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A Bird’s-eye view

Ever since ancient times, people and animals have been curious to reach higher situated sites in their landscape – from a block, to a hill or a mountain where they could get an overview and see the context! The 19th century hot air balloonists were accompanied by artists in the gondola in order to visualise what they saw. When the process to depict the landscape on a photographic plate developed the documentation from a bird's eye view became more accurate for the first time.

In the early 20th century, aerial photography primarily was in use for military reconnaissance and mapping, which evolved in pace with technical capabilities of aeroplanes. In 1923, the English archaeologist and pilot, Osbert G S Crawford gave a lecture at The Royal Geographical Society at Kensington Gore in London. This was the very first time as aerial photographs with an archaeological connection were on display, with pictures of Stonehenge, since then Crawford is seen as the father of aerial photography.

Nadar elevating photography to Art. Published in Le Boulevard, May 25, 1862. By Honoré Daumier. Photo: Brooklyn Museum. Nadar elevating photography to Art. Published in Le Boulevard, May 25, 1862. By Honoré Daumier. Photo: Brooklyn Museum.
An aerial photograph taken at relatively low altitude, between 100 to 500 metres, is the optimal way to get an overview and see the context of the landscape. Depending on which trained ”eye” that studies the photograph it may be detected and interpreted differently. For example, the archaeologist see burial grounds and settlements partly hidden by later cultivations, while the historian sees the forgotten roads and the connection between a church and where such a building is located in the landscape. The geographer determines the cultural and economic changes of an area, while the geological formations are studied by the geologist. The quaternary geologists and biologists are looking for flora and fauna habitats, the ecologist and environmental historian can study population distributions, pollutions and the human consuming of natural resources. The list of what an aerial photograph may be used to can be long – purely human creativity and technological resources limit the development!

Interpretation of aerial photographs is very much an multidisciplinary work as the examples above describe. It is mainly in North America and certain European countries, which all during a long time have been working to systematically build up archives and knowledge surrounding the use of aerial photographs in various sciences.

However, the revolutionary possibilities during the recent decade with cameras cheap enough to be used in the air by more than specialist organisations, could hardly have been foreseen 25 to 30 years ago. The same for all increased digitalisation; not only including drones, but also satellite images, digital maps etc and a multitude of other digitalisation projects – many free for everyone to use on Internet. All new technology and the interest to see from a bird's eye view digitally, have had many positive effects, but the availability of older references to aerial photographs have to some extent been lost. The art of being able to read such a picture via different methodology or having technical photographic expertise to treat the photograph in a correct way for exposure, filtration etc are rare skills today. A century of development and knowledge is partly to be lost in the ever more accelerating pace that new digital technology offers! That is to say, despite of all these new aids, old pictures still have great value for research and the understanding of natural- and cultural history.

The Aerial Picture Series at The IK Foundation

In the autumn of 1992, IK published the book Flygspaning efter Historia [Looking at History from the Air], which is based on the first long-term documentation of a geographical district and its landscape from a multitude of perspectives. Namely, via the major and archaeologist Esse Ericsson’s aerial pictures taken over three decades during the 20th century, with a special focus on the southernmost provinces in Sweden.

Esse Ericsson’s work was well known and he collaborated with leading Swedish archaeologists, like professor Holger Arbman and Dr Gad Rausing as well as out in the provinces on museums and folklore societies. Ericsson’s work was pioneering, where his multidisciplinary approach and technical know-how was a combination that also gave international attention, including the well-known Committee for Aerial Photography at Cambridge University in United Kingdom.

In 1988, Esse donated the complete collection of his aerial photographs, adjoining notes and a library to The IK Foundation, which thereby were saved with the aim to be made publicly available for future use. An intense provenance searching and catalogue work of thousands of pictures took place over several years, which became published in the above mentioned book in 1992.

In addition to the archive donated from Esse Ericsson, IK keeps a later amassed aerial photographic archive, which was created during the 1990s in cooperation between the naturalist Lars Hansen, the pilot Gudmund Ahlberg and professor in archaeology Johan Callmer, where the development of new photographic methods took place through the support of Erna & Victor Hasselblad Foundation. This means that IK keeps two unique extensive collections of aerial pictures, the oldest of which dates back to the 1930s, and the most recent to the early 21st century. IK is also the owner of smaller picture collections from other regions of the world that is constantly developing during various ongoing fieldworks.

A LOCAL AS WELL AS GLOBAL REFERENCE WORK – a multidisciplinary and free resource

In 1838, the marshall of the court R H Stiernsvärd wrote: ”To Sweden is attached a small piece of land named Skåne, in order to show Sweden, what the rest of Europe looks like”. The observation is – in all its simplicity – correct and interesting as this southern Scandinavian province contains diverse types of environmental ecosystems, which we find around many other parts of the northern hemisphere – or a so-called reference landscape type.
This detailed map of the southernmost Swedish province Skåne – a geographical area with a rich natural and cultural history variation – had been improved by the surveyor Johan Lorens Gillberg in 1766 and copied by And. Christ. Hahr in 1812. (Courtesy of: Uppsala University Library, Sweden. Alvin-record:98362. Public Domain).

This diversity of environments make the aerial picture archive at IK of an international interest, primarily as a reference archive to interpret aerial photographs in a wide range of landscapes. Useful for sciences, as well as for private and local interests, the archive is a unique nature-, culture- and environmental historical source to seek knowledge from today, revealing information about vanished and changed landscapes alike.

THE ENTERPRISE - Bird's Eye View

The enterprise iBIRDSEYE is a collaboration between The IK Foundation and Thora Ohlsson Foundation (active both in Sweden and England). It is planned, that the initial phase of the project will be finished in 2020/2021 containing not only a comprehensive aerial photographic archive, but also a variety of resources aiming to inspire and develop the topic.

The physical archival material – which in addition to pictures also consists of writings, maps, notes, research papers, etc. – was donated during March 2021 by The IK Foundation to The Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet). IK has chosen this cooperation due to that The Swedish National Archives is one of the country's oldest public authorities. With roots in the Middle Ages, the first archive was established in 1618. In 1878 the National Archives became an independent public authority. In the 20th century, seven Regional State Archives were established to collect and preserve the records of regional and local authorities. In addition to their role as main archives for the authorities, they also care for public archives and the archives of selected private individuals and non-public organisations, including businesses. The National Archives collect and secure records to preserve them for future generations, as part of the common national heritage.


The donation is the beginning of a new era for the material and the subject! The physical archive is given long-term care, whilst the digital material with thousands of pictures is already freely available on this site iBirdsEye, which will inspire new knowledge, new technology and opportunities – a donation for inspiration to understand various landscapes' Natural & Cultural History.
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