Finding Historical Imagery – A Quick Approach

Friends have asked me about process in finding historical imagery about a site. Especially for studying historic changes in shorelines, land use, and other features, it’s very useful to look for mid-20th century imagery and maps. While North American and European countries offer up extensive online tools for downloading digital orthoquads, topos, etc., it’s much more difficult in formerly colonized parts of the Global South! Thus researchers have to rely, when possible, on imagery produced either by colonial powers or, esp. in Asia before 1945, by the U.S. military. This demo explores imagery for one study site, Waigeo Island off the northwest coast of West Papua (Irian Jaya).

The first place to go, especially if you want to compare features over large areas, is the incredible collection of declassified, American spy satellite photographs with the top-secret Corona or Keyhole Program. USGS maintains a searchable index on its Earth Explorer platform.

Corona Images of Waigeo

I did some research and the results were no good – all those stereo images, but everything’s covered in clouds! Those were the breaks before infrared scanners. Spies thwarted by clouds!

Searching your site on this platform requires selecting a polygon and then selecting “data sets”. Here you can see the polygon around Waigeo and then the “footprints” of resulting “keyhole” photos, stereo pairs, medium res, on November 13, 1966. The “F” and “A” in each photograph’s code means “fore” and “aft” cameras. If these images were not blanked out by clouds, then one could download these and assemble 3-d pairs. The little thumbnail of each image shows that these frames are totally white, so no use.

Also, the little icon of the red circle with a slash means the frame isn’t already digitized and downloadable. This means, if the frame was clear and gorgeous, you’d have to click the little shopping cart and BUY it at $30/frame. IF these were clear frames, then you’d be spending $360 to get 12 frames for building stereo pairs of the whole island for Nov 13, 1966.

Sadly, at least for us, it was a cloudy day on Waigeo on Nov 13th, 1966 so whatever was happening that day on the ground is lost.

But this isn’t it. For this region, I know that the final year of Allied military campaigns in the “southwest pacific theater” brought bomber squadrons to Papua, so I’m going to shift gears and look for Army Air Force images.

Researching WW2 historic imagery requires a little bit of knowledge about the ways state governments and militaries organized their air photography…but with a little bit of luck…and some good old fashioned word  searches…we might find some imagery.

US Army Air Force Photography

The historic collection of American air photos, including original celluloid roles of 9-“ wide film, is catalogued in Record Group 373 – Defense Intelligence Agency. Yep, you need to go down the rabbit hole of mid-20th century American military spying! (cue the music!)

During WW2 the operation was analogue but highly sophisticated, and in the 1950s it mushroomed into a huge effort to spy on everyone and photograph the entire Earth! One org, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, NPIC, launched under Kennedy in 1961 had an army of photogrammetrists, photo interpreters, and “intel” people pouring over photos like these and the Corona ones to document what everyone else was doing. Since the 1980s, most everything moved to digital scanners in space, think Landsat and secret military satellites. So these collections – film-based, archived – are really special, a 1930s-1970s time capsule compared to the flood of digital information since.

I first googled “army air force photography papua” and my first link turned me here, to this unexpected source at Library of Congress:

What I get from this is that the Army was busy studying key airfields on the northern coast of Papua, they even drew up pretty topographic maps (derived from air photos) in the Army Corps of Engineers standard way (also interesting, this history of Army Corps styles and conventions, line widths, symbols).

Nothing specific to Waigeo but some nice descriptive material about an aerodrome just to the southeast of it. So, a trip to Wikipedia, for more…

A military historian might then look at units assigned here, just to get a sense of the level of activity. Militaries are the ultimate Anthropocene organizations! Studying them is like studying industrial tree plantations or oil and gas pipeline projects. They have what’s called an “Order of Battle” that is a tree-like structure of their organization, and at the larger “trunk” levels, each unit has historians collecting photographs, writing up reports, etc. So they can be useful windows into stuff like SPECIES, esp. fish and trees, in 1944. Here I find a LOT of units:

So, now I want to check out military history records for more descriptive information. The Center for Military History and Defense Technical Information Center (, we love acronyms!) contain MANY useful histories of these units and military air reconnaisance, for ex. Piercing the Fog:

Chapter 5 is an account of that “southwest pacific” area, 1942-45, so worth a read. I’m only familiar with the Ch 6 accounts given that the B29’s were also bombing Vietnam in 1944. Also cool, “Japanese air intelligence.”

I took a side detour and was curious to find more recent USGS-related mapping, using space photography to study retreating Papuan glaciers. Not related to Waigeo, but fun and it draws on those 1942-45 AAF photos.

One pic from searching turned up this view of Sansapor, too:

And besides Japan and the US, Aussies were snapping pictures of Papua from the air, but I guess the eastern (British) side:

Moving on to the US National Archives, they have really upgraded their digital offerings. Nice explanations on their “Unwritten Record” blog about their photographic collections, esp. foreign imagery collections that MIGHT include captured Japanese materials post surrender in 1945:

Now for diving into this record group – 373 – Defense Intelligence Agency. That’s the place to call up specific photo series for Army Air Force over Papua. We need to know overlay indexes and  1-degree-square and the NW corner to get to the right place.

At first, I wasn’t sure if it was NW or SW corner, so here:

Clicking on the overlay index, nope, too far north.

The first page for each index should be a 1-degree MAP, but this degree square lacks one, and I think I got the system wrong, so trying 00S130E (south of the equator), I get Waigeo:

Bingo! There’s Waigeo! So now the trick is to figure out if the American military ordered up any pictures on the island. To use it in this digital form, it helps to put a sticky on the screen of the area of interest, say a village on that inlet, and then scroll through each one. Sounds complicated, but when you try it you quickly get the hang of it.

Here’s the index map for 00S130E (south of the equator and 130 degrees east of Greenwich). I’ve highlighted a rectangle (imagine pasting a sticky on your computer screen).

Here’s the index map with “sticky”:

Now here’s a page of an air photo reconnaissance mission, clicking the next frame but keeping my sticky:

This tells me I have a HIT! Probably 25 photographs shot over my study site. We struck gold! However, look at the rest of the island, mostly empty. So it really is hit or miss whether you can find historic imagery completely covering a large study site. Let’s look at the collar info for some more details – if we were requesting this can of photo-negative film, we’d need it the OP(eration) Number.

Besices giving an OP number, penciled in later, the info here tells us that the view was partly cloudy, so beware. Also the date and some other info. Upon requesting the film you may find other issues, too, like the can cannot be found. And upon request, readers have to wait several days for the can to be physically retrieved from a salt mine near St. Louis, flown on a daily flight to Ft. Meade (NSA) and then driven to College Park and the NARA reading room. (For a brief overview of this amazing process, see my piece here.)

Also interesting (to me) is that this index was created in 1957, supporting a global mapping effort during the Cold War.

From here, the search for imagery requires physically going to NARA in College Park and requesting rolls of film (or hiring a very expensive research contractor).

Besides imagery, of course there are historic maps that can also be very useful especially for all of the details mapmakers inscribe as they convert air photographs into simplified information.

Perry Casteñeda Map Library

US military maps, too, can be very informative! One possible source for historic maps of your study area is the Perry Casteñeda collection at University of Texas. Here’s the index page for Indonesia:

With map-research, I think it is always best to start with smaller scale maps, 1:250-000 for ex:

Then, select the one, and if you are uncertain, “Click here for Index Map”. And you get a page like this:

From there, we can find Waigeo up in the northwest corner. And highlighted grid squares mean they exist in this collection.

Isn’t it a beaut! No topography for Waigeo, but TOPONYMS!!!

Here’s Waigeo:

And always read the collars! For map nerds, it’s mildly interesting that the map is based on a polyconic projection. Works better for equatorial locations. But the real info is what sources the mapmakers used.

I haven’t really scratched the surface of Dutch cartography, but I am fairly certain Dutch archives, museums and libraries have made their historical collections of places like West Papua fairly EASY to search.

I hope this tutorial can help you get started in researching imagery for your site!

Map Data: 1960 Security – Upland District

I had a nice skype interview with a grad seminar at my alma mater yesterday, UW in Seattle, and one student very rightly asked me when I was going to upload the map data I’d promised in my book to readers. The answer, friends, is NOW. I am renting some space on this server, 100GB, and I intend to USE IT! I’ll start with an archival map from the Vietnamese National Archives in HCM City from the records of the Cabinet of the First Republic of Vietnam (Đệ Nhất Cộng Hoa or Đ1CH in my notes in the book). The following image is super-cool as an example of American and CIA-inspired choropleth mapping used to describe communist-friendly areas in Southeast Asia. The use of pie charts, for example, with pink for “pinkoes” or “communist sympathizers” and the yellow for Republic of Vietnam loyalists (their flag was yellow with red stripes).

The map georeferenced, overlaying satellite imagery.

Here’s a link to the full-rez, georeferenced (for ArcGIS) FILE. Source info: File 17331, Record Group ĐICH, Vietnam National Archives Center No. 2.

Before I go further, let me just apologize outright to my geographer and GIS friends for providing no metadata on this. Please sympathize, I’m not an agency supplying data but an historian offering up usable files for the few.

Now, what’s cool about this map, especially when overlaying current satellite imagery, is how what was once a jungle clearing, bull-dozed grids of housing blocks and “enemy bases” has grown in the postwar era into a full-fledged town and district called Nam Đồng!

This illustrates a very important point about the communist nation-building effort, that not only were they establishing key strategic nodes in highland areas, but they were continuing a centuries-old program of “cultivating” these highland spaces. This term (giao hóa) suggests a particularly Vietnamese (and Chinese) style of interacting with highland groups. Bringing in highlanders to trade, providing literacy (in Vietnamese), integrating them into an expanding – topological – network of “the state”.

By contrast, the Diệm government, especially his brother Cẩn’s shadowy government ruling the central region, took a more brutalist approach to these highland areas that communists had been “cultivating” since 1947.

So, enjoy the map! Download the file, play with it, and let me know if it says anything more to you.

More info:

Here’s what I write about this map and how it fit into RVN nation-building in 1960, from Footprints of War, pp. 124-5:

“The new military rulers in the uplands of the province introduced new political maps with light and dark pink shadings that conveyed their singular purpose of counterinsurgency. Dark pink described areas that were deeply contested while light pink suggested fading support. While such maps fed into national military planning for the RVN, they also informed American military allies who had for years been drawing up similar maps in neighboring Laos and Thailand. The military authors of this map used dark pink shading to indicate areas still largely under the communists’ control. They used a lighter shade of pink to indicate lighter opposition in the hills west of Hoà Mỹ and southwest of another evacuated area, Khê Trái.

As a cartographic projection of the ARVN’s ambitions in 1960 for mopping up these bases of communist support, the map presented communist-controlled regions in symbolic terms most familiar to American counterinsurgency experts at the time. Small pie charts in each highlands commune showed, via darker shaded sections, the approximate percentage of people who were “Việt Cộng in the region,” still a majority across the hills. Lighter pink shading indicated areas with diminished support, and colored or empty circles indicated villages that supported a particular side or had been abandoned, respectively.

Excerpts of the map showing the map’s deep pink areas, the hills around Nam Đồng and the A Sầu Valley, bear closer inspection, for they show how ecological and political boundaries coincided, often separating ARVN posts from communist base areas by only a few kilometers. Reconstituted self-defense units and communist cells, pushed almost to annihilation during several years of unrelenting police sweeps, extended their political and communications networks to the very tips of streams and tributaries on the highest slopes. ARVN troops could not easily penetrate the dense forests without support from Katus and highland groups while communist partisans retained the older practice of navigating by rivers and mountain ridges with help from native highlanders.”

A French Cartographer in Tự Đức’s Kingdom, 1876-77

This first map contribution is one of my all-time favorites for the artistry of the cartographer and the story associated with it. In 1876, the government of the Third Republic made a sort of peace offering with the emperor of Đại Nam (Annam, Vietnam) in Huế, Tự Đức.  The offering consisted of three older, slightly out-of-date warships. The official purpose was to help the struggling Vietnamese kingdom re-establish a small fleet since French ships had devastated Vietnamese naval ships in the conquest of Sài Gòn (1862) and the Lower Mekong (1867). The emperor had also given France port space in present-day Đà Nẵng and Hà Nội. So the French government sent three naval captains on a joint military training mission with Vietnamese sailors and officers. Of course, a hidden agenda was to survey the hard-to-access imperial capital, note the defensive landscape and provide any other details that might be helpful should France need, in the future (1883-84 to be exact) to invade. Enter Jules Léon Dutreuil du Rhins, amateur cartographer and troubled naval captain, age 30.

Dutreuil du Rhins, 1884. Portrait by Eugène Pirot, wikipedia, public domain. 

Dutreuil du Rhins was one of a cohort of adventurous, mapmaking Europeans who set out to fulfill his government’s diplomatic and surveillance initiatives while also collecting personal anecdotes sufficient to launch himself through travel books and speaking events as a celebrity adventurer. Like many of his adventurer colleagues, however, Dutreuil du Rhins died young at 48, killed when Golog peoples in southeastern Tibet attacked his survey mission.  His last survey mission was published by others, and for the most part his reputation as a cartographer and adventurer faded.

When I encountered his Le royaume d’Annam et Annamites; journal de voyage, (Paris: E. Plon, 1879), I was immediately fascinated by his up-close-and-personal look at life in the beleaguered, war-ravaged imperial capital. The Nguyễn Emperor Minh Mạng had in by the 1830s pretty much banished most Europeans from the capital just as he put the finishing touches on a new Imperial City looking much like the Ming Dynasty city in Beijing. Forty years and several naval battles with France later, the monarchy was eager to get the new vessels and it seemed like maybe there was a possibility for co-existence, at least in the ancient, densely populated Vietnamese coastline stretching from Huế north to Hà Nội. 

Excerpt of his Carte du Hue.
Excerpt of his Carte d’Annam.
(Full res version)

When I pulled an original copy of Detreuil du Rhin’s book, I found these two map gems in the back. They represent one of the earliest public maps available to French reading audiences curious about this far-off kingdom that had recently ceded an area the size of France to Emperor Louis Napoleon in 1867. I discuss the survey mission in detail in my book, Footprints of War, (pp. 41-45) because such mapmaking played an outsized role in shaping French colonial ambitions about the potential productivity of these newly claimed lands. As one might expect, adventurers had a tendency to both minimize the challenge of dealing with unruly natives and maximizing the potential for unclaimed, uncultivated lands to yield profits on valuable industrial or export crops. 

Writes Dutreuil du Rhins of the people living around Huế:

More than half of the arable land in the province of Hue is still uncultivated, due to different causes that we have already spoken, mainly the laziness of the Annamese [Vietnamese] and their pitiful government. … The Annamite, for whom foreign trade is prohibited, has no interest in the rich crops which would cost him too much fatigue, and it is not encouraged to produce cereals beyond the needs of his consumption because the mandarins, cowardly and crawling with their superiors and as hard and rapacious with their inferiors, they soon despoil his reserves. Le Royaume d’Annam et les Annamites, 282-3.

If this kind of insulting-yet-purposeful language wasn’t enough, Detreuil du Rhin’s maps visually advanced this point by visually presenting what were deeply eroded, red-clay ravines carving the hills above Huế as gently sloping hills, allegedly still covered in a layer of topsoil, sure to nourish verdant crops of corn, tobacco, or jute. Meanwhile common features in maps of the day such as village names, fields and cemeteries were almost wholly erased. The following excerpt from the Carte de Hue (full-res version) in multiple senses covered over these facts-on-the-ground and for specific purposes. They provided would-be French readers-turned-colonizers an image of a place where they might pursue their fortunes in these greener, gently sloping pastures. Dutreuil du Rhons was, like many adventurer-cartographers of his day, was like a 19th century real estate agent, shaping both the state’s and the public’s ideas of what such far-off places as Annam might be like.