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Julius Neubronner – the apothecary who didn’t invent drones.

September 14, 2018

As promised last week, a review by the wonderful Martyn Barber:

Review of The Pigeon Photographer, by Julius Neubronner & his pigeons, published 2017 by Rorhof (http://www.rorhof.com/books/the-pigeon-photographer).

The issue of animals taking photographs recently gained widespread attention via the story of the Indonesian crested macaque, Naruto, who grabbed the camera of British photographer David Slater and either accidentally photographed his own grinning face, or took the opportunity to offer satirical comment on our current selfie-obsessed generation. You decide.

Naruto and chums had apparently been taught to press the shutter on the camera when gawping and gurning into the lens. Meanwhile, Slater watched a live feed on his computer screen back home in the UK. “It wasn’t serendipitous monkey behaviour”, Slater was quoted as saying. “It required a lot of knowledge on my behalf, a lot of perseverance, sweat and anguish, and all that stuff.”

The first person to apply all that stuff to non-human photographers seems to have been Julius Neubronner (1851-1932), the son of a German apothecary who had for a while tried using carrier pigeons for despatching prescriptions and medicines. Apparently interested in tracking the movements of some pigeons who were a little slow to return home, Julius strapped a miniature camera to his bird’s chest and set it to take snapshots at pre-set intervals. In 1907, he submitted a (successful) patent application for the idea. His feathered photographers attracted attention in the press in the years prior to the First World War, and were particularly popular at fairs and expositions, where he would set them loose, the photographs taken during their flights being sold as postcards. There was also some very brief military interest, but more of that in a while.

N1

Julius Neubronner, almost certainly posing for a photo taken by a human, c1914 (taken from Neubronner’s Wikipedia page)

Neubronner and his pigeons have always been something of a brief and amusing cul-de-sac in the history of aerial photography, particularly as his invention occurred at precisely the same time that more obvious airborne camera platforms were becoming available, and also because, well, people had already been experimenting with much more sensible ways of getting aerial photographs for sixty years. Perhaps because of that, there hasn’t been too much research into Neubronner’s peristeronic picture-takers (yes, I did find that via Google). Disappointingly, this new publication doesn’t really change matters on that front, but it does offer excellent quality reproductions of a reasonable number of those photographs.

For your 35 Euros* (plus p&p) you get not one but three items: a hardback book entitled ‘The Pigeon Photographers’, and credited to ‘Julius Neubronner & his pigeon photographers’; a small newspaper-like thing containing cuttings and extracts from newspapers and magazines; and a 32-page essay entitled ‘Dronifying Birds, Birdifying Drones’.

N2

“OK – run those targets by me one more time” (from Slate’s photo blog thing)

The book contains 84 photographs. Disappointingly, that’s pretty much all it contains. There’s no discussion of the photos, no captions., no information about where or when any of them were taken or what we can see on them. Acknowledgement is given to the two archives that hold most of these photos, but this is in teeny-tiny grey (I’m guessing the publishers would claim it is silver) print on a black background**. There’s no detail about these archives. We’re not told what proportion of the total surviving images these 84 represent, or the selection process (although – I’m guessing again – the key factors were probably aesthetic). There is clearly more than one film format used – and presumably more than one type of camera – but again, no information is provided. The only text is a 130-word introduction (again, grey/silver on black, but a slightly larger font, so actually readable) that doesn’t tell you much more than what I’ve already told you. It does, however, offer the wildly erroneous claim that “his invention contributed to the development of aerial photography and can be considered the predecessor of today’s drones”.

The 48-page newspapery-thing reproduces numerous snippets about Neubronner and his pigeons. Most, if not all, of the cuttings belong to the period c1907 to, perhaps, the 1930s (I’m guessing yet again), and almost all are in English, so (still guessing) these are presumably not from German newspapers. None of the extracts are accompanied by information on where or when they were originally published.

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Presumably this is Captain Birdseye-view? Lifted from here.

The 32-page pamphlet (fortunately they’ve opted for black type on a white background for this) contains the aforementioned illustrated essay ‘Dronifying Birds, Birdifying Drones’***, written by the artist Joan Fontcuberta. It offers Fontcuberta’s thoughts on a range of more-or-less connected matters, from the impact of the aerial (photographic) view on 20th century art and culture, to folklore, Game of Thrones, warfare, surveillance, automation, AI and, of course, drones. Weaving through and allegedly connecting these themes is Neubronner and his birds: “the fact that they were unmanned flying entities makes them the historical referent for today’s drones”, insists Fontcuberta. “With his invention of the protodrone Neubronner outlined the notion of automated photography”.

Except he didn’t, of course. “Unmanned flying entities” were hardly unheard of before 1907 (and, it should be pointed out, women didn’t fly in them either). The earliest attempts to dangle a camera from a kite occurred in the 1840s. Small, unpiloted balloons fitted with automated cameras were being played with by the late 1870s, with Henry Elsdale and Walter Woodbury among the key pioneers. The 1880s and 1890s saw an explosion in efforts to obtain aerial photographs without the need for an actual person to take to the skies, as well as in developments of both automated and miniature cameras. Neubronner’s sole innovation was to strap a small camera onto a homing pigeon.

The essay, and many of the newspaper cuttings, also play up the idea that the pigeons possessed some military value – that the German army in the years before and during World War One were seriously interested in the reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering potential of Neubronner’s birds. They were, but this interest was very very short-lived – not only were aeroplanes and tethered balloons (and, in particular, the people in them) rather more reliable photographers, but there were obvious shortcomings with using pigeons. For a start, in order to get them to fly over enemy lines on their way back home, you would first have to take them beyond those enemy lines. Also, as the images in the book make clear, their photography was pretty random. You can tell a pigeon over and over again what you actually want a photo of, but they just won’t listen. Believe it or not, they had no real understanding of what they were doing.

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Feathers, forest, and more. Somewhere in Germany, sometime.

Anyway – I’d happily recommend the book of photographs. They are a fantastic and bizarre set of images, capturing rural landscapes, townscapes, country houses, parks, pigeon lofts and much more, from a variety of angles and altitudes, their aesthetic appeal – enhanced occasionally by lens distortion, variable focus, and visible wing-tips – outweighing the complete absence of meaningful information. But, writing as someone who has made use of even older aerial photographs, I suspect some at least will possess some value to the archaeologist or historian.

You can see a preview of the contents at the publisher’s website here. See also this article in The New Yorker for a brief summary of the book and some high-res versions of a few of the pigeon photos.

*When I bought my copy, 35 Euros was pretty good value to someone living in the British Isles. Less so now. I have a few unused Euros left if anyone wants to make me an offer.

**Anyone who still tries to read the booklets that come with CDs will be at an advantage here.

***The essay is reproduced in an English translation.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kitty Hauser permalink
    September 14, 2018 1:53 pm

    Joan Fontcuberta is known for his documentary (photographic) fictions https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/what-was-on/joan-fontcuberta-stranger-fiction

    • Martyn Barber permalink
      September 14, 2018 7:24 pm

      Indeed – made me suspicious about the whole exercise initially. However, he seems mainly concerned with using Neubronner as a somewhat tenuous starting point for an essay about “the apparently inexorable dronification of human perception, a process now well on the way to turning the camera into a mechanism of power and control, an intrinsically hostile operation.” Reminded me a little of Crawford looking to the eolith for the origin of the idea of the aeroplane.

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