From Great Heights
When the French photographer Nadar captured the first aerial images of Paris from a hot-air balloon in 1858, he discovered a new means of depicting the urban landscape. Since then, aerial photography has been employed for a variety of purposes: military reconnaissance, land development, environmental monitoring, and even entertainment, as anyone who has whiled away an hour with Google Earth can attest. But the practical value of aerial photography does nothing to diminish its aesthetic value, as a recent exhibition at the BU Art Gallery shows.
“To Fly: Contemporary Aerial Photography,” curated by art historian Kim Sichel, contained more than 50 images by 13 photographers, displaying the medium’s vast aesthetic possibilities. Sichel is interested in aerial photography as a significant yet under-examined point where art and technology intersect.
In her essay for the exhibition catalog, Sichel stresses the “transgressive nature” of aerial photography. To contemporary viewers, such a claim may seem overstated, but in the mid-1800s aerial photography presented an entirely new way of envisioning the Earth and humankind’s relationship to it. Sichel explains that unlike conventional landscape views, which recede toward a “vanishing point,” aerial views flatten the features of the landscape, and they are not oriented to the spectator’s scale. Because aerial photography essentially discards the traditional method of comprehending three-dimensional space through two-dimensional images, the works featured in “To Fly” can provoke even modern viewers into seeing our surroundings from new perspectives.
Some photographs capture the beauty of the natural world by highlighting dramatic features of the landscape or by emphasizing abstract patterns in the land. Others—such as Marilyn Bridges’s images of Egyptian pyramids and other archaeologically significant sites—illustrate how humans have shaped, ordered, and damaged the land. For a few photographers, the destruction of nature yields unexpectedly beautiful results. The brilliant red tone pervading David Maisel’s The Lake Project #2, for instance, is the result of environmental and industrial pollutants in the water.
Curating an exhibition like “To Fly” requires considerable preparation, and for help Sichel turned to undergraduate and graduate students in the Art History department and Museum Studies program. Approximately 15 students in her Curatorship seminar took on a diverse range of responsibilities, from preliminary research to loan acquisitions. Sichel calls the seminar “both a scholarly and a practical training ground” that provides students with a crucial advantage in the competitive job markets of museums and galleries.
The exhibition has also inspired Sichel’s next research project, a monograph entitled Aerial Vision: Aerial Photography and Landscape Representation. In addressing what she calls a “large body of imagery that has not entered the canon of landscape photography,” Sichel aims to extend her study of how aerial photography has “vastly influenced our way of perceiving the modern industrialized world.”