In 1920s New York, This Woman Typist Became a Pioneering Aerial Photographer

Edith Keating survived the Halifax Explosion and eventually took to the skies, marking a path for other women to fly in her wake

Photo illustration of Edith Keating in an aviator's cap and goggles
In a 1929 column, Amelia Earhart name-checked Keating as an example of a woman in aviation who had beaten the odds, writing, "She photographs from the air and helps make the beautifully accurate maps which compose aerial surveys." Illustration by Meilan Solly / Screenshot via American magazine

In 1920, 12 women held pilot’s licenses in the United States. Ten years later, that number had risen to more than 300. As female aviators took to the skies, performing daredevil stunts and smashing speed records, journalist Harry Goldberg heralded the start of a “feminine invasion” in aviation. “A new world of endeavor beckons to womankind,” he wrote in an article syndicated in various newspapers on August 21, 1927. But when Edith Eva Keating answered its call, she wasn’t piloting a plane; she was steering a camera.

A tourist standing on Broadway in Manhattan in the late 1920s couldn’t have seen her high-wing monoplane 16,500 feet up—much less the name of her employer, Fairchild Aerial Surveys, painted on the fuselage. Fairchild by then was well established as an aerial photography firm, making photographic maps for clients from real estate scion Vincent Astor to the United States Department of War, and Keating served a dual role at the company: an executive saleswoman and a path-breaking photographer.

Up in the sky, flight goggles framed her bright blue eyes as she clutched a 50-pound camera to her chest, pointing it over the side of the aircraft. While the pilot banked the plane, Keating fired the shutter, capturing skyscrapers glittering in the sunlight, boats zipping through inky waters and Central Park stretching out like a ping-pong table. One such image, printed in NEA magazine in 1929 and currently housed in the Air Photo Archives at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the earliest known aerial of the city credited to a woman and taken from anywhere near that height.

Aerial photograph of Manhattan possibly taken by Keating
A 1928 aerial shot of Manhattan, likely taken by Keating, according to NEA magazine. Smithsonian magazine has been unable to fully verify the image's authorship, as a similar shot taken the same day is credited elsewhere to Keating's boss, Robert Smith. As with so many professional women at the time, Keating was never fully credited for her work UCLA Department of Geography, Thomas Air Photo Archives, Fairchild Aerial Surveys Collection

“I don’t go up for thrills,” Keating told the American magazine in September 1929, explaining matter-of-factly that since her job required her to discuss aerial views every day, “I have to be familiar with taking pictures.” In the interview, she went on to describe her job as being “proportioned between earth and air.” Her story has not been fully told in 80 years, yet it’s as relevant as ever today, when aerial imaging is a $2 billion market, and female photographers remain a minority in the air.

“A tradition of men as aerial photographers, based on historical inequities, led to a broad cultural expectation which has persisted,” says Rebecca Senf, a curator at the Center of Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. “As with anything, it helps when you have forebears, someone who shows you how to have your own authentic voice.”

Keating’s ascent to the status of aerial trendsetter was unlikely. Men had ruled aerial photography since the mid-19th century, when flight enthusiasts like Gaspard-Félix Tournachon and James Wallace Black first hauled wooden box cameras aboard hot air balloons. During World War I, Allied aviators, practically always male, snapped hundreds of thousands of photographs while hovering above enemy trenches, honing skills that would quickly revolutionize commercial activities after the war: mapping, archaeology and petroleum geology, to name just a few.

But some bold women elbowed in, chasing thrills and paychecks. The English balloonist and scientist Gertrude Bacon may have been the first to shoot from “cloud land,” as she called it—from a balloon beginning in the 1890s, and from a hydroplane in 1912. Others who boarded planes with cameras included American photographer Bayard Wooten in 1914, though none appear to have worked as aerial surveyors before single mother Eloise F. Cross. After her ex-husband, the photographer-aviator William Cross, crashed near Los Angeles in 1923, she inherited his camera and his aerial photography business, which she ran for three years.

A portait of Keating
A portait of Keating Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 00163864)

The challenges for these pioneers were enormous. Simply riding in an airplane was considered unladylike to some in the period—a sentiment so pervasive that even Emma Lillian Todd, who in 1906 became the first woman to design a plane, declared that “a woman’s place is on the ground.” Female pilots like Ruth Law and Amelia Earhart pushed boundaries throughout the 1910s and 1920s, while the 1930s saw more women aerial photographers take flight, including Anne Lindbergh (wife of Charles Lindbergh), Mary Light and Margaret Bourke-White. Yet the sky remained largely a boys’ club.

Keating was hardly a stranger to adversity. Born in Nova Scotia, likely on March 5, 1884, as the eldest of five children, she studied at Halifax Ladies College and dabbled in amateur photography while living with her family on Woodill Street in central Halifax, sometimes working as a stewardess on a steamship. Still unmarried in 1917, she applied to serve overseas, possibly as a nurse, with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. But before her request was approved, she found her life upended by the Halifax Explosion, in which a munitions ship caught fire in the city’s harbor, triggering the largest human-made blast until Hiroshima. Nearly 2,000 people died, including Keating’s grandmother. Keating, then 33, was tossed 50 feet and sideswiped by a 10-foot beam—a shock said to have turned her brown hair white.

The explosion didn’t undermine Keating’s taste for adventure. In late 1918, she finally sailed to Boston with plans to join the war effort overseas. The fighting ended before she could leave for Europe, so instead, in a picaresque effort to figure out what to do with her life, she wandered 43 states, working various jobs—from government stenographer to tea room operator—and weathering an earthquake in California and a tornado in Texas before taking up what may have sounded like it would be a quiet secretarial position at Fairchild in Manhattan in 1925.

The company’s founder was Sherman Mills Fairchild, son of IBM co-founder George Winthrop Fairchild. Described in a posthumous 1980 tribute as “a cross between a rich Edison and a modern Leonardo da Vinci,” he began designing the first of his many aerial cameras in 1918, nearly 500 years after da Vinci dreamed up the aerial screw—his circular flying machine that anticipated modern aerial reconnaissance machines. Before Fairchild, aerial cameras used shutters that pulled back like a curtain to expose the film. From a moving plane, the curtain produced distorted images. Fairchild’s K-3 camera featured a novel, between-the-lens shutter that made clearer, more evenly exposed pictures than any other on the market, with an exposure time of 1/150th a second. It became the go-to camera used by the Army Air Service and Navy, as well as by the governments of Canada, Japan and the Soviet Union. Incorporated in 1924, Fairchild Aerial Surveys quickly grew to become the largest firm of its kind in the world. As the historian Thomas Campanella writes in Cities From the Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America, “Fairchild was to aerial photography what Ford was to automobiles.”

March 25, 1929, newspaper article about Keating
March 25, 1929, article about Keating in the Grand Island Daily Independent Screenshot via Newspapers.com

The new bird’s-eye perspective captivated Keating more than typing or shorthand could hope to; she was, by her own declaration, “the worst stenographer [Fairchild] ever had.” Keating’s supervisors weren’t exactly delighted by her interest in snapping photos, according to a 1929 profile in NEA Magazine that chronicles Keating’s rise from typist to a management role at Fairchild and features the photographer’s aerial shot of Manhattan.

In journalist Marian Gillespie’s account, Keating began her aerial adventures in the mid-1920s. On her first flight, a pilot flew her out of Long Island, likely in one of the spartan biplanes with open cockpits that Fairchild used before 1926, when he began producing his own heated cabin planes. Keating thought she was “shock-proof” after the Halifax Explosion, but nothing she’d experienced on land had prepared her for this. She panicked and couldn’t snap a single photograph. “I just closed my eyes and thought my time had come,” she recalled to Gillespie.

Resolute, Keating reascended the next day and returned with a few pictures, though “nothing that could be called an aerial photograph,” she said. On her third flight, she finally nabbed what she considered a “fairly decent” impression of Little Neck, Long Island, and soon she was producing prints that Fairchild was proud to put its name on. Though it remains unclear how often she took pictures, the media ran a string of sensational profiles of her in 1929. Even Earhart was impressed. In her column for Cosmopolitan that July, the pilot name-checked Keating as an example of a woman in aviation who had beaten the odds: “She photographs from the air and helps make the beautifully accurate maps which compose aerial surveys.”

Still, in an interview with the Woman’s Journal that same year, Keating rejected the title of aerial photographer, not wishing to equate herself with the men who flew full-time around the world—and occasionally went missing. Whatever the headlines might say, Keating spent most of her days selling aerial photographs in a Midtown office a mere 200 feet off the ground. Yet despite her early jitters, the sky was where, by the late 1920s, she claimed to feel safest. “I have no thought or sense of fear when I’m in the air,” she told Gillespie. “I have such an intense interest in the work that my mind is given completely to the shots to be taken.”

August 4, 1929, article about Keating in the Central New Jersey Home News Sun​​​​​​​
August 4, 1929, article about Keating in the Central New Jersey Home News Sun Screenshot via Newspapers.com

There’s no clear explanation to why Keating left Fairchild around 1930 and began managing an Upper East Side high-rise. She never married or had children. But she kept her eyes on the skies: In the early 1940s, she chaired the Manhattan chapter of Woman Flyers of America, an organization that successfully lobbied to put female pilots in the cockpit during World War II. Eventually, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she died at 68 on July 10, 1952; a brief obituary in the Halifax Chronicle Herald said her passing was sudden, though the paper did not report a cause of death—nor answers to any other lingering questions about her life. Among them: Why did Keating retreat from her conspicuous perch atop the world of aerial photography? Did she achieve all she’d wanted?

Today, though women remain a minority at aerial photography exhibitions and competitions, progress is afoot. Flying at 10,500 feet in the back of a Beechcraft King Air 350, on duty for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Linda Junge commands four digital cameras, which shoot through glass plates in the floor of the plane. As a technical specialist for the agency, the bulk of her work involves photographing coastlines to help update nautical charts, but Junge also documents the aftermath of disasters, like tornadoes and floods. NOAA shares this imagery with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the National Guard, which in turn disseminate it to first responders helping people evacuate. “It’s a good feeling to know that we’re helping people down below, even if they can’t see our plane in the sky,” Junge says.

Though aerial photographers have flown for NOAA since Keating’s day, it wasn’t until 1992 that a woman, Beth Tinsley, was hired for the role. Junge is only the second, but if the trend continues—thanks in no small part to forerunners like Keating—she won’t be the last.