Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

Dragon Lady, Oxcart, and Supersonic Photography

Dec 10, 2020 - Evan Hume

The story of photography’s technical and operational evolution is inseparable from the Cold War. In the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower and top US military and intelligence officials believed that innovations in aerial photography for reconnaissance were necessary to assess Soviet weapons capabilities. Photography had been used for surveillance and the collection and cataloging of information for political purposes throughout its history, but the nuclear threat of the postwar period required undetectable covert operations. This would be markedly different from the aerial photography of the first two World Wars, in which cameras were used on aircraft mainly for mapping and assessing bombing damage. “Peacetime” aerial photography’s objective became capturing images of Warsaw Pact military installations, about which very little was known, while avoiding Soviet radar systems. The result of this photographic desire would be a dramatic technological leap forward in high-altitude and high-speed aircraft created from partnerships between government agencies, corporations, and academia. Although the U-2 spy plane, nicknamed Dragon Lady, became well known in 1960 after the highly publicized incident of pilot Gary Powers being shot down over the USSR and detained, there was no definitive, accurate account of the U-2 project and its successors until a monograph was assembled by Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach at the Center for Study of Intelligence in 1992. The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance was initially only made available to those with secret clearance and a partially redacted declassified version was released just a few years ago.

The US had already been conducting aerial reconnaissance over the USSR using Boeing RB-47 aircraft equipped with cameras and radar tracking devices since the late 1940s (3). Moscow made it known such reconnaissance flights had been tracked, but it did not initially react militarily. In 1950, the USSR enacted a more aggressive air defense policy and attacked all aircraft coming near its borders. If the US wanted to continue attempting to gather intelligence about Soviet aircraft and weapons capabilities, it would have to completely rethink its approach.

An early proponent of high-altitude photoreconnaissance was Richard Leghorn, a Kodak employee and former head of an army reconnaissance group in Europe during World War II (4). The war in Korea brought him to the Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the Reconnaissance Systems Branch at Wright Air Development Command in 1951. Knowing that Soviet interceptor aircraft could barely reach an altitude of 45,000 feet, Leghorn believed the key to effective photoreconnaissance missions was an aircraft that could fly above 60,000 feet. Leghorn was transferred to the Pentagon in 1952, where he met other like-minded engineers interested in high-altitude reconnaissance photography and advocated for the development of a new aircraft specifically designed for covert operations. Branches of the US Air Force began exploring design possibilities for aircraft that could reach over 70,000 feet with the Lockheed Corporation joining the competition in 1953. Lockheed engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson submitted a glider-inspired design called the CL-282 to the government in 1954, which was estimated to have a maximum altitude of just above 70,000 feet (11). Because of the lightweight structure required for the aircraft to be effective, it had no wheels or guns – its primary function was to operate as a high-flying camera. High-ranking Air Force officials were unhappy with the aircraft’s lack of weapon systems and lost interest in the project (12).

The CL-282 project found strong support from Edwin Land, inventor of the polarizing filter, instant film, and founder of Polaroid (29). With his connection to the Eisenhower administration from having served on government scientific advisory boards, Land was able to secure official permission to move forward. He brought in Harvard scientist James Baker to develop the airplane’s camera system and Kodak to work on lightweight film. President Eisenhower and his advisors agreed that the CIA should take charge of the project, despite the resistance of then-director Allen Dulles, who preferred more traditional methods of espionage (32). Eisenhower gave the CIA no choice, considering this to be a strictly intelligence gathering operation and not a military one. He believed a mission operated by a civilian agency carried less risk of causing political damage if a reconnaissance aircraft was detected or crashed within the borders of the USSR.

Renamed U-2 under Project Aquatone, the spy plane’s high altitude required a complex camera system. Scientists were at first skeptical that useful photographs could be captured from even 40,000 feet (49). An effective model had to be at least four times as powerful as existing aerial cameras in the early 1950s. James Baker designed lenses using algorithms on an IBM Card-Programmed Calculator that modeled the effects of various lens attributes on handling of light. This is an origin point of cybernetic photography. From this process, Baker developed two camera types for the early U-2 models. The A-2 system consisted of three 9.5-inch frame cameras each with a 24-inch f/8 lens and capable of capturing a resolution 240 percent greater than any existing camera system. The B type had one 18 by 18-inch frame camera with a 36-inch f/10 lens, achieving even higher resolution. The CIA’s once-skeptical Allen Dulles was impressed by images from a 1956 flight over Soviet bases, which he would later call “million-dollar” photography (111).

Knowing that Soviet radar systems would inevitably improve, the CIA’s Scientific Engineering Institute (SEI) explored ways of reducing targeting and tracking of the U-2. SEI determined that this could be achieved by flying at supersonic speeds and efforts turned to developing a reconnaissance aircraft that was both high-altitude and high-speed (260). Edwin Land would again play a leading role in development. The CIA’s chosen design of the Lockheed A-12 became Project Oxcart. This new reconnaissance plane would fly at a speed of Mach 3.2 (2,455 mph or 3,951 kmh), five times faster than the U-2, and reach an altitude of 90,000 feet. Oxcart enlisted Hycon, Kodak, and Perkins-Elmer to each create camera systems “that would provide a range of photography from high-ground-resolution stereo to extremely-high-resolution spotting data” (281).

Project Oxcart’s A-12 and SR-71 variant were the most advanced aircraft that had ever been built and were ready for operational use by 1965. However, new computer-operated radar systems in the USSR made Oxcart’s supersonic speed no longer a guaranteed defense against detection. Instead of conducting flights over Soviet bases, Oxcart aircraft were used for photoreconnaissance over Vietnam under Operation Black Shield (304). Project Oxcart was ended by mid-1968 due to concerns over funding and sustainability (311). These supersonic cameras laid the groundwork photography’s cybernetic trajectory, leading to the satellite and drone imaging that now dominate photoreconnaissance. The development of these technologies is inextricably linked to political conflict.

As I was researching the U-2 and Oxcart programs as well as other operations for my series Viewing Distance, I came across many photographs of supersonic aircraft. Given the fast shutter speeds used to capture jets in transonic flight, they appear floating, perfectly still. Inspired by the link between supersonic aircraft and photography, I began to experiment with manipulating the photographs using audio software. This process resulted in pictures that convey a heightened sense of kinetic energy and the passage of time. With the US, China, and Russia now in a hypersonic arms race, photographs of once-secret technology ask us to imagine the covert advancements of the present and future.

Works Cited

Pedlow, Gregory and Donald Welzenbach. 1992. The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs 1954-1974 . Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency.