Thursday, June 07, 2012

Form, function and the SR-71

click photo to enlarge
"Modern machines are built on purely functional lines, with the purpose of achieving a given performance with the most economical - which means the most perfect - means. The more consciously and methodically this aim is pursued, the more practically and functionally the construction of the machine will be conceived and the more satisfying will be its aesthetic effect - and no wonder, for the more clearly will the beholder appreciate the intentions of those who conceived and created the machine."
from Kurt Ewald, "The Beauty of Machines" (1925-6) translated and quoted in "Form and Function: A Source Book for the History of Architecture and Design 1890-1939"

Walking round the American Air Museum at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, I started to photograph the stiletto form of the Lockheed SR-71 "Blackbird". This strategic reconnaissance aircraft was designed in the early 1960s and saw service from 1966 until 1998. Its purpose was to fly very high and very fast to secure photographs and other data about actual and potential enemies. The SR-71 still holds a number of speed records including the "recognised course record", New York to London time of 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds. The average speed here (including slowing for re-fuelling) was Mach 2.68 (2,040 mph) and the maximum speed is likely to have been in the region of Mach 3.2 (2,435mph). Speed by itself is not enough for a strategic reconnaissance aircraft; stealth is also a required attribute, so the design of the SR-71 features early ventures into that area of aircraft design and construction, the need to avoid being recognised by radar partly contributing to its unusual curved shape and, particularly, the "chines" that give it the flattened elliptical appearance from the front.

During my photography, and in discussion with my companions, I reflected on how the shape of the aircraft looks like a logical consequence of the design brief and the technology available to the engineers of the time: an example of, to use the short-hand phrase, "form following function". And that mis-quotation of the architect, Louis Sullivan, triggered a memory of a similar observation that I read many years ago from the 1920s, a period when architects and designers, especially those associated with the Bauhaus in Germany, were much absorbed with the link between the form of objects and their function. With a bit of digging in my library I found it (quoted above).

The interesting and strong silhouette of the aircraft, something that I wanted to stress in my photograph, wasn't shown to its best in the colour version of this shot. The floor, airfield grass and sky detracted from these qualities. Consequently I converted it to a black and white image which I think works better.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length:36mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/10
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation:  -0.33 EV
Image Stabilisation: On