Surveillance Photography Is Way Older Than You Think

Since the invention of the camera, we’ve been watched.


When did the surveillance state emerge? Maybe it was CCTV. Or the drones. The photos where you looked bad at a party and never wanted to be tagged on Facebook.


“I think a lot of people would say, ‘late 20th century,'” says Jane Aspinwall, associate curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “But really, we’ve been spying on each other since the 19th century, since almost the invention of photography itself.”

That’s why Aspinwall curated the museum’s latest exhibition. Simply titled Surveillance, it’s a historical exploration of over 100 years of snoopy spying told in 38 photographs.

Aerial Surveillance During The Civil War

Brady Studio, American (active ca. 1843–1885). Professor Lowe inflating balloon Intrepid, 1862. [Photo: Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.]

The oldest piece in the collection is from 1864, and it captures Professor T. S. C. Lowe inflating a balloon during the Civil War to float up to 1,000 feet over the battlefield, snapping shots of the Confederate forces.


Lowe’s device would then telegraph these troop positions down to the ground via a long wire, where Union generals could use them in their strategic planning. A bit crude, maybe. But it’s also the first known instance of aerial surveillance, some 150 years before drones became ubiquitous.

“It wasn’t very hidden. It was at risk of being shot down and was from time to time!” laughs Aspinwall. “But it’s a pretty neat thing.”



A Wearable Camera From 1886

An equally compelling image was taken just 22 years later. What looks like the chamber of a six-shooter is actually from a hidden vest camera known as the Stirn Concealed Vest Camera.

Unknown maker, American. Rochester, New York, 1886. [Photo: Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.]

Tens of thousands sold in just a few years, so the market was more mainstream than it was true covert ops. Its body looks like a flask, with a lens that poked out of a button hole in convincing camouflage. The circular aesthetic is actually born from the exposure plate, which spun around the camera with each shot (yes, just like a gun). But “they weren’t just vest cameras,” Aspinwall says. “They could be in pocket watches, books, and walking sticks.” Creepy.

Photographs From Inside Occupied Paris

Roger Schall, French (1904–1985). Taking the subway, ca. 1941. [Photo: Gift of Jeffrey and Polly Kramer]

Is surveillance always bad? Of course not. And to make this point, Aspinwall included a photo called Taking the subway, by Roger Schall in 1941. As a photographer, Schall lived two lives. Publicly, he was known for his fashion and portrait work. But stationed in Paris during the Nazi occupation in World War II, he’d walk the city, camera in hand, as something of an undercover photojournalist. Because of his unsanctioned work, we have “a sense of what was really going on in Paris,” says Aspinwall.


Censorship From Space

Mishka Henner, Belgian (b. 1976). Staphorst Ammunition Depot, 2011. [Photo: Gift of the Hall Family Foundation]

Today, our relationship with surveillance photography has become at times bemused, and at others, fearful. Perhaps Mishka Henne highlights this duality best in his print Staphorst Ammunition Depot, Overijssel. It’s a satellite photo censored by the Dutch government, but rather than a blur or a blackout, the image relies on an ornate geometric pattern that “only draws attention to the very sites that are meant to be hidden,” Henne has written. Paranoia becomes self-parody.

Cameras, however, are only getting more invasive. Drones can easily fly over our property, photographing as voyeuristically as they like. And as body cams become increasingly mandatory on police officers–which seemingly adds more needed accountability–the new possibility to misinterpret what appear to be a clear, close, and objective views of an event are very real.

But we can’t say our forefathers were any smarter about it. Since cameras have existed, we’ve used them to spy on one another. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” says Aspinwall. Not even nosiness.


Surveillance is on display now until Jan. 29, 2016. Admission is free.

[All Photos: courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach