When I refile pictures that researchers have recently been consulting, I’m almost guaranteed to run across at least one that demands a second look. My first thought upon seeing this picture, which was copyrighted in 1920, was: How frightening would it have been to be on the streets of Portland, Oregon, when these airplanes swooped overhead?
The answer is: not frightening at all, because it turns out this is a composite photograph depicting an event that never happened. “Composite” photographs are made by combining two or more negatives into a single picture. Portland-based photographer C.S. Woodruff apparently was fascinated by airplanes and envisioned a day when they would be as affordable as automobiles. He shared his vision by creating a picture that merged separate images to populate the skies over downtown Portland.
One of my colleagues noted the visual parallel to another imaginative swarm of airplanes: this display of model airplanes decorating the ceiling of the train concourses at Union Station in Chicago in 1943, when military aircraft were more on peoples’ minds than the potential for personalized air transport.
Together, the two images suggest that when some people look up, they see a blank slate begging to be filled.
- Composite photographs frequently accomplish just what they were intended to do: arrest the attention of the viewer. Review an earlier post that discusses composite photographs: “Caught Our Eye: Esther Lyons, ‘Klondike Girl‘.”
- Read about photographer C.S. Woodruff in the blog Journeys of the Past.
- Photographers have focused on airplanes for decades, as often highlighting their features while on the ground as aloft. View airplanes shown in photographic prints and photographic negatives in the collections.
- I ran across this image while putting materials back into the Specific Subjects File, one of several files directly available to researchers in our reading room. Explore what the file has to offer in our previous blog post, “History from A to Z.“