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The Most Famous Kite Aerial Photographs of the Past 100 Years

The devastating earthquake of April 18, 1906 resulted in major loss of life and incredible structural and economic damage in the city of San Francisco, CA.


The earthquake was of a 7.9 magnitude on the Richter Scale.  It lasted for over forty-five seconds and was followed by a series of strong after shocks.  San Francisco was devastated.  Over 3000 people lost their lives as a result of the earthquake.  Fires broke out and fanned through the city consuming much of what was left standing.


Tens of thousands were left homeless.  The United States Army established a tent city to house the destitute.  The economy of the city and region was crushed.   San Francisco immediately became the centre of attention of the world press.


It is said that this was one of the first national disasters to receive wide photographic coverage.  Newspapers around the world printed some of the many photographs taken of the ruins and effects, all shot at ground level or from a few floors up in the few buildings left sound and standing.


The devastation drew the attention of all who saw the photos in newspapers around the globe. 


However, a series of photographs taken seventeen days after the quake became famous for their pictorial effect in showing the wide spread and near complete ruin caused by the quake and the ensuring fires.


George Lawrence, a noted Chicago photographer who had pioneered aerial photography from captive hydrogen balloons in 1895, determined that he should travel to the west coast to record the catastrophe from the unique perspective of two thousand feet above the city.


conyne-train-1.gifLawrence was always seeking ways to improve the raising of his large aerial cameras and he became acquainted with Chicago inventor Silas Conyne, who had developed and patented the Conyne Kite to lift advertising banners in 1902. By 1904 Lawrence had developed a method of training a group of Conyne kites to lift his large, heavy cameras and to steady them in position to take aerial photographs.


It was this "Kite Aerial Photography" system that Lawrence employed on May 5, 1906 to shoot his dramatic photos of the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake's primary damage zone.


Below is one of the several photographs that George Lawrence made to record the destruction of the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 2006.




Arguably, these photos are the most famous kite aerial photographs produced in the past 100 years.  Although there have been many advances in KAP (Kite Aerial Photography) no photos taken from the lofty platform provided by a kite have been more dramatic or of greater historical importance.


Lawrence's work is well documented. Originals of his photographic works are found in a number of  museums, most notably the collections of the Chicago Historical Society, the Library of Congress and the National Archives of the United States of America.


Present Day Kite Aerial Photography of San Francisco and San Andreas Earthquake Zones:


Sometime during the next few weeks, Scott Haefner will attempt to reshoot the San Farncisco quake area using modern KAP techniques and equipment.  Scott's project is being supported by The Drachen FoundationYou can follow this event on Scott Haefner's weblog.


The United States Geological Service has also used KAP as a tool to present aerial images of the San Andreas fault at the Carrizo Plain.  Again, Scott Haefner, a noted KAPer, is involved in this intriguing project.




Baker, Dr. Simon.  "George Lawrence: A Giant in Kite Aerial Photography." Kitelines, Fol. 11, No. 1, Fall 1994.  Pp. 52-55.  [Images in this Best-Breezes Blog entry are reproduced by permission of Valerie Govig, Publisher, Kitelines.]


NewHall, Beaumont.  Airborne Camera: The World from the Air and Outer Space. New York, N.Y.  Hastings House Publishers in collaboration with the George Eastman House, Rochester N,Y. 1969   ISBN: 8038-0335-4   Pp. 43-46.



  1. The first kite aerial photographs known were taken by Arthur Batut of France in 1889.
  2. William Abner Eddy of Bayonne, N.J. was the first in North America to take photographs from kites.  Using trains of six to nine kites Eddy took photos of New York city and environs from heights of 1000 feet in 1895.  This was at least four years before Lawrence began using any type of kite for aerial photography.
Posted on Tuesday, April 18, 2006 at 07:54PM by Registered CommenterHifliercanada in , | CommentsPost a Comment

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