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Library of Congress Geography & Maps: An Illustrated Guide

Aerial Photographs and Images

Landsat revealed whole new worlds hidden within the folds of a familiar world we thought we knew so well.

Mapping the Next Millennium, 1992

Photomosaic of 100 aerial photos taken at 10,000 feet altitude of Manhattan island
Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation. Aerial survey, Manhattan Island, New York City. [1921]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The urge to view the earth from above has deep historic roots. With the advent of human flight and the invention of photography, aerial images of the Earth's surface became an important tool in scientific, technical, and cartographic disciplines.

Aerial photographs, or printed versions known as photomaps, are found in many portions of the collections such as the Edgar Tobin Aerial Surveys Collection and the Nirenstein National Reality Company Collection. Many World War II era maps filed in the general collections are in the form of photomaps because they could be produced rapidly by tactical mapping units in the field to support military actions on the ground and for the identification of bombing targets. The development of color photography and other specialized films expanded the range of applications to which aerial photography could be applied. In particular, the use of infrared film had a profound impact on the mapping of forests and crops. Aerial photography was also used in virtually all of America's space programs to capture photographs of the Earth during Apollo, Gemini, Skylab, and Space Shuttle missions.

Just as the coincidental development of human flight and photography provided an impetus for change, the concurrent development of earth-orbiting satellites and computers marks another great milestone in cartographic history. Satellites provided a relatively inexpensive platform from which cameras could survey the earth on a regular basis. Computers and related technologies provided the foundation for a digital form of observation that eliminated the need for photographic film. This revolutionary discipline was developed by the United States with the launching of the first Earth Resource Technology Satellite (later renamed Landsat) by NASA in 1972. The division holds some of these photographs on specialized film reels, for which the only reader available is located in another division.

Eight- by ten-inch images generated from Landsat satellites 1, 2, and 3, launched between 1972 and 1978, can be found in the Alden P. Colvocoresses collection. Additionally, the Library contains some of the materials of Don E. Wilhelms, the geologist who worked on the lunar team, including maps of the lunar surface.

Landsat image mosaic of Antarctica with text and14 ancillary large-scale illustrative images
British Antarctic Survey Mapping and Geographic Information Centre. Landsat image mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA) c2007. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Although remote-sensing images are not part of the division’s collection focus, the division also received a set of satellite image maps of Nepal prepared by the Nepal National Remote Sensing Center from the World Bank in 1986.

Other aerial photos and remote sensing images can be found in the division’s special collections; however, remote sensing imagery is not a collection area of the Geography and Map Division. Due to preservation and conservation concerns, these collections may have limited availability for research by the public. Additionally, the formats of these materials can only be read by certain devices which may not be available in the Geography and Map Research Room.