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The View from Above

Aerial photographer Emmet Gowin speaks tonight about his life as an artist

Click on the slide show above to see images from To Fly: Contemporary Aerial Photography and from the exhibition opening. Opening exhibition photos by Vernon Doucette


At first glance, Emmet Gowin’s photographs look like abstract paintings — perfect gray-toned circles scattered over a canvas. A closer inspection reveals agricultural landscapes, crisscrossed by irrigation pivots.

Gowin’s photos are among those being shown in the exhibition To Fly: Contemporary Aerial Photography, which opened on September 6 at the Boston University Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery and runs through October 28. The show combines the varied styles of 14 photographers who have one thing in common: the camera’s angle, hundreds of feet above the Earth.

Gowin, whose photos document environmental destruction, will speak about his life as a photographer today, September 14, at 6 p.m. in the College of Fine Arts Concert Hall, 855 Commonwealth Ave.

“I originally wanted to be a painter,” says Gowin, a professor of photography at Princeton University, who has flown over western farms and the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear weapons were tested beginning in the 1950s. “But as a photographer I’ve done things I would have never dreamed of doing. If someone had told me I would be shooting toxic waste and nuclear armaments from the air, I would have thought they were crazy.”

The BU exhibition also includes shots of glaciers in Alaska by Bradford Washburn (Hon.’96), Frank Gohlke’s images of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and Adriel Heisey’s documentation of ancient Native American sites.

“There’s a booming collection of photographers who are interested in aerial vision as opposed to a conventional land-bound, landscape vision,” says exhibition curator Kim Sichel, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of art history.

The concept of shooting from the air has been around since the advent of photography, Sichel says, giving photographers another perspective. Esteban Pastorino Díaz uses an old reconnaissance technique, attaching a camera to a kite, to take his photographs. But most photographers want to be in the air themselves. Heisey captures Native American pueblos from a flying machine he designed himself.

“There’s an interesting link between photography and flying,” says Sichel. “Photography is sort of a mechanical or technological medium, and so is flying. Quite a large number of photographers are pilots themselves. They’re interested in using complicated technology to get an image.”

Marilyn Bridges, whose work is also part of the exhibition, obtained a pilot’s license in 1983 after she first started shooting aerial photography. “It was the only way I was going to make a great photo, knowing how to place myself in the sky,” says Bridges, who photographed Egyptian antiquities while flying slowly at a low altitude. “When I’m shooting, I have another pilot fly the plane, because there’s no recovery space if the plane stalls.”

Bridges uses the plane as a tool, positioning herself to photograph the long shadows of the pyramids and the sphinx. “It all happens so quickly, I have to be totally present,” she says. “I like to take it to the extreme, and it’s almost acrobatic. There’s so much information up high — I have to choose a small section from a huge canvas.”

When Gowin is photographing landscapes, he says, he tries not to overthink the process. “Any image that’s really good is a surprise,” he says. “If the photograph is truly fresh and new, you won’t understand it when you first come across it.”

The BU Art Gallery, in the College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and is free and open to the public.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.