The World from Above: A Survey of Aerial Photography and Man-Altered Landscapes

Part of the difficulty of being such small creatures in such a wide world is that we are never able to see our entire environment at once and at one time. Images provide an amazing method of seeing outside of our own time, location, and context. Combined with one of humankind’s biggest fears and oldest fantasies—flight—aerial photography creates a platform for visualizing larger areas of our globe; across time zones, geopolitical borders, and even into privately owned spaces. The distance and technology required for such imagemaking provide a distance and an objectivity to the imagery: many images made from planes, helicopters, drones, and satellites utilize a long focal length, compressing the imagery to a scale and flatness so that only the cast shadows and atmosphere provide a sense of depth for the surface. Other aerial images obscure the horizon and, taken at lower altitudes, provide rich sense of scale and depth. Regardless of method, the vast majority of the images share an extremely high level of detail and a fascination with the megastructures of our landscape. From the distance an aerial view requires, it is relatively easy to have the entire image sharp within the frame in a photograph; with the rapid expansion of civilization into the corners have pointed their cameras to human-altered landscapes.

Some of the earliest aerial photographs utilized hot air balloons, as noted in an 1892 cartoon poking fun at Nadar (“Nadar Elevant La Photographie a La Hauteur de l’Art”). From there, there is a long and rich history of aerial imagemaking, almost exclusively to political or commercial ends. From hot air balloons to kites to pigeons to planes to rockets, the photograph from above has always given a sense of power and carried objective information to the viewer. Through both World Wars, the photograph was a crucial tool to carry information about enemy defenses, movements, and tactics.  With the rise of photographic technology – namely portability and speed – and the expansion of public air travel, aerial photographs became more and more a part of the everyday, being featured by magazines and printed in windows of real estate agencies. Topography could be shown on a large scale and with higher accuracy. As the West became less wild, surveying became more and more aerial and relied on photography heavily to map the wide expanse assumed by the United States government. The West seems to have had—and continues to have—an intense draw for photographers. First sighted photographically by Timothy O’Sullivan, among other photographers, the West was a wild and untamed landscape, titanic and seemingly unending: the perfect challenge for a generation of men spilling over with Manifest Destiny. Today, as we forcibly settle ourselves in veins of development neighborhoods through the arid landscape, we seek to posit a similar sense of dominance over nature, tipping the scales on an age-old conflict.

William A. Garnett, American, 1916–2006: Housing Development, San Francisco, California, 1953–56. Gelatin silver print, 39.6 x 49.5 cm. Image Courtesy MIT

William A. Garnett, American, 1916–2006: Housing Development, San Francisco, California, 1953–56. Gelatin silver print, 39.6 x 49.5 cm. Image Courtesy MIT

In interviews with several current artists, William Garnett seems to be one of the early pioneers of photographing the landscape from the sky as a conscious art practice. Trained as a photographer and working in photography for police work and in World War II, Garnett pursued his pilot’s license and began flying and photographing after the war ended. His black and white prints of the California landscape from the sky are mostly pure and unadulterated ‘nature’, as it was understood in the early twentieth century, “completely exempt from civilization, as something to be preserved and isolated from human reach” (Maisel).

Another pillar is Emmet Gowin. Gowin began making work from a plane in the eighties, after a long career making images of his family. Gowin is tied strongly to many well-known photographers and artists, Alfred Steiglitz, Frederick Sommer, and Harry Callahan. Scouring the landscape of the Southwest, Kansas and New England for aesthetically engaging manipulations to the landscape, Gowin treated his work like research. In conversation with Alfred Steiglitz’s Equivalents series, Gowin explores visually his scientific interests, specifically the way we are denigrating the earth, by offering visually compelling evidence to viewers. He isn’t, as Jock Reynolds writes in Above the Fruited Plain, “wagging an accusing finger—or in this case an airborne camera—at us from on high”, but compelling us to see ourselves as smaller versions of the corporations and governments that allow and fuel the devastation of such a landscape (145).

The perspective that Gowin and Garnett brought forward seemed to hit a nerve with many people. Richard Misrach, Frank Gohlke, in elevating their perspectives, both artists were allowing for a wider view of earth than was normal. The effects of large operations in rural or hidden areas showed the effects of human intervention on the land—erosion, algal blooms, and pollution were all extremely evident in the images. Sewage Tank, Santa Paula, California, 1953 was an early example by Garnett of the visible scar that waste dumping leaves on an environment. It is a smallish image, close to 11”x14” and made from a 35mm negative. Aeration Pond, Toxic Water Treatment Facility, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1989 by Emmet Gowin was a larger step forward. The image is a moderate size, nearly ten inches square and is hand-toned, giving a pallor to the highlights that squelch any lightness or sense of optimism about the site they represent. In Aeration Pond, rows of sand mounds responsible for filtering polluted water link the horror of toxic waste processing uncanny similarity to the structure of human cells, tying micro and macro to each other visually and implicating both the criminal and the victim. Gowin mused to a friend, “We tremble at the feelings we experience as our sense of wholeness is reorganized by what we see” (Reynolds 142).

Emmet Gowin. 'Aeration Pond, Toxic Water Treatment Facility, Pine Bluff, AK.

Emmet Gowin. ‘Aeration Pond, Toxic Water Treatment Facility, Pine Bluff, AK.

David Maisel took an early trip with Gowin to survey Mt. St. Helens after its eruption in the eighties and was strongly influenced, taking to the air and, to a degree, continuing the work Gowin started. Maisel’s work is decidedly different in presentation than Gowin’s as Maisel works in very large color photographs and Gowin works in modest black-and-white prints. Past medium differences, Maisel utilizes the landscape as Gowin understood it, but pushes the representational method Gowin retained to the very limits of recognition. The vivid colors and shapes within the textures of recognizable forms create, abstractly, a juxtaposition: simultaneous beauty (or interest) and horror (or revulsion). We are attracted by the forms, and repelled by the the indexicality of the disrupted landscape. We admire the beauty of the forms we created and are revolted by the method and reason of their existence. Maisel’s work is large so as to be considered in the same manner as a Diebenkorn’s large-scale paintings. The work also acts as a sort of precipice on which we stand, in the midst of a sublime and elegiac dystopian beauty, seeing the past and anxiously projecting about the future. Maisel’s types of landscapes have been widely described, but I think Robert Smithson (not referring to Maisel’s work directly) was hitting on something in his idea of a surd area; “A surd area is beyond tautologic… not really beyond, there’s no beyond. As a matter of fact, it’s a region where logic is suspended” y of Aerial Photography and Man-Altered Landscapesers to latch on to and orient thems(Tsai and Smithson 97). Maisel himself describes our position as being in a place where, “We stand amidst a collapsing landscape, and see ourselves as the agents of its undoing” (Maisel). At the same time, the landscapes have no horizon and no context for the topography of the surrounding world. They create a type of hyperspace that Vivian Sobchak says, “absorbs time, is apocalyptically and esthetically the ‘end’ of time – and of narrative. […] It tends to conflate scale as well as flatten depth; megastructures and microchips look the same” (Maisel).

David Maisel Lake Project 6, 2001. C-print 48 x 48 inches.

David Maisel Lake Project 6, 2001. C-print 48 x 48 inches.

The balance between optimism and pessimism in the light of such a harrowing reality is a difficult balance. In a recent interview with Alex MacLean, another well-recognized artist and pilot utilizing aerial photography, I asked how it was possible to find balance between the two states. Alex works in more of a pseudo-documentary pose, not abstracting landscapes as far as Maisel, but leaving small traces of recognition for viewers to latch on to and orient themselves, offering a different route to exploration for viewers. Alex was admittedly more interested in the wider reception of his images, as his practice operates both commercially and as a sort of intelligence-gathering or field research into wider topics of the human experience. He shared that as a pilot, as he is flying and photographing he is looking for many of the different paths of interest that he creates images around: everything from rooftops being used as a method of sustainability and energy conservation to the organization of sunbathers on beaches. The interesting sensibility that Alex has is that his images can be easily read in a surface way – they are representational – but the implications of the images take longer to register. In this way, his work has been shown everywhere from national and international press to high-end galleries. The artwork has a modality that lends itself to a much wider, and not always academic, audience.

Alex S. MacLean, Picnickers Listening to Live Concert at Tanglewood Lenox, Massachusetts,

Alex S. MacLean, Picnickers Listening to Live Concert at Tanglewood Lenox, Massachusetts,

In a similar way to MacLean, Edward Burtynsky follows an idea, like water or oil, closely all across the globe, from its generation to its terminus. Burtynsky is a researcher, often uncovering and connecting ideas that society takes for granted. He sees the big, big picture of a resource and presents the facts without a solution. Burtynsky spent time as a color timer, so his large images are reminiscent of a compelling cinematic frame. While Maisel and MacLean often tilt down to show the landscape from above, Burtynsky levels his horizon line to show scale and repetition of understood structures to create a sense of awe and overwhelm the viewer with sheer volume. The images are extremely representational and objects are recognizable and often reiterated ad nauseum. With each of his works, Burtynsky blends a mix of high-vantage images from the ground and images from the air, forcing a sense of elevation from the landscape. Aerial imaging is a tool, not a required part of his image making process.

Edward Burtynsky, Oxford Tire Pile #2, Westley, California, 1999, original signed chromogenic colour print

Edward Burtynsky, Oxford Tire Pile #2, Westley, California, 1999, original signed chromogenic colour print

Aerial imagery is moving forward quickly as satellite imagery is becoming universally accessible and the resolution is increasing daily. It is conceivable of a future where satellite and ground imagery is able to be viewed and streamed in real time by a public. Many artists are working with the fear and wonder of such an idea, and among them Clement Valla and Mishka Henner, especially as it pertains to Google Maps. Valla exploits flaws in the algorithms of the software that assembles the individual images into a ‘seamless’ composition. Henner scours Google maps to find locations and events that provide a platform for viewing ourselves as a broader civilization. Whatever the application, the place of aerial photography is secured for the present, and a significant voice at the table of human self-reflection and global identity.

Works Cited

Maisel, David. The Lake Project. Tucson  Ariz.: Nazraeli Press, 2004. Print.

“Nadar Elevant La Photographie a La Hauteur de l’Art.” : Print.

Reynolds, Jock. Emmet Gowin : Changing the Earth : Aerial Photographs. New Haven  CT: Yale University Art Gallery in association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 2002. Print.

Tsai, Eugenie, and Robert Smithson. Robert Smithson Unearthed: Drawings, Collages, Writings. Columbia University Press, 1991. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.



Jer Nelsen – Research Paper 4 – LUCAD – SUFA2015

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