The 1931 Shippee-Johnson Aerial Photography Expedition to Peru

By Denevan, William M. | The Geographical Review, July 1993 | Go to article overview

The 1931 Shippee-Johnson Aerial Photography Expedition to Peru


Denevan, William M., The Geographical Review


THE development and use of aerial photography were primarily initiated during and immediately after World War I. A systematic technology was rapidly devised that shifted from military applications to mapping, geographical surveys, planning, and archaeology. In the United States, the American Geographical Society played a major role in the shift by funding projects and publishing their results in its publications (Wright 1952, 338-342). One of these projects was the Shippee-Johnson Expedition to Peru in 1931.

Some of the first published aerial photographs, which were views of Paris, San Diego, Miami, and Tientsin, appeared in a 1917 Geographical Review article (Woodhouse 1917). Technical articles were published in 1920 (Lee 1920; Moffit 1920), and a regional study of Morocco was based on aerial photographs (Blache 1921). Five volumes in the Special Publications series were devoted to aerial photography, or airplane photography, as it was initially called. The first volume was "The Face of the Earth as Seen from the Air" (Lee 1922), which utilized photographs taken by the U.S. Army and Navy. It was followed by "Peru from the Air" (Johnson 1930), "Northernmost Labrador" (Forbes 1938), "Focus on Africa" (Light 1941), and "The Face of South America" (Rich 1942). All these books were well illustrated, with generally excellent vertical and oblique aerial photographs.

The volume on Peru led directly to the Shippee-Johnson Aerial Photography Expedition in 1931, the results of which have been of enduring importance. The expedition, endorsed by the American Geographical Society, received international attention at the time because of the high quality of the photography and the spectacular landscapes, prehistoric ruins, and other features it revealed. The expedition was the first systematic attempt to use aerial photography to discover, locate, and describe prehistoric ruins and agricultural features in South America; Charles Lindbergh had taken photographs from the air of pueblo ruins in New Mexico and of Mayan causeways and cities in Yucatan in 1929 (Ricketson and Kidder 1930; Deuel 1969, 187-213). Also, a study of the ruins of Chan Chan in Peru had made some use of aerial photography (Holstein 1927). Particularly impressive is the resolution of well-preserved overlapping vertical photographs taken by Shippee and Johnson of the Colca Valley in the Andes of southern Peru. The Shippee-Johnson photographs continue to be used and published by geographers, archaeologists, and other scholars. Because of the current interest, this article describes the expedition, the resultant photography, and its whereabouts.

There are several sources. Shippee (1932a, 1932b, 1933, 1934) published four articles about the expedition. Information on the progress of the expedition appeared in the West Coast Leader (1931-1932). Brief descriptions are found in Deuel (1969, 225-234), Jackson (1983, 164-171), and Fundacion Colca (1989). Information on the surviving photography was obtained from Robert Shippee, Loren McIntrye, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Servicio Aerofotografico Nacional in Lima, which Johnson founded.

A file in the archives of the American Geographical Society contains correspondence about the 1931 expedition. Most of the items in the file are dated 1930 or 1931, including letters between Isaiah Bowman or Raye Platt and either Johnson or Shippee. The U.S. ambassador in Lima initially was contacted about logistics and permits and later about the promised but delayed submission of prints of 6,000 photographs to the Peruvian Ministry of Marine and Aviation. The society, as endorser of the expedition, acted as an intermediary in what were sensitive issues. Also of interest, Bowman corresponded with Alfred Kroeber, Julio Tello, and other archaeologists regarding whether Shippee and Johnson were the first to discover the Great Wall of Peru.

JOHNSON'S PHOTOGRAPHY 1928-1929

The precedent of the 1931 expedition was the aerial photography of U. …

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