Enter an Archive of Over 95,000 Aerial Photographs Taken Over Britain from 1919 to 2006

As deep as we get into the 21st cen­tu­ry, many of us still can’t stop talk­ing about the 20th. That goes espe­cial­ly for those of us from the West, and specif­i­cal­ly those of us from Amer­i­ca and Britain, places that expe­ri­enced not just an event­ful 20th cen­tu­ry but a tri­umphant one: hence, in the case of the for­mer, the des­ig­na­tion “the Amer­i­can Cen­tu­ry.” And even though that peri­od came after the end of Britain’s sup­posed glo­ry days, the “Impe­r­i­al Cen­tu­ry” of 1815–1914, the Unit­ed King­dom changed so much from the First World War to the end of the mil­len­ni­um — not just in terms of what lands it com­prised, but what was appear­ing and hap­pen­ing on them — that words can’t quite suf­fice to tell the sto­ry.

Enter Britain from Above, an archive of over 95,000 pieces of aer­i­al pho­tog­ra­phy of Britain tak­en not just from the air but from the sweep of his­to­ry between 1919 and 2006. Its pic­tures, says its about page, come from “the Aero­films col­lec­tion, a unique aer­i­al pho­to­graph­ic archive of inter­na­tion­al impor­tance.

The col­lec­tion includes 1.26 mil­lion neg­a­tives and more than 2000 pho­to­graph albums.” Orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed by Aero­films Ltd, an air sur­vey set up by a cou­ple vet­er­ans of World War I and lat­er expand­ed to include small­er col­lec­tions from the archives of two oth­er com­pa­nies, it “presents an unpar­al­leled pic­ture of the chang­ing face of Britain in the 20th cen­tu­ry” and “includes the largest and most sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of air pho­tographs of Britain tak­en before 1939.”

Here you see just four selec­tions from among those 95,000 images from the Aero­films col­lec­tion dig­i­tized by the four-year-long Britain from Above project with the goal of con­serv­ing its “old­est and most valu­able” pho­tographs. At the top of the post, see bomb dam­aged and cleared areas to the east of St Paul’s Cathe­dral, Lon­don, 1947. Then wing­walk­er Mar­tin Hearn does his dare­dev­il­ish job in 1932. Below that, a near­ly abstract pat­tern of hous­ing stretch­es out around St. Aidan’s Church in Leeds in 1929, the light ship Alarm pass­es the SS Col­le­gian in Liv­er­pool Bay in 1947; and Scot­land’s Loch Lev­en pass­es through the Mam na Gualainn in that same year.

Attain­ing a firm grasp of a place’s his­to­ry often requires what we metaphor­i­cal­ly call a “view from 30,000 feet,” but in the case of one of the lead­ing parts of the world in as tech­no­log­i­cal­ly and devel­op­men­tal­ly heady a time as the 20th cen­tu­ry, we mean it lit­er­al­ly. Enter the Britain from Above pho­to archive here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1927 Lon­don Shown in Mov­ing Col­or

A Daz­zling Aer­i­al Pho­to­graph of Edin­burgh (1920)

Amaz­ing Aer­i­al Pho­tographs of Great Amer­i­can Cities Cir­ca 1906

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Pub­lic Domain, Mak­ing Them Free to Reuse & Remix

Free: British Pathé Puts Over 85,000 His­tor­i­cal Films on YouTube

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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