Up & Away!

C. H. Wood: On Aerial Photography 

From the 1930s until the company’s closure in 2000, it amassed a portfolio of tens of thousands of aerial photographs, each one pin sharp when viewed as a print or on a computer screen. Though centred on Bradford, they cover the whole of the north of England, from coast to coast, giving a unique view of the evolving landscape in the twentieth century. The breadth and quality of this collection is a fitting tribute to a true pioneer of aerial photography.

Yeadon aerodrome
Yeadon aerodrome

C. H.’s early interest in flight blossomed to become an important part of the company’s output. Powered flight itself had been in its early stages when he was growing up, as was the idea of photographing from an aeroplane. Although the notion of aerial photography had been highlighted in 1855 by Sir Henry James, Director General of Ordnance Survey, people only became more widely aware of it following its use by the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force) for reconnaissance work during World War One. 

A contemporary annotated photograph showing how C. H. Wood's goggles worked.

In his first flights, C. H. became fascinated by this whole new viewpoint, quickly realising that a special camera would be needed to photograph the landscape below. Through further research and advice from the RAF and Ordnance Survey, C. H. acquired appropriate equipment and also began to look at ways of photographing over longer distances with greater clarity using infra-red technology.

Cover of The Illustrated magazine showing a pilot wearing C. H. Wood's goggles

This knowledge was to prove crucial when C. H. served in the RAF during World War Two. Using sodium street lights borrowed from Bradford Corporation, he discovered that all other light could be blocked when they were viewed through green and amber filters. He equipped pilots training for the famous Dambuster air raids with amber goggles and their aircraft were fitted with green windscreens. They were then able to experience night flying in broad daylight. This pioneering work was described by the Air Ministry as ‘the greatest contribution to flying training in thirty years’ and he was awarded an MBE.

When C. H. retired, his son Malcolm took over the aerial photography. Although the company used the latest aircraft, beginning with a Tiger Moth, then an Auster and finally a Cessna, conditions inside the small aircraft were always cramped. Malcolm once described how important it was to organise the placing of the large glass plates which went into the camera; unexposed ones to the left of the photographer, exposed to the right. He mentioned how it surprised people to learn that the camera was always hand held while the photographer leaned out of a window; it would be shaken to bits if clamped to the aeroplane.

Flying was expensive and C. H. would try to delay a flight until there were enough orders to make it viable. Additional photographs would be taken throughout a flight, in the hope that they would sell some time in the future.