Crafting an image | The photographic techniques of Alfred G. Buckham

Alfred G. Buckham created some spectacular photographs of the earth from the air. Here Louise Pearson, curator of the exhibition Planes, Trains and Automobiles | Transportation Photographs from the National Galleries of Scotland, looks at how these images were created through a unique combination of daring escapades in the air and clever photographic manipulation on the ground.

Alfred G. Buckham was a passionate enthusiast of both photography and flight. By 1914 he was already an established photographer and a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. During the First World War he was involved in the relatively new discipline of aerial reconnaissance, both as a teacher and a practitioner. It was a dangerous occupation and his military career ended as a result of the injuries sustained to his throat during his ninth crash. Despite this, his wartime activities had sparked a love of flying and on leaving the Royal Naval Air Service it seemed natural that he would continue to take photographs from the sky. Buckham subsequently created an astonishing series of photographs, ranging in subject from the Forth Bridge to the skyscrapers of New York and the volcanoes of South America.

Alfred G. Buckham The Forth Bridge About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham
Alfred G. Buckham Aerial View of Edinburgh About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham

The National Galleries of Scotland holds a group of Buckham’s photographs including Aerial View of Edinburgh, which has become one of the most popular works of art in the collection. When we decided to have a photography exhibition on the theme of transport it was clear that Buckham’s aerial photographs would take centre stage. I selected several of Buckham’s photographs for inclusion, including Aerial View of Edinburgh and The Forth Bridge, and started to look at the photographs in more detail with conservator James Berry. We also started planning a blog to explain how Buckham was able to create such dramatic images.

From previous research, and the work James was doing on conserving the photographs ahead of the exhibition, we knew that Buckham was using a technique called combination printing. This is when a photographer uses a number of different negatives to create a single photographic print. In order to fully understand his working methods, we needed to see the negatives he was using. Fortunately, Alfred G. Buckham’s entire archive of around 1400 negatives, nearly 300 prints, camera and associated archive material has remained with his family and is currently in the care of his grandsons Richard and John Buckham. Richard kindly allowed me to spend a day at his home in London, looking through this fascinating collection. Being able to compare the negatives to the prints in our collection, and read Buckham’s accounts of his photographic work, helped us to piece together how he would have made the atmospheric photograph Aerial View of Edinburgh.

Alfred G. Buckham Morning Over the Moorfoots About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham

The first stage in taking an aerial photograph is to select the right plane. Buckham took photographs around the world and would have used a number of different planes flown by various pilots to take his photographs. However he recorded that he always preferred to use older planes with open cockpits that travelled at the fairly sedate speed of 60 to 80 miles per hour. Through trial and error he discovered that flying between 1,000 and 2,000 ft gave the best results, as at that height the landscape could be captured with just the right level of detail.

It was also important for aerial photographers to develop a foolproof way of taking clear photographs whilst flying at altitude. Buckham perfected his technique during his time with the Royal Naval Air Service and his vivid accounts make entertaining reading:

He added that ‘If you stand erect you will not have to resist the fatal tendency to rest your arms on the side of the aeroplane whilst making the exposure, for if you do so your photograph will surely be spoiled by the vibration of the engine’.

Alfred G. Buckham’s Camera © Richard and John Buckham

The other essential piece of equipment was the camera. Happily, as Buckham’s camera survives, we know exactly what he was using to make his exposures. In an article written for the benefit of prospective aerial photographers, he advised using the kind of cameras used by newspaper reporters, which operated at eye-level, rather than the cumbersome cameras which had originally been developed for aerial photography. ‘The camera best suited to the purpose and the one I usually employ has a F4.5 lens and a large direct vision view-finder the same size as the plate, fitted on the top of the lens panel’. He cautioned however that the leather bellows needed to be reinforced with cardboard or aluminium, as the otherwise delicate bellows could not withstand the force of the winds encountered at altitude.

The kind of camera favoured by Buckham used glass plate negatives, which was a conscious decision by Buckham at a time when photographic film was becoming readily available. He favoured double-coated panchromatic plates made in the USA, with dimensions of 10.0cm x 12.5cm. Throughout his career he reiterated that despite their bulk and delicacy, plates gave a far superior result to film.

Alfred G. Buckham Negative of Edinburgh About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham

When it came to crafting Aerial View of Edinburgh, the first stage would have been to select one of the many negatives he made in the skies above Edinburgh. As you can see, the negative he used as the basis of this photograph focuses on the landscape of the city with very little sky visible. This is because negatives of landscapes, especially when taken at height, require a different level of exposure to those made of the sky. Because of this Buckham would begin by printing a negative of just the cityscape in his darkroom, using an enlarger to increase the size of the final image.

Alfred G. Buckham Cloud Negative About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham
Alfred G. Buckham Cloud Negative About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham

The next part of the process was to add in the sky, by exposing in quick succession a second negative depicting perfectly exposed clouds. Buckham himself described the process and the skill involved in selecting the right negative:

‘Unfortunately, Nature does not always surmount her landscapes with clouds such as will compose well, as a whole, in the picture space, consequently I have provided a store of over 2,000 cloud negatives for such contingencies and from this suitable clouds for combination purposes are selected. And here is just where the hasty or unobservant worker may go badly astray, producing incredible or even appalling results. For the lighting of the landscape must be in correct relation to the light coming down from the sky, and heavy cloud masses insist that they shall have corresponding shapes upon the earth. Selection for the right negative for the purpose may entail the inspection of fifty or more, and on the print some handwork with a chemical reducer and stumping chalk, or other medium, is usually required to bring the whole into harmony. So before venturing upon combination work it is surely wise to serve some years of apprenticeship sketching and painting in the open air, which happens to have been my own way of approach to photography’.

It is this careful skill that makes it so hard to distinguish between the details drawn from one negative and those derived from another.

Alfred G. Buckham Aerial View of Edinburgh About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham
Alfred G. Buckham Auld Reekie About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham

This technique meant that several versions of the same scene could exist, with the landscape matched to a different cloud formation. This is evident when you compare the photograph Aerial View of Edinburgh from the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection with another version still in the collection of Richard and John Buckham which has the title Auld Reekie. The striking aerial view of Edinburgh is recognisably the same, but the clouds above are noticeably different.

Alfred G. Buckham Aeroplane Negative About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham

There is another significant difference between the two photographic prints. In the version held by the National Galleries of Scotland, there is a lone aeroplane flying dramatically above the city. In Richard and John’s version the plane is absent. This is because the aeroplane, like the cloud formations, came from an entirely different negative to the cityscape which formed the basis of the photographic print. Buckham built up a library of negatives depicting only aeroplanes, where the original background was masked out. This meant that when the negative was exposed on top of an existing print the plane would appear to be part of the chosen landscape. Buckham would have also been able use an enlarger to match the scale of the plane to the landscape, making the scene appear realistic. While in most cases this technique produces a believable, if slightly incredible, final image there are examples where the planes appear too close together, or at impossible angles.

Alfred G. Buckham Aerial View of Edinburgh About 1920, © Richard and John Buckham
Alfred G. Buckham The Forth Bridge (detail) About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham

For Buckham, the final stage of creating a finished image was to use watercolour paints and sometimes ink to add detail to the final print and soften the areas where the two negatives meet. In some of his photographs these hand-drawn elements are easily visible, though in the case of Aerial View of Edinburgh they are more subtle. The clouds on the horizon have been softened to make the join where the two negatives meet less noticeable in the finished print, highlights have been added to the clouds to make them more dramatic and the light below Arthur’s Seat has been adjusted to better match the clouds above. In addition, some areas have been highlighted and others darkened to sharpen the details of key landmarks and make them more recognisable. The use of black watercolour or ink to strengthen and define specific areas of the photographs shows Buckham’s ingenuity. Whilst other photographers would alter the negatives and perhaps scratch out an area that they wished to appear darker, Buckham added the darker tone to the photographic print itself. He also used a scratching out technique, similar to Turner, where a dark area of the photograph is scratched revealing the lighter colour of the paper beneath. This artistic intervention results in each photograph being a unique piece of work. No two can be exactly the same.

It is clear then that Buckham’s photographs are not the result of a single, breath-taking moment in time but instead are a carefully crafted piece of art. He was using known photographic techniques, but created a style which was very much his own. As a result it is easy to see why Aerial View of Edinburgh has become one of the most popular artworks in the collection.

With thanks to Richard and John Buckham. For further information please see A Vision of Flight: The Aerial Photography of Alfred G. Buckham by Celia Ferguson (Tempus Publishing, 2007).

By Louise Pearson (Curator, Photography) and James Berry (Senior Paper Conservator), 30 November 2018