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Updated 10:00 AM March 27, 2006




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Aerial photography opened eyes to the Midwest

When the first aerial photographs of the Midwest landscape appeared in the 1920s and 30s, they created profoundly different types of engagements between Midwesterners and the prairies, according to a U-M-Dearborn faculty member.
This aerial survey photograph of Grundy County, Iowa, was taken in 1939 by the U.S. Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Beginning in 1936 the federal government gathered millions of such photographs as a means to administer and visualize the country's agrarian landscape, according to
U-M-Dearborn assistant professor Jason Weems. (Photo courtesy U-M-Dearborn)

"For the first time, Midwesterners could grasp visually the complexly unified character of their region as high-altitude Olympian views rendered the vast ecosystems and expanse of settled landscape visible on a human scale," says Jason Weems, assistant professor of art history.

Weems is spending the academic year examining the impact of the emergence of aerial views of the Midwest as the Hunting Family Faculty Fellow at the Institute for the Humanities on the Ann Arbor campus. Weems is the first non-Ann Arbor faculty member to receive a fellowship in the 17-year history of the institute.

His project, titled "Barnstorming the Prairies: Flight, Aerial Vision, and the Idea of the Midwest, 1920-1940," grew out of his doctoral dissertation, which he completed at Stanford University in 2003.

"My work identifies the new visual and cognitive practices inaugurated by aerial viewing—what I call 'aeriality'—and situates them at the forefront of re-symbolizing the Midwest and, by extension, the place and identity of Midwesterners in American life."

The idea of looking at the world from above has a long history, Weems says, dating at least to the Renaissance when artists used elevated views, based on site plans and drawn in perspective, to portray cities and towns.

"In this country, bird's-eye views were employed in the 18th and 19th centuries by artists and atlas makers as a means to represent the vast scale of the American landscape, particularly the seemingly limitless expanses of the Midwest," Weems says. "Elevated views enabled Americans to see the unsettled prairies as regions of promise rather than inhospitable wastelands, and offered the nation an optimistic means to portray the developing countryside."

Atlases containing elevated views were enormously popular in the 19th century, and people were conditioned to think of their neighboring regions as depicted from above, Weems says.

When the airplane was invented, most Americans considered it a mechanical novelty, but after World War I people became more familiar with its utilitarian benefits, including as a way of opening up new vantage points on the world below.

"The airplane became an apparatus for looking—from paintings and photographs to movies and the popular media, a plethora of aerial images of landscapes entered the American scene," Weems says.

But the photographs taken from airplanes were vastly different from the earlier elevated views created by artists. "Traditional bird's-eye views, regardless of the angle, maintained a conventional horizontal perspective," Weems says. "The airplane, by contrast, offered viewers renderings of the land from radically different vectors and previously unimagined altitudes."

Weems cites a government survey image of rural Illinois taken in the mid-1930s, which allowed viewers to perceive the entire countryside as subject to a single plan and to understand the systematized development of the Midwest as the unfolding of a pre-ordained, almost religious, design.

Regions of the Midwest were photographed from the air extensively in the next couple of decades. "Aerial views made it possible to conceive of the region as something other than an uncontainable and alienating space and I argue that they contributed significantly to reshaping the idea of the Midwest," Weems says.

For many viewers, the aerial views of familiar landscapes were disorienting. "Imagine the reaction of a farmer who recognized his farmstead, a place loaded with personal meaning, as part of a modern agricultural grid where all farms looked alike," he says.

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