TIME Culture

Air America: Picturing the United States From Above

Sixty years after Margaret Bourke-White climbed aboard various "whirlibirds" -- a.k.a., helicopters -- to make a series of singular, vertiginous photos of America as seen from above, her pictures can still startle and delight.

Sixty years ago the notion of a photographer going up in a helicopter to take pictures of landscapes, monuments, buildings and other notable sights from the air was novel enough to warrant a 12-page article in LIFE magazine. That Margaret Bourke-White was the photographer who climbed aboard various “whirlibirds” to make the singular, vertiginous photos, however, would hardly come as a shock to LIFE’s readers back then, or to photojournalism buffs today.

Bourke-White, after all (seen at left being pulled from the drink), broke ground again and again throughout her career, and LIFE frequently shared her adventures with its readers.

In 1930, she was the first Western photographer officially allowed into the USSR; she was America’s first accredited woman photographer in WWII, and the very first authorized to fly on combat missions; she was one of the first — and certainly the most celebrated — of the photographers to document the horrors of Nazi concentration camps after they were liberated in the spring of 1945; she was the last person to interview Mohandas Gandhi before he was assassinated; and on and on.

So, in the spring of 1952, when she traveled around the country, photographing both world-famous and utterly nondescript sites (and sights) in New York, California, Illinois, Indiana and elsewhere, from the vantage point of a helicopter, few who knew anything of her career would have been surprised.

The pictures from the assignment, on the other hand, can still startle and even astonish viewers today, six decades after Bourke-White made them. As expressions of one woman’s — and one magazine’s — endless pursuit of new ways to celebrate America’s breadth, energy and its vast, thrilling scale, the pictures here are unparalleled.

That they were made from a helicopter is just cool.

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