In 1908, Chicago-area photographer George Lawrence enchanted Madison with the first aerial view of the city. He was hired by the Madison 40,000 Club to produce a promotional photograph to help Madison grow to a respectable 40,000 people. Lawrence most likely stood where the railroad lines cross in Monona Bay. As many as 15 kites lifted his 65-pound camera over the lake.
"When he brought these films out of the dark room, his eyes were the first eyes to see Madison from above," says Craig Wilson, a modern kite photographer who re-created the shots in 2008. Today, nearly everyone has flown over Madison in an airplane, seen an aerial photo or logged onto Internet maps to see the city from the air.
Our ability to see from above is now commonplace. Once it was a revelation.
"In 1908, it would've been an incredible experience," says Wilson of the view Lawrence captured on a 40" x 20" contact print. The image he capturedstretches from Maple Bluff on the east to woodland on the west and north across the isthmus to Picnic Point.
Aerial photos fascinate Wilson because they show the world in a new way. That's why many people want the window seat on airplanes, why kids are fascinated with the view from the garage roof. "It opens your eyes to a new understanding of where you live and how you live, your place," he says.
On Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 changed our Earth view when they shot "Earthrise" from 350 miles above the lunar surface, 240,000 miles from home. "Oh my God, look at that picture over there," Frank Borman said, looking out the window. "Here's the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty."
The photograph, showing the Earth to its inhabitants for the first time in history, helped launch the environmental movement. Life magazine named it one of the 100 Photographs That Changed the World.
In 2010, my Earth view can change with the click of a mouse. Aerial photographs can be zoomed in from any continent to my computer screen. I can get closer, look from an angle and rotate the photo to see all four sides of my house. Sophisticated infrared images could determine if I'm growing marijuana or how much insulation I have in my attic.
Click. Click. Click. I realize how glad I am to have trees that obscure at least some of the details.
Tom Lillesand, a UW-Madison engineering and environmental professor emeritus, has followed the remote-imaging revolution throughout his career. He notes that with the personal computer plus graphics power and storage capability, "you suddenly have global monitoring capability and geographical information systems available on your desktop."
Aerial photography lands squarely at the intersection of "Wow" and "Is Big Brother watching?"
The good news is that the 911 dispatch center can tell police chasing a fugitive down a dark alley if there's a shed, a possible hiding place. The bad news is that anyone can know about your shed.
The good news is that natural resource officials can tell you precisely where your farm ends, where there's a low spot, where the soils change. The bad news is that they know precisely where your property ends, where there's a low spot, where the soils change.
Lillesand, for one, is concerned about this loss of privacy.
"Someone could know if your car is home, where your entrances are, the general value of houses in your neighborhood," he says. "I hate to see us heading in the direction that privacy is no longer a right."
The first aerial photographs were taken in 1858 from a balloon in France, only 19 years after photography was invented. The first textbook on aerial photography was published in 1890, when kites and pigeons also were used to hoist cameras into the air. The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing was organized in 1937.
Over the last decade, aerial photography has become more precise and more accessible, so you can see - and measure - the height of a building, the size of a field and the width of a window. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data turns photographs into maps layered with statistical information, from how much a building costs to the slope of the land and who pays the taxes.
Bing and Google deliver the most accessible online aerial photos. With Bing, depending on where you live, you also get a bird's-eye view, taken from an angle instead of straight down. With Google, also depending on where you live, you might able to find a street view or 3-D image. (Little of Madison is available in 3-D, aside from a view of the Capitol.)
Governments, from municipal to federal, are taking high-resolution aerial photos, as well as infrared or thermal sensing and 3-D images. Those images have changed the way governments do business, allowing staff to call up what they need to see on a computer instead of driving around town.
"Digital aerial photographing is one of the best expenditures the city makes given the number of users," says Dave Davis, Madison's GIS manager, who estimates that some 50 city employees use this system regularly. "I can't imagine doing what we do without this."
Engineering uses the photographs to map streets, landfills and stormwater retention ponds. The assessor's office identifies agricultural uses for taxation purposes. Planning and zoning officials create backgrounds for community presentations. With six-inch resolution, water utility staff can verify fire hydrant locations, measure how far a water valve is from a driveway or accurately find a broken water main at 3 a.m. Metro transit staff can see shelters and bus stops.
In 1997, the city of Madison began using geo-accurate aerial photos layered with parcel numbers, ownership boundaries, contours, watershed boundaries and much more, all linked to tax history, billing address, legal and plat descriptions and school district.
"That shift really opened these up for everyone to use," Davis says. The images also showed the city where its existing maps were inaccurate.
As imaging equipment has improved, the cost of aerial photography has continued to drop, making higher resolution and more frequent flights possible.
"An aerial map isn't just a luxury," says Fred Iausly, senior GIS analyst in the Dane County Land Information Office. "It's a required piece of information that goes into a report."
Aerial maps helped local officials quickly identify the extent of the 2005 tornado damage in Stoughton, Iausly says. The photographs linked to property values were key to meeting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's 48-hour damage assessment deadline.
If a frightened caller gives a wrong address, firefighters with in-truck mapping information can overlay a range of addresses onto aerial photos to find the likely location, Iausly says. A banker can see if a home is in the floodplain before signing off on a loan, although she'll need final confirmation from the zoning office.
Aerial infrared photographs are letting communities determine which of their street trees are elm, oak or ash without making an on-the-ground, street-by-street survey.
A newer technology known as Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) can chart land contours and the building heights. Madison has a LIDAR model of the isthmus, and Iausly says planners can add proposed structures to the model to see what they would look like when built.
There's also pictometry, a company and a process that produces bird's-eye views, like those on Bing. "That's where things really start getting funky," Iausly says. "Bing gives you extra information to see what you're looking at."
The bird's-eye effect is like looking into a toy village, with perspectives from all sides. Made from aerial photographs taken from a small plane that circles the area, the images, depending on the foliage, show doors, windows, the color of cars in a driveway. Pictometry's motto: "See anywhere. Measure anything. Plan anything."
Even Iausly is surprised at how quickly remote sensing has changed how he looks at the world. "I came into this looking at it as a cartographer and how to make a nice map," he says. "My job now is building the databases behind all of these things. It's to the point the maps are actually living things.... The limits are really on your imagination and your funding."
What about privacy?
Kevin Connors, director of the Dane County Department of Land and Water Resources, sees aerial imagery as an invaluable educational tool. It allows him, among other things, to trace the history of the Yahara River outlet into Lake Mendota or what happened to Cherokee Marsh by juxtaposing historical aerial photos with modern digital images.
"Imagery tells us how we got to where we are today," he says. "What's exciting about it is every year tells a different story."
In the case of Lake Mendota, the images show a constantly shifting shoreline. An area dredged in the early 1990s is land now. A wetlands bog disappeared after 1983. "Imagery is always important to capture," Connors says. "You never know what you're going to use it for."
When Connors talks to farmers, he brings aerial photos taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that show woodlands, wetlands and fields. By adding GIS overlays, he's able to chart elevations, tax parcels and municipal boundaries. He uses these to make recommendations for tillage practices, nutrient management and winter manure spreading.
But Connors is aware that farmers "don't like Big Brother." He remembers worrying in 1972 that the first Landsat satellite photos, which had a fraction of the resolution available today, would raise questions about invasion of privacy.
"You have to be aware of it," Connors says. "But you can't control it. You have to be respectful of your audience, your clients and for the good of resource protection."
The first major case test against remote sensing was decided in 1986, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal Environmental Protection Agency's use of aerial photography to check for Clean Air compliance, after Dow Chemical officials denied on-the-ground access.
In 2003, entertainer Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress an aerial image of her home, taken as one of thousands to document erosion along the California coast. The protest brought unintended notoriety to the previously unnoticed photo, which remained online.
Five years later, residents of the St. Paul suburb of North Oaks successfully demanded that Google remove its street views of the community because all residents there live on privately owned roads.
Closer to home, says Iausly, a suburban Milwaukee woman successfully petitioned her community to remove a street shot of her home from its online database. The car captured in the driveway was not her husband's.
Drawing the line
Many communities struggle with privacy questions, including whether they should display names with property records. One side argues the information is public and should be available. The other side says people ought to have the right to keep this information private, or at least off the Internet. (Access Dane, the county's property database, allows property owners to shield their names from property searches.)
The UW's Lillesand, who was hooked on remote sensing when a weather satellite pioneer visited his eighth-grade math class a year after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, saw the clash between aerial imagery and privacy coming 12 years ago, long before Bing upped the ante in terms of the technology's potential invasiveness.
Back then, as director of the UW's Environmental Remote Sensing Center, he and colleagues from the Environmental Protection Agency wrote a paper on the subject. It predicted technical advances would improve resolution and availability and change control of images from government to private interests, all of which would have significant legal and ethical consequences. And it called for those using remote imaging to police themselves because social and legal controls were not likely to catch up to technology.
"A number of people could see that, likely, the data could be used in the wrong hands for the wrong purpose or for unintended purposes," he says.
Today, Lillesand works with the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing to educate the public and recognize privacy and ethical questions. "The legal framework for handling issues of privacy is not a well-defined one," he says. "And privacy with respect to aerial observation is less well defined."
No one knows where to draw the line between technology and privacy, says Carole Doeppers, Wisconsin's first, only and now retired public privacy advocate. She worries that no one seems to be paying attention to the fact that more and more intrusive information is readily available.
"No one is stepping back and taking a broad look," says Doeppers. "No one's talking about the unintended consequences and the harms. We're lured uncritically to the whiz-bang aspect of technology. We need to balance that with other values."
For this reason, Doeppers is encouraged by the recent popular backlash against Google and Facebook. "Even younger people have an interest in control [of their information], and that is the key," she says. "I think that's a terribly important issue...that may continue to rear its ugly head as abuses occur."
Even kite photographers field questions about privacy, says Craig Wilson, who admits he's not comfortable with aerial views that seem to let anyone with a computer look in the windows of his house.
"People do think about it," he says, noting that he's sometimes asked whether he's working for the government to photograph illegal activity. He thinks his kite should be a giveaway that he's on his own: "If I was with the military, do you think I'd be using a big colorful kite?"
But clearly, neither the technology nor its capacity for misuse is going away.
"The solution will not be restricting technology," says Lillesand. "In a practical sense, that's impossible.... We all have to look very carefully at what this is doing and is capable of doing. We need to define what's a reasonable expectation of privacy."
Look! Up from the sky. It's...you!
You might be surprised at what you can see
Bing maps includes a variety of views. To find the bird's-eye view, type in an address and choose aerial view from the choices in the upper left-hand corner. A dropdown box will give you the choice of a satellite photo map or bird's-eye view. Bing also has 3-D maps. Bird's-eye and 3-D are not available in all locations.
Google maps includes a variety of views. For street view, type in an address and click on the balloon marking the building you chose. Access Google Earth from the toolbar across the top of the map. Street view and Google Earth are not available at all locations.
Access Dane provides access to the DCiMap aerial map through the Public Access button. You can layer it with GIS information about individual parcels.
Wisconsin View provides aerial photos of Wisconsin.
The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing includes a series of short videos covering the history and new innovations in remote sensing, with a privacy segment expected. Under the pull-down menu from News and Advocacy, choose ASPRS Films.
Madison kite photographer Craig Wilson posts his images on his website. His photographs, paired with 1908 kite photographs of Madison, are on display through July 31 at the Alicia Ashman Public Library, 733 High Point Rd.