Everyone loves a good aerial photo of New York City, whether they’re showing off iconic buildings, streetscapes, or illicit parts of the metropolis. But where did the trend of aerial photography begin? For that, you’ll have to go all the way back to 1906: According to the New York Public Library, the first aerial photo of New York City is the image above, snapped by photographer James A. Hart for Collier’s magazine. Hart was riding in a hot-air balloon over the city, as part of a stunt organized by two flying aficionados who wanted to reach new heights in that (somewhat unstable) mode of transportation. They flew from Staten Island over Manhattan and beyond, with "100,000 people watch[ing] it with breathless interest," according to the NYPL.
Here’s what Hart had to say about the experience:
The tops of the skyscrapers were a thousand feet below us. I could distinguish easily the individual ﬁgures like so many pencil dots on the pavement. A group of dots directly beneath was the curb-brokers at their buying and selling.Not one sound of the hum and roar, of the clanging of electric cars or the whistling of the tugs, could I hear. New York was remote; it was a picture rather than an organism.
The photograph is a bit dark and murky, but you can identify some of the landmarks that remain today—Battery Park and Castle Clinton, for example—as well as the long-gone docks on the west side that were eventually replaced by Battery Park City and the World Trade Center. It is, put simply, really cool.
The backstory, published on the NYPL’s blog as part of a series about Staten Island (taken from newspaper archives that were recently digitized), is definitely worth a read.