Viewing Cortez from the Sky

Updated: a day ago

By Krystin Miner


If you ask a group of five year olds what super power they would want, some might want invisibility and some to read minds. It would be a safe bet that some would say they want to fly. What is it about flying that captures the imagination? Perhaps it is the feeling of removal from the world below or the freedom and feeling of invincibility. Whatever drives this fascination, it should be of no surprise that the desire to take photographs from the air developed quickly on the heels of photography. In fact, the earliest use of flight to take aerial photographs is thought to have been approximately 150 years ago when a French photographer, Gaspar Felix Tournachon, used a hot air balloon to lift himself high enough to snap a picture. Although his early photographs have been lost, Tournachon’s technique prevailed and soon other photographers were inventing ways to get these shots. Some of the more inventive avenues included the use of pigeons, kites, and, later, rockets. As cameras became smaller and airplanes became commonplace, photographers made the logical step from hot air balloons to planes. Soon aerial photography became commercially profitable and some photographers designed specialty cameras or modified planes to make aerial photographs safer to take.

In Florida, where open fields are quickly developed into homes, these photographs can serve a variety of purposes. Firstly, they can appeal to the eye through landscape photography. The second purpose it through aerial surveying, which saves crews time and money. Both give a birds-eye view of how our landscape has changed but their purposes can be very different. For surveyors, these photographs convey important information by giving reliable measurements of an area in a way that is sometimes more reliable than ground surveys. For landscape photographers, they give a pretty view to capitalize on through postcards and prints.

At the Florida Maritime Museum, one of the most talked about item in the collection of is a 1947 aerial photograph of Cortez taken by H. R. Smith. It’s common to see guests standing in front of it pointing at different buildings while trying to pinpoint current landmarks and where the museum stands (hint: the museum is just barely out of the frame). Unfortunately, the photographer himself has left behind little information about his life. What we do know is that H. R. Smith, was born Harold Ray Smith in Chicago and came to Manatee County in the mid-1950s. Before coming to Florida, Smith served in the World War II and served with the Army Air Corps Aerial Photographers in the Pacific. Throughout his time in Florida, he took and produced a variety of aerial and scenic shots of Anna Maria Island, Cortez, and Bradenton while operating a photography studio on Bradenton Beach. Although it is unclear if Smith took aerial photographs as a means of recording his surroundings or for surveying, their beauty is undeniable and many of these photographs were made into postcards. Although these postcards are no longer in circulation, some of the originals of the area are in the collections of local museums and libraries.

Today, you don’t need a hot air balloon, pigeon, or rocket to get fantastic aerial photographs of our beautiful beaches or surrounding communities. Professional photographers have developed cameras that counteract the movements of the plane to get a clearer shot from above. For the everyday vacationer, drones have made getting a shot of the ground even easier and online satellite images allow one to view similar shots from your own home.

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Florida Maritime Museum, ​​Historical Resources Department for the Office of Ms. Angelina Colonneso, 
Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller