Autoscopia: Drone Photography by Thomas J. Campanella

drone photo of a shipwreck

Remains of the Bay (2017).

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argued that the walker in the city can never know the urban landscape as a scopic whole. City dwellers, he wrote, navigate as blindly "as lovers in each other's arms." But with altitude, the city’s "endless labyrinths" suddenly make sense. To Certeau, such a prospect — whether gained via airplane or skyscraper — is a costly strategic affordance controlled by powerful institutions. Lacking such exclusive panoptic intelligence, the individual must move about the urban terrain opportunistically, tactically. Such "ordinary practitioners of the city," Certeau argued, live "below the thresholds at which visibility begins . . . whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban text they write without being able to read it." The arrival of consumer remote-controlled camera drones has begun to change this, placing once very expensive aerial photographic and remote sensing technology in the hands of ordinary people. And though born of the defense industry and a potential menace to privacy, the consumer drone may also prove to be an unlikely vehicle of creative resistance against modern corporate society and its campaign against human agency and individualism. Consumer drones bring autoscopic intelligence to the people; the Wandersmänner now has wings — or at least a set of rotors.

Thomas J. Campanella (M.L.A. '91) is an associate professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University and Historian-in-Residence of the New York City Parks Department. A licensed helicopter pilot, he is the author of Cities From the Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), a monograph on the pioneering Fairchild Air Survey Company of New York. Campanella has received Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Rome Prize fellowships and his essays on landscape and urbanism have appeared in Salon, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He began flying remote-controlled camera drones in 2014, and currently uses a DJI Inspire I with a Zenmuse X3 camera.