Aerial photography gives the art of the landscape image a very different perspective. Cameras were taken into the air in the earliest days of photography. “The first to successfully accomplish this feat was Gaspar Felix Tournachon or “Nadar” in 1858 when he photographed the houses of the French village of Petit-Becetre from a balloon tethered at a height of 80 meters”. 1 One can now see amazing satellite images of the earth from miles up that are available from NASA, the US Geological Survey or more readily, Google Earth. 2 “…[O]ur generation is becoming accustomed to Google Earth and the neighborhood surveillance imagery over the world wide web”. 3 With the broadening and increasing common use of drones, almost anyone can take an aerial image. 4 So how and why can we better appreciate an image taken by a professional art photographer?
The appreciation of an aerial photographic image as art is challenged by the spreading and easy access to photographic images from above. 5 Appreciating aerial images as an interesting object, as art 6 and/or items of documentary importance requires a new framework. 7 Rebecca Senf, Curator of Photography at the Center for Creative Photography has said that: “Despite some similarities among aerial photographs, photographers have worked in different styles to engage the medium to achieve different ends.” 8 In watching a lecture by William Fox, Director for the the Center of Art & Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, he seemed to suggest that with an aerial photograph we look and study the image because we want to find out where we are in relation to the image, driven by an internal desire to better understand our macro environment. 9 In this Commentary, I explore this genre through the eyes of a photographic artist using aerial photography to help create such a framework. 10
Four images were selected from Jamey Stillings’ Ivanpah Solar 11 series to explore his capture, over time, of a man-made change on the the earth’s surface. Jamey Stillings’ work is photography with a purpose, and many of his images, from my perspective, are artistically very interesting. 12 In speaking with Stillings, he expressed that: “People don’t have a visual framework for energy projects in the landscape”. He commented further that he wants people to have a sense and feeling of these projects and to think more critically about this and similar energy projects. His Ivanpah project combines an environmentalist’s sensitivity with images that challenges us visually. As a photographer he is focusing attention on the intersection of nature and human activity and capturing how humans are transforming the earth. 13 “As an artist, aerial photography is a principal component of my work. I explore perspectives distinct from those found on earth's surface, revealing information and insight otherwise concealed.”
He chose to study 14 and photograph the Ivanpah Solar power plant in the Mohave Desert because, according to Stillings, it would become the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant, will reduce carbon emissions significantly, and provide a sustainable source of electricity. 15
Its important to put Stillings use of this photographic approach in perspective. In 2007, Kim Sichel at Boston University curated the exhibition “To Fly: Contemporary Aerial Photography”. 16 The exhibition captured an important distinction in looking at landscape photography: a view from above compared to traditional “feet on the ground” landscape work. Sichel commented that “aerial imagery often offers no one-point perspective, no horizon, no vanishing point, no nuance of light and shadow and no sky. Additionally, she notes, the world in this imagery is unpopulated because the scale is too vast to allow human figuration. Thus, “aerial photographs present a world that is shaped by man but not visibly inhabited by humans”.” 17 While her observation is a broad and general statement, it does capture, for me, a very important difference in appreciating an aerial landscape from the broader population of landscape imagery by other photographers, artists or scientists. Rebecca Senf 18 also captured a similar sense of aerial photographic work in her 2013 exhibition, at the Center for Creative Photography, “From Above: Aerial Photography”. In this exhibition she captured some of the different uses for aerial photography. 19
When I look at Stillings’ image #897, 14 January 2011 from the Evolution of Ivanpah Solar, I see an abstract assembly of shapes that remind me of the “peeling paint” abstract photographic work of Aaron Siskind. 20 Initially, I am not sure what it is that I am seeing when I study this image, but I have a very favorable visceral reaction. I am left with the question, what is it, or what is it going to be? Then I realize that it is a landscape and, as clarified by Stillings, the “natural erosion gullies of alluvial slope overlap with boundary and service roads of unit 2”. Stillings stated his intent is to move the viewer from a “Narrative” (“what is it?”) examination of the image to something “Metaphoric” 21 and “Transformative”.
In #5490, 6 January 2012, Stillings shows us an image that looks like a river reaching into a gulf; but with encroachment from the right of very controlled lines and waves. We know the hand of man has touched the earth and scratched into it something, but we don’t know yet what that something is. 22 From this perspective, understanding of form is misleading. We can’t perceive height or depth, or structure or material. We can just see that something is there and that something has happened. It is that mystery that engages us in many aerial photographs. But instead of a general view from above of what we know is a place on the earth, we know also something has happened in this place.
Stillings is not the only photographer to have a purpose in taking to the sky to document man’s impact on earth. 23 As an intense forward-looking study 24 following the development of a specific project, Stillings creates a dialogue with an understanding of the business behind that activity. Another aerial photographer, David Maisel, also uses aerial photography to expose environmentally affected parts of the earth’s surface, making dramatic images of the distressed terrain. 25 Maisel explores hard issues such as open pit mining, the use and depletion of the Owens Lake project or the destruction of the forests following the explosion of Mount Saint Helens. What is captivating about this type of photography, that for me also can apply to Stillings’ work, was expressed by Julian Cox, Curator of Photography for the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco when speaking about Maisel’s work, he suggested that the viewer doesn’t necessarily understand what you see initially… but are left with questions. 26
We begin to see the development of this solar power project in the next two images. Image #10006, 25 June 2013, transitions us to an answer for the question - “what is it?”. We now see structures beautifully patterned by shadows from a sun no doubt rising or setting on the horizon. 27 Stillings is very conscious of light and shadow. He has very clearly captured the sun’s impression on objects which he uses to better define what we see. 28 There is a tension in that the structures are both bringing organization to the image, or order, but their seemingly random pattern appears to work against that sense of order. We expect when something is built that it is solid and rigid. But these mirrors (or ‘heliostats’, as they are called in the industry) meander across the landscape giving a casualness to the image. Despite their formal, planned and industrial purpose to produce electricity for use by people or industry miles away, our guard is taken down somewhat by the informality of the pattern. The lower third of the picture is untouched land, clearly contrasted against structures pounded into the earth on the upper two-thirds of the image. The lack of a horizon line allows the image to be more artistic than documentary, even though it is documentary. A story is also clearly coming forward. He displays a talent as a storyteller in his sequencing of images, and the completeness by which he traces the development of this project over time. This distinguishes Stillings’ images as more than just technically well executed and enjoyable photography. There is story-telling and a dialogue in which the photographer is asking us to participate. 29
Capturing a story is also more difficult with aerial photography than one might initially think. We relate to people in telling a story. However, the ability to see people in these images from these heights is difficult, but structures that people build can be brought into view, directly or in abstraction. In some of the later images in the Ivanpah series, there are images of people in and around the heliostats. But, from the air there is a different dialogue put forward with remarkable visual consistency. The images are tied together not just by the subject, but visually in how well the eye can adjust from one image to the next. It is clearly demonstrated in these four images. To paraphrase Richard Woldendorp, a Dutch-born Australian photographer, consider that it is hard to ever take the same photo twice because the airplane is constantly moving, with differing elevations, changes in light and haze, climate changes, positions of the airplane and flight path. 30 In Stillings’ images, the visual consistency he has achieved between images has to be respected and appreciated.
With image #9499, 21 March 2013, from The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar, we see a literal line drawn between man and nature. While hard to tell size or elevation, a “rock”, or more likely a mountain, sits immoveable before an encroaching wave, or flood, of more heliostats than we can count. 31 Just like a barrier of rocks in a stream, the heliostats seem positioned to flow freely around this barrier. This confrontation of man-made objects and nature in his images is the art, the documentation, the story and the dialogue. It is all of the photographs in the series, brought together in a visual crescendo. Planned. Intended. Visually challenging.
Images used with permission of Jamey Stillings.