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Bernhard Edmaier  Reef, Conception Island, Bahamas


When I am asked what super-power I would wish for (a question that comes up surprisingly often) I always chose the ability to fly.  X-ray vision, super-strength or infinite flexibility have a certain novelty charm, but flying would satisfy a deep pleasure that has been with me since childhood.  I love literally looking down.

There are aesthetic and intellectual pleasures to be had from a high viewpoint, as well as the sheer physical thrill of defying a natural law as fundamental as gravity.  The world is reduced to pure patterns, and those patterns can be read, puzzled over, wondered at, and understood.  Structures and relationships which are only vaguely grasped on the ground become self-evident once you see them from above, and the puzzling exceptions let you play at being an NSA imagery analyst as you figure them out.

 

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Nadar  Nadar and his wife in a balloon

From the Metropolitan Museum

 

Aerial photographs have been popular and newsworthy at least since Nadar and his wife crashed their balloon. Yann Arthus-Bertrand has created a commercial juggernaut out of his easy on the eye views, and there is a regular flood of “XXXX From The Air” books covering every location and price point.  I love them all, unreservedly, but in addition to the purely commercial photographers there are those who use the ‘wow’ factor of aerial photography to draw the viewer into a more subtle world.

Arthus-Bertrand, for example, seems incapable of shaking off an invisible little camera club judge, and habitually places a dollop of human interest exactly where the rule-of-thirds would dictate.  It gets tiresome after a while, and I prefer photographers like Bernhard Edmaier or my favourite Swedish nature photographer Hans Strand who stick with the gorgeous palette and sublime mood of mainstream commercial aerials, but have the nerve to create truly abstract images.

 

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Emmet Gowin  Dry Watering Hole, Magdalena, New Mexico 1998

From Changing the Earth


And then there are the self-aware Art photographers.  Often, their work suffers from a somewhat negative categorisation as issue driven, a labelling process helped by today’s universal need to back up a project with a predetermined concept, but for me at least the attraction is as much aesthetic as idealistic.  Photographers like Emmet Gowin and David Maisel have indeed found ways to be critically interested in land use without the self-indulgence of a strident hatchet job, but they also use composition and form in less than obvious ways, and Maisel’s sense of colour, strong yet nuanced, never fails to impress.

 

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David Maisel  Mining Project 5 (Butte Montana)

From The Mining Project


As photography though, even the art aerials are stuck in the early 1860s: everything in focus, everything comprehensible (if a little abstract), and all the emphasis on the thing photographed, not on the process of photography, or the mental state of the photographer, or any of the other favoured tropes of the contemporary schools.  In many ways it is a relief to enjoy such uncomplicated depiction, but it would also be interesting to see counter examples.  My own memories of the insides of small planes and helicopters are heavily coloured by noise and vibration and it would be instructive to incorporate the photographic environment into the resulting photographs.  Aerial photographs remind me in many ways of those wildlife films where the world’s most honed predator stares straight into the camera while the script doggedly pretends to observe without influencing.  I suspect most people feel helicopter time is just too expensive to waste on blurry pictures, but that, in a sense, is my point.

In any case, barring a lottery win or an encounter with a radioactive insect my work is unlikely to pose a challenge to any of these photographers for the foreseeable future.  However, I can play at least some of their games with the help of online mapping websites.  Google is the biggest, but until recently their datasets placed no less than three of my favourite places under heavy cloud cover, so local variants like hitta.se or the UK’s Multimap have also received heavy use.

It began when I spotted a jewel of a star fort while somewhere over The Netherlands on a flight to the UK.  Pre-internet I would have enjoyed the view, perhaps asked a few of my Dutch colleagues if they knew what I had been looking at, and left it at that.  However, I can now re-trace my route in Google Maps, find the fort, look at ground-based photos, and having deduced its name from the photo captions, check out its Wikipedia entry and look for articles in learned journals about its history and use.  Oh brave new world.  The only inefficiency in the process is finding the proper names of things once you have their coordinates.

Things can get out of hand.  When reading Simon Schama on Hermann the German and his slaughter of three Roman legions I ended up bingeing on a two-day trawl through Teutoburger Wald ephemera.  Still, with the help of wiki-hindsight the facts on the ground are easily tallied with grim historical reality, and the fatal bog that hemmed in the doomed Roman column is still clearly visible as a rosette of post-drainage field boundaries.

 

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Oxbows, kettle holes and pingos

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

It is no accident that many of the most fascinating aerial views involve hydrology.  Perhaps more than any other common landscape feature, water takes on an engaging combination of beauty and comprehensibility when seen from the air.  Whether it is the disappearing waterways of Schleswig Holstein, the overwhelmingly superfluous abundance of oxbow curlicues on the Ob river, or doomed Himalayan meltwater flowing north into the Taklamakan Desert, water always puts on an impressive show for the intrepid googlenaut.  The Lena delta has been quite literally a poster child for this phenomenon since early Landsat days, but a casual browse along the Siberian or Alaskan coasts reveals a lifetime’s supply of braided streams, kettle holes and pingos.  Selection suddenly seems superfluous.

And therin lies the problem: if everything is beautiful and fascinating, nothing is.  If there is no benefit to selection, there is no reason to abstract individual views, no reason to indulge in the activity of making photographs rather than simply browsing Google Earth.  Personally, I revolt at the idea of a hierarchy of landscape forms, especially the travel industry’s aristocracy of Most Awesome Destinations, but there must be some metric that makes the photographic or selective act worthwhile.

 

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Braque in Utah

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

The answer lies in individuality.  First the individuality of process: some people are simply better at winnowing interesting facts from large datasets, or are more motivated to do so.  Whatever the hype about collaborative cultures on the web, authoritative and popular editors and curators persist, and will continue to do so as long as the general public is averse to research using primary sources.  Second, there is an individuality of taste: it is simple enough to find views that look like the usual populist nature aerials, or even to re-visit the sites of established art projects, but if your tastes run to less recognised schools of photography and art, you are unlikely to find the work done for you. 

Fortunately, such issues are largely inconsequential, in the same way that looking at pictures of supermodels or high performance sports cars is inconsequential.  It’s just window shopping, and if Ferrari don’t make a model in my preferred shade of turquoise, there’s no harm done.   Armchair geographising only becomes pernicious if you allow it to mould your thought: for example, if you sit around moping that your local brook isn’t as wonderful as the mighty Yukon, or if you neglect your own beach because it doesn’t have a thousand mile coral reef just offshore.

 

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Scumbles, river and farm

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

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Drainage and peat burns

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

However, there is at least one consequential problem of aerial photography, and that is complacency.  It is too easy to believe that you have understood a landscape seen from above when all you have really done is fit it into a tidy set of predetermined categories.  When you walk over a landscape it has the chance to confront you with a reality different from your expectations, but pictures from space have only limited power to oppose interpretation in terms of what you already know, or, worse, confirmation of what you set out to find.

Trees illustrate the problem perfectly.  Looking at them only from above makes it very hard to see their general form, especially if they are in leaf.  Mountains have a similar problem, but height mapping and a three-dimensional perspective can resolve some of the ambiguity of a bird’s-eye view.  With a tree a straight-down single viewpoint simply does not record enough information.  The hedged fields of the Breton bocage are a perfect example.  From above, in early summer, the trees look much like any others: a googlenaut has no clue that they are in fact the weird and wonderful ragosses, a pollard form driven to extremes by local custom and tax laws.

 

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Bocage near Rennes in Brittany, France – Google Maps

 

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Les Ragosses seen from the side

Picture by Alain Amet from Philippe Bardel’s paper at the First European Colloquium on Pollards

 

To be fair, until recently Google Maps had a more traditional analyst’s view, taken in spring before the leaves emerge, and with low, slanting sunlight so that shadows reveal much about the terrain and the trees which is hidden in the summer view.  Google Earth does have the older data, but you have to explicitly go looking for it.   The tendency of Google’s primary data set to tend towards a summer holiday view of the landscape is an amusing analogue of the commercial landscape photograph, but highly frustrating for those who cannot afford their own plane or satellite.

Cartographers talk about establishing ‘ground truth': visiting sites to correlate the deductions of remote sensing with fieldwork.  The phrase should not be confused with the now slightly shop-worn military expression ‘the truth on the ground’, which has become a tool to browbeat civilians asking impertinent questions.  The mapper’s term is an intellectually respectable reminder that landscapes hold truths on many length scales, that restricting yourself to a single viewpoint is necessarily limiting, and that it pays to be humbly empirical when faced with the World’s extraordinary diversity of landforms.

 

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Tobey in Henan and Hubai

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

I am sure the professional image analysts are more expert than this autodidact Google gawper, but unless the NSA start offering classes in image interpretation for Everyman the fastest way to learn is to spend time comparing available imagery with how it feels to walk across the same landscape.  The superficially similar stripes of drainage ditches, medieval plough marks, water meadows, and post-clearances runrig tell very different stories to the botanist, the historian and the social scientist – and to the informed photographer.  A photographic response to such places is welcome of course to take a naive view, but my own preference is for photographers who pay attention to the messages written into the landscape.

Stillman Wagstaff, in a handy guide to reading the landscape written by William Cronon’s students, reinforces this point, that you should ‘toggle the scale at which you frame your attention’.  It’s a lovely phrase for an important process, one which I try to keep in mind while working as a photographer immersed in the here and now.  Toggling between timescales can be equally rewarding, and is as important, but that is perhaps a subject for another post.

4 Comments

  1. Mike Chisholm says:

    This is a great post, Struan — thoughtful and thought-provoking in just the right measure.

    It won’t surprise you to hear that one of my favourite pastimes is “flying” Google Maps, zooming in on interesting features in the landscape, and discovering the true orientation and relationship of places of which I have a pragmatically oversimplified “London underground map” understanding. As you suggest, it’s also an endless primary source of aesthetic interest. I love it when I encounter a change in the weather or light from one “square” to the next. I also occasionally get virtual vertigo.

    I’m going to read this post a couple more times, as I suspect there’s some useful things for me in there I haven’t yet spotted. Thanks!

  2. struan says:

    Thanks Mike

    I know that some organisations ban access to YouTube or online games to prevent skiving off by the workforce. In my case they would have to block online maps and charts.

    Google has been tidying up some of the more visible imagery seams and seasonal mismatches. In many ways it makes the experience less interesting, and reduces the reminders that you are viewing a presentation, not a raw feed. The little cloud over the nuclear armament depot at Coulport doesn’t seem to have moved though :-)

    Struan

  3. Leigh Perry says:

    Struan, this enjoyable post provided a welcome lunch-break distraction, allowing my shabby sandwich to slip by largely unnoticed. I appreciate that.

    Leigh

  4. struan says:

    Thanks Leigh. Here at the twiglog we take shabby sandwich stealthisation with a high seriousness. Glad we could help.