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“The World’s Heavy Gaze”: Cin-aereality in the Postwar Avant-Gardes

© 2020 Johns Hopkins University Press

The cinema and aviation go arm in arm through life. They were born on the same day.

—Fernand Léger, “Speaking of Cinema”[1]

Fernand Léger’s curious throw-away line linking cinema and aviation appears in an essay he wrote in 1931 titled “Speaking of Cinema” (“A Propos du cinéma”), one of only a few short pieces that the artist, arguably the modernist painter most obsessed with the cinema, devoted entirely to film.[2] It would, therefore, seem to indicate that for Léger the key to unlocking cinema’s unique aesthetic potential lay in its mutually informing relationship with the origins and early evolution of aviation. At its broadest, this article asks: What can we learn from Léger’s coupling of cinema and aviation that adds to our understanding of the most fraught mode of modern perception—aerial vision—both at the point of its historical emergence and its controversial regeneration a century later? In order to answer this question, I historicize and theorize the forgotten conditions of possibility for Léger’s seemingly incongruous alliance of what most would today consider a mode of communication (cinema) and a mode of transportation (aviation). Beginning with an overview of the broad technological and cultural correspondences between cinema and aviation in the nineteenth century, I then move to analyzing their military convergence and divergence in the First World War, before exploring the aesthetic and conceptual impact of their affinities across a range of avant-garde writings and films from the period before 1931. Of crucial importance here will be situating Léger’s comment within the context of the Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars’s account of the painter’s experience of trench warfare as a vertically mediated encounter with “the world’s heavy gaze.”[3]

At their broadest, Léger’s words suggest a path for thinking about cinema and aviation as non-identical twins of modern technological progress. As such, the primary goal of this article is to uncover how the motion picture camera and the plane coevolved, albeit in imperfect alignment, as two exemplary movement, vision, and dream machines of early twentieth-century modernity. This article thus offers an intervention in how we frame the purview of film history, arguing for an expansion of the intermedial scope of cinema’s impact, highlighting connections between fields usually deemed separate, such as transport and communication (thus also bringing film studies into the orbit of critical war studies, media theory and media archaeology, as well as art history). Certainly, this turn to the affinities between cinema and aviation builds upon work in early cinema studies that is highly attentive to film’s participation in and reflection of the technological transformations associated with modernity. For example, the cinema’s perceptual and sensorial connection to the transportation monolith of the nineteenth century, the train, has previously offered scholars (such as Lynn Kirby) illuminating technological intertexts from which to investigate film’s broader cultural continuum (which others have also explored within the domains of world expositions, wax displays, fairgrounds, and department stores, as well as the more focused screen of windows).[4] Léger’s comment reminds us that aviation deserves to be inserted into the modern cultural continuum from which cinema emerged. The aerodromes (sometimes referred to as air circuses, given the centrality of their aerobatic attractions) that were the site for aviation’s major prewar manifestations offer a forgotten but significant supplement to the fairground and theme park as contexts that Tom Gunning has argued are crucial for situating early cinema in a broader culture of attractions underpinned by the embodied shocks and sensations of an exhibitionist, rather than voyeuristic, logic.[5] In addition, a shift to the plane, rather than the train, within film history promises to reveal connections that speak to cinema’s specific links to the modernity of the early twentieth century, understood here, once we consider aviation and cinema’s transformation by the First World War, to be defined as much by mass annihilation as mass industrialization.[6]

From the perspective of modernist studies, Léger’s partnering of cinema and aviation might appear somewhat uncanny because it is overshadowed by a more common coupling within the history of aesthetic modernism, that of photography and aviation. Forged alongside and sometimes in direct response to the foundational alliance of photography and planes in the First World War, modernist art, architecture, photography, and even literature and poetry negotiated the impact of aviation as a revolutionary cultural and aesthetic touchstone. Whether literalized in photographic views from the pilot’s seat or the plane’s belly or expanded to include an amalgam of aviation innovations that spans from the protean formalist appeal of the propeller to the liberating and sometimes quasi-mystical experience of machine flight, aerial consciousness offered a key point of inspiration, albeit to varying degrees, within the evolution of diverse modernist projects. Its hovering presence has been felt obliquely across Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s self-fashioning and early cubist and collage works, Marcel Proust’s fiction, and Edward Steichen’s progress toward straight photography—and more directly in Filippo Tomasso Marinetti’s manifestos, “words-in-freedom” visual poems, and the aeropittura movement of futurism’s second wave, as well as Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s seeing-in-depth simultaneism, Kazimir Malevich’s non-objective works, and Le Corbusier’s architecture and urban planning manifestos.[7] Clearly, a utopian thread runs through these encounters with aerial vision, whether couched in associations with unlimited future progress, objective vision, and a positive rapprochement between humans and machine, or conveying an overriding rhapsodic transcendence of earthly, bodily, and perceptual norms. However, by the mid-1930s, particularly when reduced to the high vertical aerial photograph taken from the plane, viewing from above had come to represent a distinctly dystopian version of the modernist gaze, as exemplified in its embodiment of the alienating, desensitizing, and proto-fascist perspective described in Siegfried Kracauer’s “Mass Ornament” (1927) essay and, even more so, in the end of Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art” (1935/6) essay.[8]

Surprisingly, there has been relatively little attention given to the formalist impact of aerial culture within the realm of motion pictures. The major exception would be Paul Virilio’s 1984 hypostasization of cockpit, camera, and machine gun as an emblematic assemblage representative of the intertwined technologies of destruction and vision, or, to take the title of his book, war and cinema.[9] Virilio’s book is undoubtedly still urgently prescient in its analysis of the violent convergence of machines of flight and sight in the ever-increasing “derealization of military engagement” into a “war of pictures and sounds” (War and Cinema 1, 5). However, in his relentless locking of aviation and cinema into the crosshairs of a militarized visual regime, Virilio ceded too much to the techno-determinism of an ahistoricisist reading, while neglecting to address the fuller picture of the relationship’s uneven and ambiguous history. Most problematic for film history and theory is that Virilio’s account ignored the specificity of the film medium’s potential for contestation in its multifaceted aesthetic and exhibition encounters with aviation and aerial vision. The avant-garde writings and film experiments by Léger and company that I uncover in this article, and that developed between the poles of aviation and cinema, present a crucial missing site that anticipates while also contesting Virilio’s fatalistic interlocking of war and cinema as coequal weapons in the larger battleground of modern optics.

A second aim of this article, therefore, is to contribute a historically and theoretically grounded cinematic perspective to the Virilio-esque paradigm for analyzing aerial vision. I argue for the importance of the interwar cinema-aviation topos as a vital addition to recent scholarship in the fields of visual, literary, media, and critical military studies, one that aims to reopen our understanding of aerial vision by attending to the historically specific practices and “supports” that ground pivotal moments in the long history of representing the earth from above.[10] This article thus contributes to interdisciplinary revisions of the myth of aerial vision as “weightless, ungrounded and light,” abstracted from the body, the senses, and depth, and defined by a militarized aesthetics of invisibility, disappearance, and remote vision (Adey, Whitehead, and Williams, “Introduction,” 6). In particular, I seek to highlight the ambiguities that emerge in our understanding of aerial vision when we emphasize, with the aid of cinema’s uniquely elastic perceptual axes, the interconnectedness between viewing from above and below.

While key aerial-related films of the avant-garde will be analyzed, just as important in my analysis is how the cinema-aviation nexus resonated beyond the film text to the specifics of non-traditional exhibition sites and to a series of discussions in the more experimental fringes of film criticism and paracinematic writings by Léger, Cendrars, Louis Delluc, Eve Francis, Jean Epstein, László Moholy-Nagy, and Jean Vigo.[11] Together, the writings and films of the avant-garde discussed in this essay thus reinsert the cinematic density back into the weightless myth of abstract aerial vision, in the process questioning the view from above’s alignment with panoptic and surveillant power and knowledge.

With a view to mapping out the encounters between aviation, and more specifically aerial vision, and the emerging discourses of “cinesthetics,” I propose the term “cin-aereality” to define a previously unidentified strain within early twentieth-century film culture and theory that encompasses a new reality defined by a set of perceptual-experiential overlaps between cinema and aviation that we can detect leading up to and emerging out of the war’s intensification of mechanized aerial vision.[12] At stake in the postwar avant-garde’s discursive and creative explorations of the cin-aerial nexus, is the evolving aesthetic, military, and ethical negotiation of the disintegration of human scale and habitual perspective within mobile, non-terrestrial vision. In addition to upending notions of space, these negotiations push for a rethinking of time as applied to the writing of history in a manner that meet the challenges of modern aerial imagery’s reconfiguration of space.

The shift to aereality in the postwar avant-garde’s cinematic investigations forces us to open a critical dialogue within modernity’s central visual axis of verticality, emphasizing that the modern eye (and modern power) is never unidirectional or exclusively optical but shuttles between the view from above and the view (of above) from below while tethering the eye to the body. Offering an important aesthetic prehistory to what media scholar Lisa Parks describes as the grounded and embodied aspects of the “vertical mediation” of today’s earth-to-satellite mediascape, the early twentieth-century phenomenon of cin-aereality reveals that looking down cannot be disconnected from looking up and sight cannot be disconnected from the senses.[13]  Mobilizing one of cin-aereality’s major visual figures—what I call the cinematic “tethered eye”—I revise the dominance of a surveillance paradigm in studies of aerial vision by arguing that even during the period that saw the birth of aerial warfare and weaponized vision, we can see how theorists and filmmakers were interested in retrieving cinema from beneath the freshly perceived weight of visual surveillance to explore the potential of other cin-aerial dimensions in relation to the body, time, and new modes of seeing, understanding, and witnessing. Shuttling between celestial and terrestrial coordinates and between the vertigo of free fall and the pinpoint precision of reconnaissance optics, these artists explored and experienced cin-aereality’s potential as a complicated relay between the body and the eye, disorientation and reorientation, intimacy and distance, the irrational and the rational, dizziness and control, pleasure and knowledge, space and time.

The Emergence of the Cinema-aviation Nexus

But to begin, where might we even locate the intersection of aviation and cinema?[14] Long before their modern realization, flight and moving pictures crossed paths as two of the Western imaginary’s most potent signs of utopian and oneiric longing. As the historian of precinema technology Laurent Mannoni has aptly suggested, “the dream of being able to project moving illuminated images on a wall or screen is almost as old, in the history of humanity, as the dream of flight.”[15] Once those dreams became realized with the first projected Lumière films in 1895 and the Wright brothers’ first machine-powered flight in 1903, their convergence also became apparent in that film and flight often became associated with visceral, sensual, and death-defying, ride-like thrills (which regularly became coded in aviation-themed films as sexual or gender transgression). A more dystopian strain in this coevolution occurred in the early military aspirations applied to both modern flight and motion images, the former promising to deliver the universal military goal of unimpeded and unseen vision of the enemy, the latter offering a powerful new means of propaganda. This military context emerged out of an earlier affinity between the sciences of aeronautics and serial photographic motion studies that underpinned the emergence of modern flight and motion pictures, namely their shared investment in the larger nineteenth-century obsession with making the invisible visible. And yet far from exclusively concerning the realm of science, this frenzy of the visible that joined early aeronautics and precinema had just as much to do with magic as mechanics, or just as much to do with wonder as with warfare. The realm of wonder continued to play a role in another area of overlap which comes into view when we situate films and planes as related objects of mass spectacle. Both moving pictures and planes were key forms of early twentieth-century entertainment based upon the projection or technical display of movement onto screens writ large and viewed by a paying collective audience positioned with their eyes looking up. Finally, perhaps the most far-reaching relay between aviation and cinema appears in how both inventions heralded new forms of transporting humans, in an actual or virtual mode, across space and time, while also contributing to radical reconceptualizations of space and time. Indeed, it could be argued that the spatiotemporal leaps made possible by actual machine flight reconditioned perception and the film spectator to follow the even more contrastive jumps of editing and montage (perhaps explaining why Léger dedicated his 1931 essay to Sergei Eisenstein). Although not fully explored here, I would also suggest that the aerial photographic mosaic is a missing key in the media archaeology of cinematic editing and collage practices alike.

The affinity between aviation and cinema that concerns me most in this essay is their shared identity as machines that engendered new forms of, and feelings associated with, modern vision. In order to understand this at-first-glance-curious affinity, we must insert both the plane and the moving camera into the photographically dominated visual regime that emerged from the perceptual retraining of military, aesthetic, and civilian vision during the First World War. High-altitude vertical aerial photographs play a central role in this retraining. Rather than rehearse that story, however, I am more interested in returning those static photographic views to a dynamic, relational context through the kinetic lens of moving pictures. If recent revisionary approaches to aerial reconnaissance photographs have indeed moved beyond interpretations that reduce aerial vision to the monolithic operation of abstract power from above, there is still a dominant association of the view from above with infinite seeing, knowledge, and power. Cinema’s aerial affinities have the potential to emphasize even further the instability of the supposedly inviolable pact between the aerial reconnaissance photograph and objective evidence.

Of course, the association of representations of the earth viewed from above with a “detached, dispassionate, and privileged way of interpreting the world’s surface” preceded the First World War.[16] The “God’s eye” aura of the aerial view extends at least from the biblical context of the Old Testament and diverse cartographical and pictorial traditions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to a range of militaristic, entertainment, and didactic applications in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The latter ranged from bird’s-eye surveys and balloon-view renderings to the vast illustrations from elevated viewpoints that were the major feature of panoramas (some of which included motion) and dioramas.[17] Photography quickly seized upon this mania for the expansive view, not just from a range of fixed elevated platforms but also moving platforms, including untethered balloons, kites, pigeons, dirigibles, rockets, and of course, planes (the latter from around 1908). Not surprisingly, early cinema registered this conjoined fascination with flight and kinetic views in films such as the Lumière brothers’ recording of captive balloon flights (Panorama Taken from a Captive Balloon [Panorama pris d’un ballon captive, 1898]) as well as Georges Méliès’s fabrications of rocket, dirigible, and later plane travel in A Trip to the Moon [Le Voyage dans la lune, 1902], The Fantastic Dirigible [Le Dirigeable fantastique, 1907], and The Conquest of the Pole [A la conquête du pôle, 1912), to name a few. But airomania found its most adventurous if short-lived early cinema outlet in Raoul Grimoin-Sanson’s Cinéorama, one of several attractions at the 1900 Paris World Exposition (including the one-hundred-meter high “Grande Roue” Ferris wheel ride, the tallest in the world at the time) that welcomed the new century through popular entertainments whose vision of the future showcased dynamic motion within a new exploration of aerial space (fig. 1).[18] The Cinéorama consisted of a vast circular building in the middle of which was placed a huge balloon basket within which people sat beneath a ceiling that imitated the covering of a balloon and onto which were projected, by ten projectors positioned beneath the basket, filmed views of balloon ascensions, ground-level voyages, and a landing (created by reversing the films).[19] Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Cinéorama is a landmark utopian experiment in the combination of cinema and airborne seeing. An inheritor of the panoramic traditions of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was also a close relative to a range of aerial rides featured at several large expositions, and a bold, multiprojector forerunner to the immersive, wide-screen to wrap-around mobile vision (frequently showcasing spectacular aerial views) of many later cinema experiences, including Cinerama and the recent resurgence in digital IMAX and 3D cinema.

Illustration of the interior of Raoul Grimoin-Sanson’s Cinéorama at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition.
Fig. 1. Illustration of the interior of Raoul Grimoin-Sanson’s Cinéorama at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition. Scientific American, September 1, 1900, supplement no. 1287.

From an Angle We Do Not Know

As important as early twentieth-century aerial-related films and rides might have been in creating the vernacular landscape for the cultural craze for airborne views, the actual, rather than simulated experience of the multisensorial nature of machine flight was confined to an elite few in this era. Unlike the everyday presence of the train, bicycle, or automobile, the plane still retained an air of science fiction, even for metropolitan audiences. Where aerial experience becomes accessible to the masses is via its translation into the visual realm. More specifically, the vernacularization of an aerial visual regime occurred with the industrialization of aerial photography shortly after the beginning of the First World War, when we begin to see the mass production, dissemination (and eventually preservation) within the military and beyond (in the popular illustrated press) of new, plane-mounted modes of photographing the earth.[20]

Photograph of an aviator making a photograph from an airplane.
Fig. 2. Photograph of an aviator making an oblique photograph from an airplane using a hand-held camera. The fixed camera is set for taking a vertical photo. Flying, April 1919, 251.
Turenne Crossing, Shelled Woodlot with Remnants of German Huts, December 15, 1917.
Fig. 3. The enigma of high vertical aerial photography. Turenne Crossing, Shelled Woodlot with Remnants of German Huts, December 15, 1917. Courtesy of the McMaster University Library, Aerial Collection, Canada.

There were three types of aerial images used by the military, each distinguished by a different angle: obliques, panoramas, and verticals (fig. 2). Yet it was the radically new vision of the high-altitude vertical photographs, shot perpendicular to the ground below, that revolutionized reconnaissance practices and, albeit indirectly, the perspectival underpinnings of Western art (fig. 3). As a figure who straddled the worlds of artistic and military photography, Edward J. Steichen (the pictorialist photographer who came to head the Photographic Unit of the American Expeditionary Forces once they entered the war in 1917) was perfectly positioned to encapsulate the divided loyalties, as it were, of the vertical photograph. In a postwar report intended to promote aerial photography, he triumphantly claimed that such images “represent neither opinions nor prejudice, but indisputable facts” while also maintaining that “[w]ithout considerable experience and study” aerial vertical photographs were “more difficult to read than a map, for [they] badly [represent] nature from an angle we do not know.”[21] Defined by the loss of the horizon line resulting in an absence of depth cues, high verticals reduced the landscape below to an abstracted series of shapes and lines, thereby redrawing the earth as a visual problem to be solved by a suprahuman gaze. In order for these photographs to become useful as what Steichen calls “instruments of war,” they had to undergo a systematic form of visual decoding. They were thus exemplary, if unintentional, modernist training manuals—visual texts that refuted figurative representation while requiring a new type of active viewer-as-interpreter (much like the type of spectator required to understand a film that had been edited according to the spatial and temporal flights of discontinuous montage).

Pigeon photograph published in popular magazine L’Aérophile.
Fig. 4 (above left). The literal bird’s-eye view: pigeon photograph published in popular magazine L’Aérophile, January 15, 1909, 47.

Divorced from habitual modes of seeing and representing, aerial images meant nothing to the untrained eye. However, reframed in the positive, it is this nothingness (explained by their distance from normal human perception and their flagrant colonization of what was previously the no-place of the God’s eye-view) that made them so susceptible to aesthetic appropriation. In other words, the military’s problem with images taken from “an angle we do not know” became the modernist’s opportunity for discovering worthy examples of New Vision. And yet it should never be forgotten that military aerial photographs, including those taken by pigeons, but especially those taken by vertically positioned plane-mounted cameras, introduced the defamiliarizing perspective of the view from above as the norm of modern mass photography before it became one of the favorite angles of choice for modernist photographers like Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Rodchenko, and André Kertész (figs. 4–5).

László Moholy-Nagy, View from Pont Transbordeur, Marseille, 1929.
Fig. 5 (above right). László Moholy-Nagy, View from Pont Transbordeur, Marseille, 1929.  Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. © 2020 Estate of László Moholy-Nagy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The airplane as a flying camera
Fig. 6. The airplane as a flying camera, as illustrated in U.S. Airforce First World War aerial photography training manual. School of Aerial Photography, Ithaca, NY, 1917–1920.

Interestingly, while the military promoted the “science” of photographic interpretation to solve and manage the visual enigma of vertical aerial photographs, there was no comparable instrumentalization of aerial motion pictures in the First World War. It is true that strip-film was used to produce serial aerial photographs including images produced by the cine-rifle and intended for air-to-air combat target practice. In addition, projected motion pictures were mobilized for diverse propaganda efforts. Furthermore, building upon the fact that, in French, the word appareil referred to both the camera and the plane, one could even argue that the plane was a tool of quasi-cinematic vision as its principal function was to add movement to the fixed photographic camera (fig. 6). Nonetheless, as far as my research in military archives shows, projected film was not used as actionable intelligence. Even in the rare extant examples of vertical motion imagery from the war that I have located, we can surmise how the constantly shifting frame and perspective meant that such footage was unsuitable for the piecemeal needs of aerial reconnaissance. Projected film’s recalcitrance when it came to providing manageable and framed evidence, qualities more suitable to the frozen temporality of photography, is of course often at the core of certain theorizations of the medium. Kracauer, for example, argued in Theory of Film that film “transmit[s] raw material without defining it.”[22] The endless, unframed indeterminacy of its recording and the excessive, because constantly moving, nature of its information meant that it could not be managed as easily as photography’s fixed temporality which lent itself more to the ideal of inviolable data, especially needed for cartographical applications of aerial reconnaissance.[23] For such applications, film was radically useless.

Perceptual and Sensorial Free-Fall

It is exactly this vertiginous tension between visual usefulness and uselessness that attracts the diverse modernist avant-gardes to the aerial view. As a painter associated with early cubism, a soldier who experienced the trauma of trench warfare and served as a stretcher-bearer and nurse during the First World War, and a one-time filmmaker (of Ballet mécanique, 1924), Léger embodied and articulated the crossroads of painting and film’s encounter with aviation. His early writings are keenly sensitive to the transformed nature of perception and representation in the age of machine transport. In “Contemporary Achievements in Painting” (1914) he argued, with specific reference to trains and automobiles, that “the evolution of the means of locomotion and their speed have a great deal to do with the new way of seeing” and that the “compression of the modern picture, its variety, [and] its breaking up of forms” were a certain reflection of transportation’s transformation of everyday experience.[24] Although at this point it is the more readily accessible train and car that figure as his examples, the plane is clearly on the horizon for Léger as a key instigator of this “new way of seeing” and experiencing the world. Along with several other modernists, including Le Corbusier, Marcel Duchamp, and Constantin Brancusi, Léger’s susceptibility to the artistic potential of the plane and view from the plane was ignited as early as 1909 when he attended the Exposition Internationale de Locomotion Aérienne. Held in the same space and at the same time as the Salon d’Automne art exhibition, the side-by-side shows produced a striking juxtaposition of traditional and modern beauty that Léger later acknowledged directly led to his career-defining “machine aesthetic.”[25] The artistic potential of the plane’s new formal and even sonic capacities also appeared in his painting Propellers (1918), in the title of his film Ballet mécanique (whose contrastive logic might have been inspired by the mechanical dances of plane acrobatics), and in the original score by Georges Antheil for that film, which included the industrial sounds produced by propellers.[26] Léger also discussed the specific appeal of the overhead view’s defamiliarizing force in his 1924 discussion of Ballet mécanique: “A herd of sheep walking, filmed from above, shown straight on the screen, is like an unknown sea that disorients the spectator.”[27] Even though Léger is not explicitly referring to a plane view, and Ballet mécanique does not contain any such shot, at work in these comments and in that film’s persistent upending of traditional perspective is an eagerness to explore anew the world from “angles[s] we do not know” using machine vision. In Ballet mécanique’s magnification, isolation, fragmentation, and dynamic, often propeller-like animation of objects and body parts divorced from any narrative context, we see the approximation of a new, acrobatic, groundless optic unafraid of the shifting planes, volumes, and scales of perception that issue from the multidirectional vistas opened by the modern, mobile view from above (fig. 7).

Magnified moving fragments of Ballet mécanique
Fig. 7. Magnified moving fragments as examples of a new dynamic and groundless optic.  Fernand Léger, Ballet mécanique, 1924. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Previous filmmakers had already been mobilizing the disorientating aspects of the view from above, putting them to work in early comedic and trick genres, whose games with perception were so important to the emerging avant-garde. In Pathé’s chase film La Course des sergents de ville (The Policemen’s Little Run, 1907), Ferdinand Zecca made comic use of the technique Léger later described when he filmed policemen from above crawling across a painted façade of a French apartment, which, when viewed on the screen gives the gravity-defying illusion of the policemen climbing vertically up the building (fig. 8). In Emile Cohl’s Rien n’est impossible pour l’homme (Nothing is Impossible for Man, 1910), the view from above is even more directly connected to aviation’s transformation of modern vision. The plane is the first of several technologies investigated, including the phonograph and the cinematograph, as evidence of modern progress. Cohl uses two shots of an actual airplane to usher in the intertitle “Master of the air, thanks to the airplane, he sees what once only birds had seen,” which then leads to several shots from above of a miniature, model village, followed by a live-action scene unfolding on the terrace of a provincial café filmed directly above (fig. 9). On the one hand, the use of miniatures materializes a dominant visual trope of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century balloon observations which frequently connected the view from above to a toy-like, reduction of the world. We can hear this discourse in the memoirs of a key pioneer of photo-aerial connections, the photographer and aeronaut Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), who described his view of the earth from his first balloon ascent in 1848 with the words: “Toys these little houses with red and slate-gray roofs, toys this church, this prison, this citadel” (fig. 10).[28] On the other hand, Cohl’s nod to the Lilliputian allure of the view from above is followed by a live-action scene that stages a more modern view from above, reconfigured as both a superior eye of detection and an obfuscating, distracting eye of deception. Filmed perpendicular to the action below, the scene depicts an event unfolding on the terrace of a provincial café and foreshadows the destabilizing elements of soon-to-be-developed vertical aerial reconnaissance photography; by doing away with the horizon line, it flattens three-dimensional cues, leaving you to engage in a self-conscious exercise in optical decipherment in order to determine what is going on.

The Policemen’s Little Run (Pathé Frères, 1907).
Fig. 8. Gravity-defying optical play due to the view-from-above perspective in Ferdinand Zecca’s La Course des sergents de ville/The Policemen’s Little Run (Pathé Frères, 1907).
Emile Cohl’s Rien n’est impossible pour l’homme/Nothing is Impossible for Man (1910).
Fig. 9. The view of and from above operating in Emile Cohl’s Rien n’est impossible pour l’homme/Nothing is Impossible for Man (1910).
Lithograph caricature by A. Humbert of Nadar atop his photographic balloon “Le Géant” (The Giant), 1863.
Fig. 10: Pioneering convergence of photography and ballooning. Lithograph caricature by A. Humbert of Nadar atop his photographic balloon “Le Géant” (The Giant), 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Distracted by the retraining of vision needed to read the scene from this unnatural angle, we might miss the crime which occurs in a brief blink-of-the-eye as a man appears to pickpocket a mother passing him on the pavement in the opposite direction, only to be caught a second later by a bystander who then alerts the local policeman to arrest the thief. Cohl allows the view from above to operate on two registers; it both clouds our vision, augmenting the enigmatic nature of the scene in front of us, while also penetrating that cloud, giving us a privileged, quasi-surveillant gaze upon the crime being committed. Although rendered here in a light game of optical play, the view from above in Cohl’s film is underwritten by a hide-and-seek structural dialectic of deception-detection whose oscillation between opacity and transparency, illegibility and evidence, also underpins the view from above’s instrumentalist use in crime scene police photography and aerial reconnaissance photography (fig. 11). A key difference here being that the movement-based imperative in the projected film’s uninterrupted shot prevents the viewer from freezing time and penetrating the mystery within the image, as they might do with a photograph.

If the somewhat more benign manifestation of the view from above’s instrumentalism had already appeared in its associations with an intimate, peeping-Tom intrusion into social transgressions, as seen in J. J. Grandville’s illustrations in Un autre monde (1844), Zecca’s and Cohl’s films capitalize upon that perspective’s specifically photo-cinematographic potential for a more intense optical trickery and perceptual confusion (fig. 12). As such, they dovetail directly with Léger’s avant-garde interests as they connect the cinematic view from above to what the painter will define as cinema’s essential, non-narrative, visual duty: to push representation beyond “imitating the movements of nature” to a point where it becomes “a matter of making images seen” via the added perceptual qualities that result from cinematic movement and projection (the latter implying magnification).[29] Léger tested the screen’s duty to deliver this more emphatic, active, and potentially disturbing notion of seeing (rather than what he calls in another essay, merely “noticing”) in a trick-like “trap” he set for people, again involving a view from above, as recounted in his essay on Ballet mécanique: “I filmed a woman’s polished fingernail and blew it up a hundred times. I showed it. The surprised audience thought that they recognized a photograph of some planetary surface. I let them go on believing that, and after they had marveled at this planetary effect and were talking about it, I told them: ‘It is the thumbnail of the lady next to me.’ They went off feeling angry. I had proved to them that the subject or the object is nothing; it’s the effect that counts” (“Ballet Mécanique,” 48–49, emphasis in original). Decontextualized and magnified beyond all recognizable proportion, Léger’s giant projected thumbnail deceives the audience, producing a confusion of perceptual scale and viewing direction, and inciting belief in a telescopic rather than a microscopic view. To this spatial vertigo he adds the unsettling confrontation of temporal exhaustion in the example given at the end of the “Speaking of Cinema” essay (that begins with the cinema-aviation nexus), in which he recounts a dream he had of a film that secretly recorded twenty-four hours in the life of a couple, which he anticipates viewers would run from in horror as though confronted by a “worldwide catastrophe” (“Speaking of Cinema,” 104).

The utilitarian photographic view from above. New York City crime scene, 1914–18.
Fig. 11. The utilitarian photographic view from above. New York City crime scene, 1914–18. Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives.

The cross-wiring of the distant and proximate, miniature and gigantic, spatial and temporal, foreign and everyday, mixed up even further due to a misperception between looking up and looking down, also characterized the striking cin-aerial dimensions of Cendrars’s diverse cinematic experiments. These were summarized in his 1917 essay “Profound Today,” in which he recounts an intoxicating state of disorientation aroused by images on the screen before which “I no longer know if I’m looking with my naked eye at a starry sky or at a drop of water through a microscope.”[30] Before turning to those, it is worth examining Cendrars’s related 1919 description of the sensory-perceptual impact of the war upon his then close friend Léger:

Then came the war. And at the front, Léger had a revelation of the depth of today’s world.

A shell crater lanced by the world’s heavy gaze [Un trou d’obus sur lequel darde le lourd regard du monde] . . . The painter’s mind watches all this intently. . . . His eye goes from the tin can to the zeppelin, from the caterpillar to the little spring in a cigarette lighter. An optical signal. A notice. A poster. The squads of airplanes, the convoys of trucks, gun barrels shaped like panpipes, American motors, Malaysian daggers, English jams, international soldiers, German chemicals, the cylinder head of the 75, everything bears the mark of a formidable unity. Everything is contrast! (“Fernand Léger,” 100)

 H. Fournier, 1844), 26.
Fig. 12. Social voyeurism in the nineteenth-century window-level view-from-above. J. J. Grandville, Un autre monde (Paris: H. Fournier, 1844), 26.

To be sure, even on the eve of war Léger was already reflecting upon the dizzying assault of modern life upon artistic expression, detailing how “A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century artist” (“Contemporary Achievements in Painting,” 11). But the war deepens the technologically mediated experiential shock, expressed by Cendrars in his description of Léger’s eye as it anxiously—in an adaptive incorporation of the contrastive flights of cinematic montage—shoots from below to above, “from the tin can to the zeppelin,” within an optical battlefield unified by the sharp, visual juxtapositions of a globalized war machine (“American motors, Malaysian daggers, English jams, international soldiers, German chemicals”). Moreover, the perceptual trauma Léger underwent, as recounted by Cendrars, is clearly framed through an aerial reconnaissance optic (the “zeppelin” and “squad of aeroplanes”) that revolutionized not just the look of the earth but the feeling of being on earth when looked at and targeted from above.

In its emphasis upon an embodied experience of the new and violent vision-from-above, the account provides a crucial, obscured context to Benjamin’s famous description of the collective experience of war in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller” in which he suggests that “A generation that had gone to school on horse-drawn streetcars now stood under the open sky in a landscape where nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and, beneath those clouds, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.”[31] Cendrars’s account of Léger’s experience of trench warfare vertically expands Benjamin’s recognition of the war’s transformation of everything on earth to its equally devastating transformation of everything above as well (“the open sky” and “clouds”). From above and below, it emphasizes the extremes of a new, stretched vertical order outlined by another war-traumatized poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, as described in his 1918 poem “War,” in which he spatially distinguishes the prewar era in which “we had only the surface of land and seas” from the postwar era in which “we’ll have chasms / Underground and above space” (“Le sous-sol et l’espace aviatique,” my emphasis).[32] The “shell crater lanced by the world’s heavy gaze” is thus a reference not only to the destruction wrought by the trench system and bombs, but also to the earth sliced into via the new weaponized optics of Apollinaire’s “above,” literally a reconfigured “aviational space” that produces the surgical dissections and stitches of aerial reconnaissance’s cut-and-paste photographic practices (figs. 13–14). Thus, when Léger experiences the landscape under “the world’s heavy gaze” he undergoes the weight of modern surveillance embodied in the unseen force of what was commonly referred to as the “eyes” of the army, namely aerial photography.[33]

Given the still rare convergence of planes and film cameras, it is understandable that the representational intersection between flight and film would take the form of impossible, unfinished, or new genres of writing. In the screenplay-turned-prose poem for the never-realized film titled The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame (1916), Cendrars accomplished all three in one of the most imagistically vertiginous and cryptic experiments in cin-aerial aesthetics.[34] Like Léger, Cendrars was profoundly scarred by the war, both mentally and physically, having had most of his right arm amputated in 1915. Both artists also shared an “outsider” relationship to the film industry. Accompanied by Léger’s images and typography that often reprise the spiraling symbol of the propeller (itself a rich source of cin-aerial optics), The End of the World is a part-science-fiction, part-mystical satire that fashions God as a cigar-munching businessman, gleefully profiting from the death toll of the recent war through plans to open a cinema on Mars in which he would show his collection of “the greatest war movies ever made” (fig. 15).[35] God’s assistant, concerned that the Martians are pacifists, suggests a higher profit could be made with the films of a different cameraman, the Angel of Notre Dame Cathedral. If the screenplay’s ensuing gargoyle perspective recalls the literary “bird’s-eye view of Paris” chapter in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), Cendrars’s revision is unequivocally cinematic.[36] He updates the panoramic sweep of Hugo’s bird’s-eye perspective across space (and, it should be added, time) into the technologically assisted visions of a cin-aerial hybrid, embodied by the titular angel-as-cameraman. In the climax to the piece, the angel’s cine-kaleidoscopic views of Paris below on judgment day unroll in a cacophony of spatiotemporal explorations that include fast, slow, and even reverse motion cinematography.

Messter mosaic map-making.​​​​
Figs. 13 & 14. Dissections and suturings of the trench-systems and mosaic map-making. Above left: André H. Carlier, La Photographie aérienne pendant la guerre (Paris: Librairie Delagrave, 1921), chapter 9, plate 23, and right: German aerial mosaic, June 1916. Bundesarchiv, N1275 Bild-202, Oskar Messter Collection, Germany.
Fernand Léger in Blaise Cendrars
Fig. 15. Spiraling typographic illustration by Fernand Léger in Blaise Cendrars, La Fin du monde filmée par l’ange de Notre Dame (Paris: Éditions de la Sirène, 1919). © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Cendrars continued the blend of nineteenth- and twentieth-century elevated views in “The Eubage” (1917–18), a surreal science-fiction narrative partially inspired by Camille Flammarion’s L’Astronomie populaire (1880), but also clearly indebted to First World War accounts of air combat. In it, a vessel travelling to outer space meets disaster when its “gunner” shoots into the eye of a giant butterfly, causing the machine to go into “a nose dive,” “spinning like a corkscrew” and making the crew lose their balance and fall to the floor.[37] Framed as a critique of the follies of “scientific reasoning” that allowed humans to entrust their lives to “this fragile machine,” Cendrars’s aerial descent culminates with the words: “We had been spiraling downward forever, between the evening and the morning. No, there are no laws; no, there are no measurements. There is no center. No unity, no time, no space” (“Eubage,” 69). That same year in the first outline of his essay The ABCs of Cinema, he analogized cinema’s own modes of disorientation to this very experience of being inside a nose-diving plane. Beginning with the lines, “Cinema. Whirlwind of movement in space. Everything falls. The sun falls. We fall in its wake,” the essay moves on to describe the camera in a state of free-fall: “the machine which recreates and displaces the sense of direction . . . A hundred worlds, a thousand movements, a million dramas simultaneously enter the range of the eye with which cinema has endowed man. And, though arbitrary, this eye is more marvelous than the multifaceted eye of a fly.”[38] Although the most literal embodiment of Cendrars’s flying eye would only appear with the full development of aerial stunt cinematography after the war (filmed, not coincidentally, by ex-army pilots and planes), we have here an early avant-garde appreciation of cin-aereality’s hyper-kinetic reordering of the perceptual sensorium that competes with and surpasses its militarized uptake.


Diverse expressions of cin-aereality in Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera, 1929.
Fig. 16. Diverse expressions of cin-aereality in Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera, 1929.

When we turn, however, from Léger and Cendrars to artists more directly associated with film, aerial vision retains a quasi-utopian aura, reflective of the still-uncommon experience of flight and the still-unrealized hopes for cinema (which constitute a dominant theme in early film theory). The more politically utopian aspects of the view from above were explored in revolutionary Russia where the documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov wedded the machine aesthetics of the plane to a new mission for cinema. Probably influenced by the prerevolutionary Russian avant-garde’s adoption of aviation aesthetics (most notably in the figure of the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich, who described himself and his fellow suprematists as “comrade-aviators”), Vertov christened his “man with the movie camera” a “kinok-pilot” (camera-pilot), thereby suggesting an analogy between the plane and camera and the pilot and cameraman that was central to his overall commitment to a positive rapprochement between man and machine.[39] The analogy deepened in Vertov’s desire to be liberated from “human immobility” by freeing the camera and “ascend[ing] with an airplane” to dizzying heights in which “our eyes, spinning like propellers, take off into the future on the wings of hypothesis” (“Kinoks,” 17).[40] To be sure, Vertov also celebrated the camera as a superhuman, mobile gaze while filming a range of grounded locomotives—as we can see with the shots from or beneath cars and trains in Man With A Movie Camera (1929). Although that film does not contain views from a plane, that was not due to a lack of interest in cin-aereality (his earlier work clearly reveals a keen interest in aviation), but rather to the practical difficulties of organizing such a shot.[41] Instead of aerial footage, we get stock shots of planes overhead, a shot of Mikhail Kaufman (one of Vertov’s brothers) filming a plane flying over him, and several superimpositions in which the figure of the cameraman and tripod appear to tower over the Lilliputian masses below, the film camera’s gaze now literalized as a modern god’s-eye perspective with both utopian (perceptual liberation) and dystopian (state surveillance) connotations (fig. 16). Moreover, although views from planes might be absent in Man With A Movie Camera, Vertov includes shots of fragmented and uprooted space that resemble the cin-aereality of floating images disconnected from narrativized space and time, reminiscent of Léger’s Ballet Mécanique and reflective of the outermost reaches of what Malcolm Turvey has described as the Vertovian “view from nowhere.”[42] Finally, additional aerial motifs appear in a Russian poster for the film that is designed from the exaggerated perspective of an eye looking up vertically into the sky bordered on all sides by sky-scrapers and overlaid with a propeller-type figuration of a woman’s fragmented body spiraling around the film’s title (fig. 17).

Poster for Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera (1929).
Fig. 17. Poster for Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera (1929) featuring propeller-like spiral graphics and images.

The Sky of an Image

Vertov’s boundless experimentation with an optics unleashed from habitual direction, scale, and speed, was of a piece with broader aesthetic and scientific experimentations in the field of vision in which the dialectic between views from above and below, as well as views that magnified or miniaturized, were mobilized. It is well known that the spatial plasticity resulting from microcinematography (found in scientific films) and magnification in general (found in close-ups in fiction films) provided a key axis of inspiration for the French interwar film avant-garde, as epitomized in Epstein’s 1921 essay “Magnification.”[43] What is less recognized is that cinema’s techniques of enlargement were joined at the other end of the scale to the distancing effects of macrovision and the miniaturizing tendencies of the aerial view. Certainly, given the rarity of plane flight and aerial cinematography, the aerial perspective offered more of a utopian limit for these filmmakers and critics, and thus perfectly suited their own future-centric discourses on the cinema. Nonetheless, the aerial view forms a structuring absence in our current understanding of the debates connected to photogénie (or filmic specificity). We must reinsert the aerial view as the perceptual ceiling to early film theory’s explorations of cinema’s spatial explorations if we are to fully appreciate their most far-reaching insight, namely their implicit posthuman argument that film deprivileged an anthropocentric perspective, thus demoting the traditional view of the world which posited the human as the measure of all things.

Louis Delluc, the premier French film critic of the era, and his actress wife Eve Francis, explicitly connected film’s rearrangement of the classical hierarchy between humans and things to aerial vision. In her memoir Francis recalls Delluc’s response to her desire, inspired by their viewing of a newsreel featuring a Blériot monoplane flying over Versailles, for new visions of the earth from above: “That will come . . . that is what we ask of the cinema and not this buffoonery” that characterizes dramatic film today.[44] On the one hand, these aerial ecstasies (connected, no doubt, to Francis’s visit to a 1913 Aviation Exposition at Paris’s Grand Palais) provide further evidence of aviation mania in the teens.[45] Yet the flip side of this romanticized vision of man-machine is one of human depletion. When Francis recalls (from the perspective of 1949, when she published her memoirs) that the day would come when we would be able to “contemplate without an obstacle the earth from the clouds, [and] at the bottom of the sky; men would appear as ants . . . Then they would disappear,” the reference to the First World War and the militaristic application and distribution of such perspectives is undeniable (Temps héroïques, 104). Delluc did in fact describe that vision of human diminishment in his haunting wartime poem titled “Prayer to the Aviators,” which seems to respond directly to Cendrars’s plaintive question “Where is man?” with its final lines “The earth exists no more / The mud exists no more / Man exists no more” (Cendrars, “Profound Today,” 3).[46]

Epstein shared in Delluc and Cendrars’s poetic rewriting of the world as experienced beneath the weight of a new aerial consciousness. Indeed, the high-altitude view from above is the missing key to understanding his now well-known but still cryptic descriptions of photogénie in his essay “Magnification” (1921) in which he describes how the face, when filmed in close-up, acquires a topographical and meteorological appearance. Enlarged on the screen beyond all habitual proportions, the face becomes for Epstein a place, a landscape marked by a force which “ripple[s] beneath the skin,” a screen-terrain on which “[s]hadows shift, tremble, [and] hesitate” and “[s]eismic shocks begin” and where a “breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds” (“Magnification,” 235). In his combination of visage and paysage we have an emblematic figure of spatial confusion in which the shape-shifting intimacy of the close-up is connected to the defamiliarizing remoteness of the distant view (235).[47] In that same essay in which Epstein celebrates the close-up as “the soul of cinema,” his feverish search for the most cinematically expressive, and thus movement-laden examples of photogénie, climaxes in none other than the potential of an actual cin-aerial view:

Through the window of a train or ship’s porthole, the world acquires a new, specifically cinematic vivacity. . . . I’m on board the plummeting airplane. My knees bend. This area remains to be exploited. I yearn for a drama aboard a merry-go-round, or more modern still, on airplanes. The fair below and its surroundings would be progressively confounded. Centrifuged in this way, and adding vertigo and rotation to it, the tragedy would increase its photogenic quality ten-fold. (“Magnification,” 237)

Epstein did his best to approximate such a vertiginous animation of a cin-aerial perspective. In the most famous scene in Cœur fidèle (1923), the central disaffected couple Marie and Petit Paul fly through the air in a merry-go-round ride whose carriages are all in the shape of miniature planes (fig. 18). Where views from planes were often associated in fiction film in this period with sexual and or gender transgressions, Epstein uses the sickening dizziness of aerial motion to exaggerate the nauseous claustrophobia of the couple’s relationship.[48]

Airplane carousel-ride in fairground scene in Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle, 1923.
Fig. 18. Airplane carousel-ride in fairground scene in Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle, 1923.

Although Epstein’s writings and films contain other visible cin-aerial expressions, his most enigmatic contribution to this tendency (much like Cendrars’s The End of the World) also directs us away from the screen, beyond what was then possible in films, into new skyward-reaching configurations of the cinema experience. For example, in his 1928 essay “Sky Fragments,” he claims that “[c]athedrals are constructed of stones and sky. The best films are constructed of photographs and sky. I call the sky of an image its moral discharge.”[49] In this formulation, the sky is not so much a literal image on the screen as an analogue for the quasi-religious context that surrounds the architecture and space of the cinema experience. Just as “flight was as much spiritual as it was aeronautical” for the sculptor Brancusi, so does Epstein’s suggestion that films are built of sky and photographs combine the immaterial and the material aspects of airborne experience (Silk, “‘Our Future Is in the Air,’” 292n45). The “sky” of cinema embodies the upward looking gesture of transcendence that he hoped for as the spiritual ceiling (capable of a “moral discharge”) that would house and make sense of his and other avant-garde artist’s worship in modernity’s new secular church, the cinema.

The Sky as Screen

Epstein’s skyward ruminations demand, however, to be brought down to earth. A key tenet of my reappraisal of the birth of modern aerial vision rests on the claim that the view from above was always/already tethered to the view (of above) from below. In other words, looking at the earth from above cannot be extricated from the equally long history of looking at the skies and beyond from below. In this respect, the telescope is not only the plane’s earlier terrestrial counterpart, but its observations (for example of the moon’s surface in the mid-nineteenth century by astronomers) prepared the desire for the twentieth-century reverse shot of plane-mounted aerial vision. Of course centuries-long traditions of fireworks spectacles, balloon watching, star-gazing, and telescope tourism had already made the sky and beyond a protoscreen, as playfully referenced in a poem from 1916 titled “Constellar Movies,” by L. Berton Willson, in which the changing constellations are described as “Projecting Zodiacal views—the ‘movies of the sky.’”[50] And, as suggested earlier, where cinema depended upon a collective paying audience to view a spectacle of motion pictures on a vertical plane, the showmen often in charge of aviation shows harnessed a similar collective, sensationalizing the skies as a giant screen featuring live action tricks, thrills, and even communications (in the form of skywriting) that far surpassed the more sedate pleasures of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century balloon displays.[51]

But for the purposes of my argument here, the most striking conflation of sky-gawking and screen-viewing appears in The Illustrated London News cover for August 10, 1918, which depicts the projection of films onto a French hospital ceiling for US soldiers (fig. 19). The illustration shows how the (enclosed) space above has literally become a cinematic projection plane—the usually vertical screen now tilted 90 degrees to form a horizontal surface for the gravitation-defying slapstick of the world’s first universal screen star, Charlie Chaplin. Further above the hospital’s ceiling-screen, the mysterious phenomenon of another type of aerial screen projection was featured in the same magazine two weeks later in an illustration commenting upon the involuntary visions produced while flying, such as the appearance of a shadow of one’s own plane (as though cinematically projected) on a nearby cloud surrounded by an inexplicable halo (fig. 20).

“A hospital ceiling as a screen for moving pictures,” The Illustrated London News, August 10, 1918, front cover.
Fig. 19. “A hospital ceiling as a screen for moving pictures,” The Illustrated London News, August 10, 1918, front cover. © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans Picture Library.
 An Aerial Phenomenon,” The Illustrated London News, August 24, 1918, 209.
Fig. 20. “The Haloed Shadow: An Aerial Phenomenon,” The Illustrated London News, August 24, 1918, 209. © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans Picture Library.

Regardless of how rare the practice of projecting films onto a ceiling (let alone a cloud) was, the cover of the Illustrated London News still offers an illuminating cin-aerial suggestion in the form of an exhibition space in which the screen does not offer a window onto the world but rather a roof onto the sky. A surreal, half-way experience between the 1900 Cinéorama and the modern planetarium projector (first installed in Germany in 1923), the wartime ceiling cinema combined the moving image feature of the former with the skyward-gazing spectator of the latter. Read as an unofficial approximation of Epstein’s skyward directed theory of film, the Illustrated London News image lifts the lid, as it were, off the ceiling of the traditional cinematic dispositif, liberating screen and representation from the limits of the upright, foreword-gazing spectator. In this respect, it looks toward diverse frame-transgressing expressions of expanded cinema and exhibition design more generally (noted below). At the same time, however, the liberation of cinema in this illustration occurs at the expense of the immobilization of the human body, left prostrate by the war. The image is thus a cruel distillation of the duality inherent in modern flight and looking skyward as both utopian releases from gravity’s groundedness and dystopian reminders of the weight borne by the human body due to the sky’s unleashing of a new predatory vision capable of clipping the wings of so many would be Icaruses.

The above references to ceilings and clouds as surfaces onto which lights are projected or shadows cast allows us to situate the cinema in a broader urban visual culture of screen surfaces and light projections, thereby contributing to what media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo calls the field of “screenology.”[52] The accidental use of a ceiling and a cloud as screens for projected images or shadows would have fascinated Moholy-Nagy, whose interest in the New Vision afforded by the view from above emerged from his broader impatience with the traditional western perspectivalism embedded in the model of an immobile, forward-looking spectator gazing at the fixed vertical picture plane. Both Moholy-Nagy and Léger flirted with literal cine-aerial projections pointing up and pointing down, the former as early as 1922 in his vision of painting with light by projecting images onto clouds and other nontraditional screens, the latter in an unfulfilled, audacious plan for the 1937 World Exposition to project films from both the Eiffel Tower and flying planes of a “new multicolored world” onto the screen of a Paris painted white (fig. 21).[53] Although these visionary, proto–expanded cinema experiments remained impossible, where the floating, unfixed eye of Moholy-Nagy and Léger’s cin-aerial perception did begin to solidify was in the related avant-garde realm of exhibition design.[54] In the mobile, multidirectional eye of “extended vision” that is at the center of a new model of the exhibition viewer drawn by Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus colleague Herbert Bayer in 1929 for the Werkbund Exhibition in Paris, we see an application of the shifting, multiperspectival attention of the cin-aerial gaze whose future realization in the gallery-cinema-museum nexus  continues to unfold today in a range of moving image installation work that incorporates projections onto ceilings (fig. 22).[55]

One of Fernand Léger’s illustrations for his plan to project films from the Eiffel Tower and from airplanes onto the whitened screen of Paris below.
Fig. 21. One of Fernand Léger’s illustrations for his plan to project films from the Eiffel Tower and from airplanes onto the whitened screen of Paris below. VU, August 14, 1935, 1102–3.
Herbert Bayer’s diagram for “extended vision” as an aspect of exhibition design.
Fig. 22. Herbert Bayer’s diagram for “extended vision” as an aspect of exhibition design. Herbert Bayer, “The Fundamentals of Exhibition Design,” PM Magazine 6, no. 2 (1939–40): 25.

The Tethered Cinematic Eye

The more well-known, written expression of Moholy-Nagy’s interest in the view from above occurs in the photography section of his book Painting Photography Film (1925), where he celebrates the “objective” potential of “faulty” or “accidental” angles of “the view from above, from below, [and] the oblique view” that force us to “see the world with entirely different eyes” (fig. 23).[56] A lesser-known but equally important expansion of Moholy-Nagy’s interest in unusual perspectives occurs in his mobilization of a relational, looking-up, looking-down, cin-aerial aesthetic in his 1929 film Marseille, Le Vieux Port/ Impressions of the Old Harbor of Marseille. This nine-minute city symphony opens with a bold conceptual and literal incision into the standard cartographic conventions that dominated the view from above within the prephotographic history of representation. The first shot is a vertical perspective of a map of Marseille, a standard icon of emplacement that immediately situates the film geographically. However, even before we have had time to get our bearings, scissors begin to protrude from beneath the map and continue to cut out a rough rectangular slice (fig. 24). Perhaps influenced by the cartographic training he was exposed to as an artillery reconnaissance officer during the First World War, Moholy-Nagy wields the scissors of representation in a manner reminiscent of the cut and paste methods so essential to photo-mosaic practices of map-making.[57] Once the terrain is excised from the map, the negative space remaining becomes a sort of peep-hole and metaphor for the camera-eye as live-action scenes of Marseille street-life shot from above begin to appear. Read in terms of Epstein’s essay, the scissors puncture a hole in the map, thereby creating the view from a literal “fragment of sky.” Two-dimensional static representation thus gives way to mobile fluid cinematic representation. More importantly, beyond the opening formal rupture of the surface/screen, the film continues to violate the clean, distanced, abstract, and disinterested view from above by insistently placing it in contrast to the view from below. Indeed, Moholy-Nagy’s eye constantly shuttles between the view from above (through window railings, the elevator beams of the port bridge, of a man laboring beneath a heavy load as he walks upstairs, of two amateur painters fixing their canvases) and the view from below looking up (through the steel beams of the new port bridge) or lingering below at the street-level (of gutters, sidewalk rubbish, drains, a one-legged man on crutches, a toddler squatting to defecate). Just one year before Marseille, Moholy-Nagy playfully combined the up-down axis in his photomontage (later titled “City Lights”) in which a film still of Chaplin gazes up through a drawn trapezoidal column on top of which are perched two downward-looking female bathers (fig. 25). In contrast, in Marseille he used film’s unique capacities to juxtapose space across time via editing in the bidirectional axis of viewing from above and below in order to destabilize the distanced, rational bent of the cartographic eye initially mocked by the poking gesture of the film’s opening incision. Film allows him to interrupt the myth of aerial vision as a distanced, abstract, disinterested, and panoptic form of seeing. If one element of this myth had already been expounded in El Lissitzky’s 1923 celebration of the propeller’s revolutionary delivery of frictionless movement and the “possibility of floating in space and remaining at rest,” another was being concurrently explored in the Futurist’s first aeropittura manifesto of 1929 (“Perspectives of Flight and Aeropittura”) which contemptuously derided “the traditional reality of terrestrial perspectives,” weighed down by an interest in the petty “detail” on the ground, in favor of “a new extra-terrestrial and plastic spirituality” delivered by the distanced view from above.[58]

Views from above and below in László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film.
Fig. 23. Views from above and below in László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film, trans. Janet Seligman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967), 58–59. © 2020 Estate of László Moholy-Nagy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In Marseille and other films, Moholy-Nagy displays a commitment to reintroducing friction, the ground, detail, and the body into the frictionless, groundless, abstract, and a-corporeal ecstasies of aerial vision rhetoric.[59] Moholy-Nagy’s explorations of cinema’s unique ability to bridge dynamically the above and below via cuts between disparate spaces and times insists upon a gravitational pull to aerial vision’s weightless abstractions. In other words, his cine-aerial experiment reveals the tethered attachments that ground aerial vision. Yet this visual methodology of what I call the tethered cinematic eye was by no means his alone. Jean Vigo, another contributor to the city symphony genre, also working that year in the south of France, used the above-below axis as an even more emphatic tool of satirical social critique in A Propos de Nice (1929). In stark contrast to the disdainful optic from above, as expressed in First World War pilots’ association of high altitude with the demarcation of “social distance and social contempt” for the ant-like masses below or in Le Corbusier’s appropriation of the aerial view to “indict” the premodern city, Vigo mobilizes a fluid, open-ended cin-aerial aesthetics in which the aerial view is placed in dialogic relation with what he pointedly termed the “under the chair” view from below.[60] Resembling an uncanny tribute to Cohl’s Rien n’est impossible for l’homme, the film begins with actual shots of a plane, followed by aerial views of Nice’s beach, which are shortly after intercut with views from above of a miniature scene of toy figures arriving at the station (fig. 26). The major contrastive tensions in the editing that follows work to bring the opening, plane-mounted, postcard views of touristic Nice into closer, critical contact with the body (both social and urban). This pattern is developed across diverse montage sequences, for example that which intercuts between the view from above of a military parade to a crotch view of a cemetery statue, ending with the playful indecency of the worm’s-eye view up the female dancers’ high-kicking legs intercut with the view from above of a lone priest. In both Marseille and Nice the aerial eye is tethered, the earth and human body insistently tugging, making us cinematically aware of the strings attached to the myth of disembodied, groundless vision.

Fig. 24. Scissors pierce the map in László Moholy-Nagy’s film Marseille, Le Vieux Port/ Impressions of the Old Harbor of Marseille, 1929. © 2020 Estate of László Moholy-Nagy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Die Lichter der Stadt/City Lights, c. 1928.
Fig. 25. Die Lichter der Stadt/City Lights, c. 1928. Courtesy of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation. © 2020 Estate of László Moholy-Nagy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In these and other examples in A Propos de Nice, the camera of Vertov’s other brother, Boris Kaufman, hovers above then swoops low in a cinematic version of the style of history Kracauer favored in his posthumously published History: The Last Things Before the Last, in which references to above and below, and the macro and micro view, are regularly invoked as figures for reinvigorating new and critical historical perspectives.[61] It is, of course, no coincidence that Kracauer’s argument draws upon that of the first-generation Annales historian Marc Bloch, who credited his own reconnaissance experience of viewing the earth from above in the First World War with exposing to him a new vision of deep historical time, which he later incorporated under the guise of the longue durée into his methodology in the twenties, in part through the use of aerial photographs.

Views from above and below in Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice, 1929.
Fig. 26. Views from above and below in Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice, 1929.


The potential for new configurations of history in these cin-aerial loops from above and below was also at the core of Edgar Morin’s resuscitation of the cinema-aviation nexus in his 1956 book The Cinema, or, The Imaginary Man. In a self-conscious attack upon the origin myths of traditional film history, Morin aligned cinema with aviation as the two “miraculous” machines bequeathed to us from the nineteenth century.[62] Although he initially placed the two machines in opposition, arguing the plane embodied an “insane dream” to be liberated from the earth while the “laboratory eye” of the camera was wedded to the rational desire to document the earth, Morin ultimately claimed their future lay in coopting each other’s original direction. Thus, aviation came down to earth in the banality of mid-twentieth century commercial jet flight and it was “film that soared, always higher, toward a sky of dreams, toward the infinity of the stars” (Morin, “The Cinema,” 6). What Léger’s earlier alignment of cinema and aviation suggests, in concert with the range of cin-aerial examples explored above, is that in the period immediately after the First World War we see the dialectical entwining of these “insane dreams” and “laboratory eyes” expressed in the persistent relay of views from above and below, the distant and the near, the micro and the macro. We can only fully understand Léger’s and others’ claims for the “limitless plastic possibilities” of cinema once we reinsert the diverse military-related aerial dimensions of that potential.[63] Placing pressure upon cinema and aviation’s curious correspondences also allows us to shift to the broader historical frame of a media archaeology landscape, in which film does not exist as a discrete object destined for the traditional exhibition screen, but is part of a new, vertically-enhanced visual landscape shared by aviation and aerial vision.

And yet I am not just interested in introducing the plane into the orbit of cinema’s perceptual-sensorial field to add a new, non-terrestrial twist to our studies of the evolution of mobilized perception. A turn to aerial cinematography is important because it has the potential to undo a set of oppositions that prevail within the photographically-determined reception of aerial imagery between vision and sensibility, macro and micro, the distant and the proximate, vertical and horizontal, space and time. The cin-aerial contribution to scholarship focused on revising our understanding of aerial vision is crucial because cinema was indeed, like photography, intermingled with the modern weaponizing of optics (à la Virilio) and yet that is only part of the story. Unlike photography, which was more easily (although by no means perfectly) coopted into the utilitarian rhetoric of aerial vision as objective truth, film was a more recalcitrant medium. Embracing this recalcitrance, the avant-garde sought neither to submit to weaponized vision nor to negate vision tout court; rather, they proceeded from a position that recognized cinema’s intense relationship with this exemplar of modern vision while also critically exploring, negotiating, and working upon it. With its unique affinity with aviation, and its ability to fly (via montage) between the above and below, and interweave (via manipulations of spatio-temporal scale) the macro and micro—leading to a new mediation of the relationship between the sky, the earth, and the human—film plays a privileged role in the broader aerial reorientation of modern visual culture that develops alongside but is not reducible to a military optic. In other words, the avant-garde explored the aesthetic potentials of cinema’s aerial dimensions, ultimately contesting the notion that cinema is “beholden to the lens of militarism” (Adey, Whitehead, and Williams, “Introduction,” 10).

The relevance of the avant-garde’s negotiation of aviation and cinema’s coevolution extends beyond the early twentieth-century period. Léger’s cryptic comment from his 1931 essay is all the more urgent today given the unprecedented aerial, and more specifically, mobile aerial expressions of contemporary visual culture. The more benign manifestations of this latest aerial zeitgeist extend from the almost unquestioned manner in which we so often enter a film by flying into its space (whether literally, via images recorded from a plane, helicopter, or drone, or virtually, via digitally-enhanced series of satellites images) to the more intimate, hand-held, and touch-sensitive opportunities that portable digital mapping platforms such as Google Earth allow with their ability to “fly the image” to our desired location. At the other, more controversial extreme, mobile aerial vision has become inextricably connected to the expanded use of militarized drone footage for the increasingly remote and networked practices of contemporary warfare, while at the same time inciting a burgeoning of counter-militaristic surveillance art by the likes of Mishka Henner, Hito Steyerl, Trevor Paglen, Louise Lawler, Raphael Dallaporta, Bashar Alhroub, and Laura Poitras, to name a few. The work of these and other artists makes clear that alternative futures, as well as histories and modes of history, remain unraveled within the knot of vision and violence that has so tied up the discourses on aerial vision, and a fuller consideration of cin-aereality presents an opportunity for urgent discussions about what it means to be human and inhuman in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries under the increasing weight, from above and below, of “the world’s heavy gaze.”


I would like to thank the following people who invited me to present earlier versions of this article and its related book project: Dudley Andrew (Yale University), Steven Chung (Princeton University), Jane Gaines (Columbia University), Derek Schiller (Johns Hopkins University), Jacob Smith (Northwestern University), and Jennifer Bean and James Tweedie (University of Washington). I am also deeply appreciative of the careful and insightful reviewers’ reports and to Nick Yablon for endless support and patience.

[1] Fernand Léger, “Speaking of Cinema [A Propos du cinéma]” (1933), in Functions of Painting, ed. Edward F. Fry, trans. Alexandra Anderson (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), 100–4, 100.

[2] On Léger’s engagements with cinema, see Christian Derouet, “Léger et le cinéma,” in Peinture-Cinéma-Peinture (Paris: Hazan, 1989), 121–43. For the evaluation of him as modernism’s most cinema-focused painter, see Georges Sadoul, “Fernand Léger ou la cinéplastique,” Cinéma 35 (1959): 73–82, 73.

[3] Blaise Cendrars, “Fernand Léger,” in Blaise Cendrars: Modernities and Other Writings, ed. Monique Chefdor, trans. Esther Allen (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 99–101, 100.

[4] For works that have either inspired or mapped out the cultural overlap between trains, windows, and cinema, see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Oakland: University of California Press, 1986); Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); and Tom Gunning, “‘The Whole World Within Reach’: Travel Images Without Borders,” in Virtual Voyages, ed. Jeffrey Ruoff (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 25–41. For works dealing with the broader cultural continuum in which early cinema emerged, see Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” Wide Angle 8, nos. 3–4 (1986): 63–70; and essays in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

[5] See Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions.”

[6] This definition of modernity follows that specified by Miriam Bratu Hansen in her essay “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59–78, 59.

[7] For works exploring the aviation-modernism nexus, see Allan Sekula, “The Instrumental Image: Steichen at War,” Artforum 14, no. 4 (1975): 26–35; Enrico Crispolti, “Second Futurism,” in Italian Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1900–1988, ed. Emily Braun (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1989), 165–71; William C. Carter, The Proustian Quest (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 133–205; Pascal Rousseau, “La Construction du simultané: Robert Delaunay et l’aéronautique,” Revue de l’art 113 (1996): 19–31; Adnan Morshed, “The Cultural Politics of Aerial Vision: Le Corbusier in Brazil (1929),” Journal of Architectural Education 55, no. 4 (2002): 201–10; Gerald Silk, “‘Our Future Is in the Air’: Aviation and American Art,” in The Airplane in American Culture, ed. Dominick A. Pisano (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 250–96; Bernice Rose, “Picasso, Braque, and Early Film in Cubism,” in Picasso, Braque, and Early Film in Cubism, ed. Bernice Rose (New York: Pace Wildenstein, 2007), 34–147; and Christina Lodder, “Malevich, Suprematism and Aerial Photography,” History of Photography 28, no. 1 (2004): 25–40.

[8] See Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 75–88; and Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 3:101–33. For treatments of aerial photography’s specifically modernist legacy, see Sekula, “The Instrumental Image”; Karen Frome, “A Forced Perspective: Aerial Photography and Fascist Propaganda,” Aperture 132 (1993): 76–77; Philippe Dubois, “Le regard vertical ou: les transformations du paysage,” in Les Paysages du cinéma, ed. Jean Mottet (Paris: Edition Champ Vallon, 1999), 24–44; Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Modernist Reconnaissance,” Modernism/modernity, 10, no. 2 (2003): 349–80; and Paula Amad, “From God’s-eye to Camera-eye: Aerial Photography's Post-humanist and Neo-humanist Visions of the World,” History of Photography 36, no. 1 (2012): 66–86.

[9] See Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989). For other exceptions, see Angela Dalle Vacche, “Femininity in Flight: Androgyny and Gynandry in Early Silent Italian Cinema,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 444–75; Noa Steimatsky, “From the Air: A Genealogy of Antonioni’s Modernism,” in Camera Obscura Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, ed. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003), 183–214; Robert Wohl, “A Marriage Made in Heaven,” in The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 109–56; Tom Conley, “Icarian Cinema: Paris qui dort,” in Cartographic Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 23–39; Paula Amad, “The Aerial View,” in Counter-Archive: Film, the Everyday and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 261–94; Jacob Smith, “Adventures of the Aeronaut,” in The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 124–81; Robert Dixon, “Entr’acte: Sir Ross Smith’s Flight, Aerial Vision and Colonial Modernity,” in Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity: Frank Hurley’s Synchronized Lecture Entertainments (London: Anthem Press, 2012), 147–63; Teresa Castro, “Aerial Views and Cinematism, 1898–1939,” in Seeing from Above: The Aerial View in Visual Culture, ed. Mark Dorrian and Frédéric Pousin (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 118–33; and John Armitage, “Flying into the Unknown: Cinematic Cultures of War and the Aesthetics of Disappearance,” in From Above: War, Violence and Verticality, ed. Peter Adey, Mark Whitehead, and Alison J. Williams (London: Hurst, 2013), 163–84.

[10] Peter Adey, Mark Whitehead, and Alison J. Williams, “Introduction: Visual Culture and Verticality,” in From Above: War, Violence and Verticality, 1–18, 7. See also, for example, essays in Seeing from Above: The Aerial View in Visual Culture; From Above: War, Violence and Verticality; and Caren Kaplan, Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), which appeared after the completion of this article.

[11] A fuller treatment of the cinema-aviation nexus would take into account more mainstream aviation-themed films (many of them through interconnecting explorations of vision, espionage, and surveillance; gender and sexual transgressions; or exoticizing encounters with the racial and colonial Other). Key examples of each theme appear in Filibus (Mario Roncoroni, 1915); Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, 1929); and Baboona: An Aerial Epic Over Africa (Martin and Osa Johnson, 1935).

[12] Not coincidentally, the term “cinesthetics” was coined in reference to Léger in an essay that opens with a quote from his “Speaking of Cinema” essay. See James Johnson Sweeney, “Léger and Cinesthetic,” Creative Art (1932): 440–45. My invented term “cin-aereality” is an adaptation of the word “aereality” from William L. Fox, Aereality: On the World from Above (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009).

[13] Lisa Parks, “Drones, Vertical Mediation, and the Targeted Class,” Feminist Studies 42, no. 1 (2016): 227–35.

[14] A fuller treatment of the relationship between cinema and aviation would include evidence of their industrial, military, technological, and commercial exchanges, which can be fruitfully accessed by addressing the aviation background of numerous filmmakers. For instance, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, and Busby Berkeley all had formative aerial reconnaissance experiences in the First World War, while Cecil B. DeMille, Syd Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin’s brother), and Thomas Ince all owned airports in California, and most early aerial cinematographers, stunt fliers, and planes that appeared in 1920s films had a connection to the war.

[15] Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema, trans. and ed. Richard Crangle (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000), xvi.

[16] Mark Dorrian, “On Google Earth,” in Seeing from Above: The Aerial View in Visual Culture, 290–308, 303.

[17] On the preponderance of elevated views, including balloon-ride perspectives, within the moving panorama form, see Erkki Huhtamo, Illusion in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

[18] On this theme, see Huhtamo, Illusion in Motion, 307, 309; other attractions of dynamic motion included the stéréorama, the phonorama, the maréorama, and the panorama transsibérien.

[19] Emmanuelle Toulet, “Cinema at the Universal Exposition, Paris 1900,” Persistence of Vision 9 (1991): 10–36, 21–23. On the cinéorama, see also Huhtamo, Illusion in Motion, 317–18.

[20] For a study of the prewar publication of aviation-related photography in the popular press, see Thierry Gervais, “L’Exploit mis en page: La médiatisation de la conquête de l’air à la belle époque,” in L’Événement: Les images comme acteurs de l’histoire, ed. Michel Poivert and Régis Durand (Paris: Hazan, 2007), 60–83.

[21] Major Edward J. Steichen, “American Aerial Photography at the Front,” U.S. Air Service 1, no. 5 (1919): 33–39, 39, 34.

[22] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 20.

[23] I stress the word “manage” here because aerial photography was just as resistant to being turned into usable, legible information. Far from being the apotheosis of objective realism, aerial photographs were highly encoded, almost fantastical images, which required a retraining of the human eye for their comprehension in relation to referentiality. Further complicating any distinction between photography and film according to a stasis-movement continuum, it should also be noted that still aerial images were also used temporally to track the progress of enemy trench building over time. For recent revisionary studies of First World War aerial reconnaissance photography, see Saint-Amour, “Modernist Reconnaissance” and “Photomosaics: Mapping the Front, Mapping the City,” in From Above: War, Violence and Verticality, 119–44; Amad, “From God’s-eye to Camera-eye” (2012); Hanna Rose Shell, “Mending the Net: Camouflage, Serial Photography, and the Suture of Self-Effacement and Reconnaissance,” in Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2012), 77–126; and Jeanne Haffner, “From Enthusiasm to Expertise: Aerial Vision from Before the Airplane to the Aftermath of World War One,” in The View from Above: The Science of Social Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 7–18.

[24] Fernand Léger, “Contemporary Achievements in Painting” (1914), in Functions of Painting, ed. Edward F. Fry, trans. Alexandra Anderson (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), 11–19, 12.

[25] See Fernand Léger, “The Machine Aesthetic: The Manufactured Object, the Artisan, and the Artist” (1924), in Functions of Painting, 52–61.

[26] For Léger’s reference to propellers as an ur-example of modern, utilitarian beauty, appreciated instinctively by common people, see “The New Realism Goes On” (1937), in Functions of Painting, 114–18. He writes: “Hanging on the wall in the popular bals-musettes, you will find aeroplane propellers. They strike everyone as being objects of beauty, and they are very close to certain modern sculptures” (116).

[27] Fernand Léger, “Ballet Mécanique” (1924), in Functions of Painting, 48–51, 51.

[28] Félix Nadar (Félix Tournachon), When I Was A Photographer [Quand j’étais photographe] (1900), trans. Eduardo Cadava and Liana Theodoratou (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 58.

[29] Fernand Léger, “A Critical Essay on the Plastic Quality of Abel Gance’s Film The Wheel” (1922), in Functions of Painting, 20–23, 21, emphasis in original.

[30] Blaise Cendrars, “Profound Today” (1917), in Blaise Cendrars, 1–6, 3.

[31] Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller” (1936), in Selected Writings, 3:143–66, 144.

[32] Guillaume Apollinaire, “War” (1918), in Guillaume Apollinaire: Selected Poems, trans. Martin Sorrell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 156–57.

[33] See, for example, Général Duval, preface to André-H. Carlier, La photographie aérienne pendant la guerre (Paris: Librairie Delagrave, 1921), 5–6, 5.

[34] Cendrars’s lifelong exploration of a modern aerial consciousness reaches its climax in the fourth installment of his unique, so-called war memoirs, Le lotissement du ciel [Sky] (1949). Dedicated to his son who died as a pilot in the Second World War, the memoir interweaves a study of levitation amongst Catholic Saints with fragmented ficto-biographical passages from his past, all joined by a deeply personal mediation upon the conceptual and material imaginary of flight in both its archaic and modern versions. See Blaise Cendrars, Sky: Memoirs (1949), trans. Nina Rootes (New York: Marlowe, 1996).

[35] Blaise Cendrars, “The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame” (1916), in Blaise Cendrars, 33–56, 43.

[36] In its Paris-from-above cin-aerial dimensions, The End of the World prefigures René Clair’s own aerial-inflected films, the science fiction short Paris qui dort (1924) and the poetic documentary La Tour Eiffel (1928). The central characters of Paris qui dort are the night watchman of the Eiffel Tower and a planeload of people who, by chance, as a result of their elevation, escape the radar of a ray that puts Paris to sleep.

[37] Blaise Cendrars, “The Eubage; or, At the Antipodes of Unity” (1917–1918), in Blaise Cendrars, 57–88, 68.

[38] Blaise Cendrars, “The ABCs of Cinema” (1917/1921), in Blaise Cendrars, 23–29, 25.

[39] Dziga Vertov, “Kinoks: A Revolution” (1922), in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 11–21, 19. On the prerevolutionary Russian uptake of aviation in art, see Robert Wohl, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination 1908–1918 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 157–77; and Lodder, “Malevich, Suprematism and Aerial Photography”; and for the reference to “comrade-aviators,” see Silk, “‘Our Future Is in the Air,’” 258. On the importance of the aerial view in postrevolutionary Russian cinema, see Emma Widdis, Visions of a New Land: Soviet Film from the Revolution to the Second World War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 120–41.

[40] Dziga Vertov, “We: Variant of a Manifesto” (1922), in Kino-Eye, 5–9, 9.

[41] On Vertov’s earlier interest in aviation, see John MacKay, “Collage between Chaos and Archive: Vertov’s Kino-Pravdas” (unpublished manuscript, 2013), 1–37, 24–26; and Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, ed. Yuri Tsivian, trans. Julian Graffy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 211.

[42] Malcolm Turvey, “Vertov, the View from Nowhere, and the Expanding Circle,” October 148 (2014): 79–102.

[43] Jean Epstein, “Magnification” (1921), in French Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Richard Abel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 1:235–40, 1:235. See also James Johnson Sweeney, “Léger and the Cult of the Close-Up,” The Arts 17, no. 8 (1931): 561–68.

[44] Eve Francis, Temps héroïques. Théâtre. Cinéma (Paris: Denoël, 1949), 64, my translation.

[45] See Francis, Temps héroïques, 104–9.

[46] Louis Delluc, “Prayer to the Aviators,” quoted in Gilles Delluc, Louis Delluc, 1890–1924: L’éveilleur du cinéma français au temps des années folles (Périgueux: Pilote 24 Edition, 2002), 91n, my translation. It is also significant to note that the French word for mud (la boue), a term inextricably linked to the mud of the trenches, was the original censored title of Delluc’s film, La Fièvre (1921).

[47] See also Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie” (1923), in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1:314–318.

[48] For example, in Abram Rooms’s Bed and Sofa (1927), the climax to the seduction of the main female protagonist by her husband’s friend occurs in an airplane joyride over Moscow.

[49] Jean Epstein, “Fragments of Sky” (1928), in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1:421–22, 422.

[50] L. Berton Willson, “Constellar Movies,” Popular Astronomy 24 (1916): 140.

[51] One of the first displays of skywriting occurred as part of an aerial stunt show at the San Francisco Panama–Pacific Exposition of 1915 by Art Smith. The terrestrial inversion of skywriting was the “mass ornament”-type display of words or images made up of people and intended for an aerial spectator or camera. See Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” 77.

[52] For two relevant studies of the vernacular, urban, and commercial aspect of skyward screen culture within attempts to turn the sky into a sort of ultimate media display—including uses of the magic lantern by advertisers in the late 1880s to project giant ads onto the sides of buildings and even clouds—see, respectively, Huhtamo, “The Sky is (not) the Limit: Envisioning the Ultimate Public Media Display;” and Ellery E. Foutch, “Moving Pictures: Magic Lanterns, Portable Projection, and Urban Advertising in the Nineteenth Century,” Modernism/modernity 23, no. 4 (2016): 733–69, 746.

[53] Fernand Léger, “Que feriez-vous si vous aviez à organizer l’Exposition de 1937?,” interview by Jean Gallotti, Vu 387 (1935): 1102–3, 1102, my translation. See László Moholy-Nagy, “Production Reproduction” (1922), in Painting Photography Film (1925), trans. Janet Seligman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967), 30–31. Other large-scale, looking-up projects planned by Léger include his seven sketches (now held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York) made in 1938–39 for a cinematic mural intended to be projected onto a white marble screen above the lobby elevators of the Rockefeller Center.

[54] For a fascinating exploration of the nexus during this period between cinema and exhibition design as spaces “no longer bound to the laws of perspective or the window on the world delineated by the picture frame,” see Noam M. Elcott, “Rooms of our Time: László Moholy-Nagy and the stillbirth of multi-media museums,” in Screen/Space, ed. Tamara Trodd (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2011), 25–52, 29.

[55] See Herbert Bayer, “Aspects of Design of Exhibitions and Museums,” Curator 4, no. 3 (1961): 257–88. For three different contemporary uses of the ceiling as a screen that all partake of the current militarized and terrorized recent history of our skies, see Bashar Alhroub’s 2015 installation of the film Heavenly at the Imperial War Museum, London; Laura Poitras’s “Bed Down Location” room in the 2016 Astro Noise exhibition at the Whitney Museum, New York City; and the diverse video installations showing footage from the destruction of the Twin Towers in the 9/11 Memorial that require the viewer to look up at the projected image.

[56] László Moholy-Nagy, “Photography,” in Painting Photography Film, 27–29, 28–29.

[57] On the influence of his wartime experience, see Joyce Tsai, “László Moholy-Nagy: Reconfiguring the Eye,” in Nothing But the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I, ed. Gordon Hughes and Philipp Blom (Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Research Institute, 2014), 156–63.

[58] El Lissitzky, “Wheel – Propeller and what follows,” in El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts, ed. Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, trans. Helene Aldwinckle and Mary Whittall  (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 349; and F. T. Marinetti et al., “Le Manifeste de l’aéropeinture futuriste,” Maninfesti, proclami, interventi e documenti teorici del futurismo, 1909–1944, ed. Luciano Caruso (Florence: Coedizioni SPES-Salimbeni, 1980), 263–64, 263, my translation.

[59] The looking-up/looking-down dynamic also structures Moholy-Nagy’s film Berliner Stilleben (1931).

[60] Peter Fritzsche, A Nation of Flyers: German Aviation and the Popular Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 155; Le Corbusier, Aircraft (London: The Studio, 1935), 5, 11; Jean Vigo, “Toward a Social Cinema” (1930), in French Film Theory and Criticism, 2:60–63, 62.

[61] Indeed, the collapsing of the above and below, the near and the far, is a crucial theme in Kracauer’s earlier writings and his friend Walter Benjamin’s definition of the aura, defined as “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be” (Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography” [1935–36], in Selected Writings, 2:507–530, 518).

[62] Edgar Morin, “The Cinema, the Airplane” (1956), in The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, trans. Lorraine Mortimer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 5–11, 5.

[63] Fernand Léger, “The Spectacle: Light, Color, Moving Image, Object-Spectacle” (1924), in Functions of Painting, 35–47, 42.