Transhistoricizing the Drone: A Comparative Visual Social Semiotic Analysis of Pigeon and Domestic Drone Photography

O'Hagan, Lauren and Serafinelli, Elisa (2022). Transhistoricizing the Drone: A Comparative Visual Social Semiotic Analysis of Pigeon and Domestic Drone Photography. Photography and Culture (In press).

Abstract

This paper seeks to situate drone imagery within a more extensive lineage of practice by focusing on one particular form with which it is comparable: pigeon photography. Using a combination of visual social semiotic analysis, literature from Drone Studies, and archival research, it highlights four overarching characteristics shared between photographs taken by pigeons between 1908 and 1912 and contemporary drone visuals produced by hobbyists: verticality, geographical reimaginations, access to inaccessible places, and aerial self-portraits. In doing so, it aims to develop a better understanding of the social and material affordances/constraints of aerial photography, its meaning potentials and how they may have changed across space and time, and the social relations that are reflected in and shaped by its images. The paper concludes by suggesting a nuanced perspective into the relationship between “new” and “old” media, arguing that images taken by drones and pigeons have similarities in their forms and functions, but their creation is guided by different ideological values and bounded by the potentials, norms, and traditions of the time. This perspective builds upon the recent turn in media studies towards transhistorical approaches in order to place seemingly novel contemporary communication technology within historical patterns of practice and use.

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