Henri Farré was the official painter of the French government during World War I, whose job was to paint battles as he observed them from airplanes.
While this may seem like a strange occupation to be funded at taxpayer expense after the invention of the photograph, WWI was also the first major military conflict to feature aviation. And we still have official portraits of major figures such as presidents commissioned even today, despite a camera in every person’s back pocket.
In the 1918 article, Farré explained his methods:
“How do I do my work?” he went on, in answer to a question. “I am, say, somewhere in the rear of the fighting. An attack is begun. I am notified. Up I go with one of our pilots. We approach the field of battle, strike into the mist of it, keeping straight over it. I take in every detail. I saturate my brain with the topography of the place. I transform my head into a camera. It took me six months to learn to do that, but now I find it easy. I concentrate. I fix my eyes on every feature of the landscape beneath me. My brain becomes a photographic plate.
“Sometimes we hover over the battle as long as half an hour. Shells burst around us. Other airmen plunge to the ground. But we escape. Then my pilots whirls around and we fly back to the rear. We land. I have no time to lose. I sit down immediately and sketch from memory the scene I have just witnessed. From what I remember and a system of jotting down numbers for colors while I am in the air, I make a rough sketch of the battle I have just witnessed.”
The 1918 article does not do justice to Farré’s paintings, showcasing only two and in grainy black-and-white at that. Here is one in full-resolution color from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, to give a sense of the man’s talents:
France’s Airman-Artist Tells How He Works: Lieutenant Farre, Official Painter of War as Seen from the Air, Has Risked His Life Over Scores of Battles in Full Swing
Published Sunday, March 3, 1918