking thousands of aerial photographs daily for intelligence purposes, and the art of photo interpretation became an important intelligence skill. Although the limitations of aircraft restricted the uses of aerial photography, new high-speed shutters, improved lenses, and light-sensitive materials led to great advances in the actual aerial photographs. Photography also took on new military roles unrelated to the battlefield itself, as both sides began to use films for training and indoctrination and for home-front information and propaganda.

Between the world wars military specialists—notably Gen. George W. Goddard—facilitated the further technical advancement of military photography. The development of lenses with longer focal lengths, high-speed processing equipment, sequence cameras, and infrared and color films made photography more flexible and useful for the military. Motion pictures also came to be used, principally for training and documentary purposes. An example of the peacetime, defensive use of military photography is to be found in the sophisticated photography during high-altitude reconnaissance flights over Cuba in 1962, which detected the preparations for the arrival and installation in Cuba of Soviet nuclear missiles.

Photography from satellites circling the earth is one of the latest technological advances to be put to military use. The United States launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, only four months after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on 4 October 1957. The technology developed rapidly, and by 2000, over 2,200 satellites, many of them military, circled the Earth. In addition to spy satellites that provide a number of different types of photographic images for military consumption, the military has also used satellites since 1986 as part of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which allows users to pinpoint their location anywhere on the globe. Most GPS receivers, which have been commercially available since 1990, provide a location within fifteen meters of one's actual location; licensed military users, however, can accurately gain their precise position to within one meter or less.


Goddard, George W. Overview: A Life-Long Adventure in Aerial Photography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982.

Steinberg, Gerald M. Satellite Reconnaissance: The Role of Informal Bargaining. New York: Praeger, 1983.

Richard A.Hunt/c. w.

See alsoBalloons ; Brady Photographs ; Intelligence, Military and Strategic ; Maps and Mapmaking ; Photographic Industry ; Space Program .

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MILITARY PHOTOGRAPHY. SeePhotography, Military .