SITUATION #14: Pigeon Photography, Adrien Michelʼs Instruments of Aerial Reconnaissance, late 1930s


Fotomuseum Winterthur

Homing pigeon with camera, late 1930s © Estate Michel/Swiss Camera Museum, Vevey

In 1863, two decades after the invention of the medium, the pioneering photographer Nadar flew over the roofs of Paris in a giant balloon equipped with a darkroom and produced the first aerial photographs in an undertaking that assumed the status of a public spectacle. Other ‘aeronauts’ such as Eduard Spelterini followed a few years later. In the late 1930s, the Swiss precision mechanic Adrien Michel developed a small camera, very light in comparison to given designs, to be worn by homing pigeons. Created as a prototype for military aerial surveillance, the invention was based on a simple idea. Released behind enemy lines, the trained homing pigeons would fly back to their roost, while a timer would release the shutter at precise intervals to automatically generate photographs. The animal-propelled flying objects would thus record information on 16-mm roll film, which would provide important indicators for the army’s decision-making. The shaky and sometimes whimsical photographs are still a source of fascination today, largely in terms of the visual experience they convey. The images are also harbingers of the aesthetics of aerial photography, which has undergone an explosive proliferation in the twenty-first century.

Cluster: Seeing machines