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LENS: Photographing Philadelphia from above

In recent decades, there has been a renewed fascination with aerial photography among planners, motivated partly by the work of photographers like Alex MacLean and Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s popular Earth From Above books. But aerial photography is far from new. The use of aerials to understand cities dates back to the late 1800s. The earliest aerials were taken from balloons, and during the years following World War I photography from airplanes became prevalent thanks to surplus military equipment.


Starting in 1919, Philadelphia was photographed extensively by one of America’s oldest aerial photography companies, Virgil Kauffman’s Aero Service Corp, which started in the region. As a result there is a rich trove of images that show Philadelphia as a still-growing, industrial city during the early decades of the 20th century.

During his World War I service, Kauffman did aerial reconnaissance. Once the war was over, he bought a struggling air-taxi company and turned it into a booming aerial mapping and photography firm, according to Kauffman’s 1985 New York Times obituary.

Grady Owens, President of Aerial Viewpoint (an aerial survey company that owns Aero Service’s archives) told me that in the early days Kauffman used any ex-military equipment he could get his hands on to grow the business. Owens called Kauffman one of the country’s first “aerial pioneers,” alongside two other companies, Abrams in Michigan and Tobin in Texas.

Virgil Kauffman’s aerial adventures were financed through his family’s fortune. Virgil was from the same Kauffman clan that owned Kauffman’s department store in Pittsburgh and built Falling Water.

We Philadelphians have Kauffman to thank for the hundreds upon hundreds of images captured by the Aero Service Corp. of 20thCentury Philadelphia. Eyes on the Street will also begin an ongoing series of these images starting this week, thanks to a partnership with Aerial Viewpoint and the Free Library’s Print and Pictures Collection. Large-format prints of these images may be viewed in the Print and Pictures room at the Parkway Central Branch.

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