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Unveiling the world? Aerial photographs and the social sciences in interwar France

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Aerial photography is almost as old as photography itself. However, unlike photography, it was only scarcely used as a scientific tool before 1914. In the limited field of social sciences and humanities, it was not used at all except in archaeology or cartography. A decade later, the picture has changed: not only have scholars of most disciplines started to experiment with it, but the uses of aerial photographs have changed and raise new issues. What was until then used mainly for illustrating purposes (or sometimes to accelerate the process of sketching), is now believed to be a means to unveil essential but hidden features of the observed world.

To examine this ‘rhetoric of unveiling’, my paper will focus on the uses of aerial photography by French social scientists of the interwar period. There are valuable reasons for this. After World War I, in France more than in any other European country, social scientists were extremely interested by this new tool: while elsewhere the uses of air photography were limited to one or two disciplines, generally archaeology and geography, in France most disciplines tried at one point or another to make use of this tool. The curiosity it raised was broad, and spread relatively fast. This all makes of French social scientists uses of air photograph a compact but diversified object.

Rooted in what Ginzburg has coined ‘evidential paradigm’, the rapid success of mechanically produced images from above also tells us a lot about the way we consider scientists and scientific activities. Indeed, in many writings about aerial photography produced in the 1920s and 1930s, these photographs are believed to unveil the world, and this seems to be possible, partly because the scientist’s subjectivity has vanished. It is therefore fruitful to examine this rhetoric of unveiling through the lens of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s concepts of epistemic virtues and scholar’s selves. First, it will be highly profitable to follow how proponents of aerial photographs defend their new tool, through the categories of truth-to-nature, mechanical objectivity, and the trained-eye, in order to understand how they understand legitimate scientific practices and legitimate scientists; second, it will be of some interest to apply Daston’s and Galison’s framework to the social sciences, which are left behind in their 2007 objectivity in order to test its validity outside of the natural sciences.

To achieve this, I will confront their hypotheses to the ways aerial photographs are mobilized in the French social sciences and will show that the narrative of aerial photographs unveiling the truth thanks to a vanishing scientist is opposed to the practice of a vivid and legitimate subjectivity. Hence my paper will be divided in three parts. First, I briefly expose the quick, wide, and short success of aerial photography in the French social sciences. Second, founding on these examples, I present three variations of these entangled rhetorics of unveiling and objectivity: the palimpsest, the structure, and the reality. Finally, I focus on the writing practices of social scientists and will concentrate on the articulation of pictures and captions to demonstrate how the supposedly expelled subjectivity of the scholar finds its way back in their work.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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