Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Photographs that look down from a great height

There is something so compelling about seeing our world from on high. What has become such an easily accessible experience for us was once something truly extraordinary. What must the residents of Paris have thought when they first encountered their city photographed by Nadar from a hot-air balloon in 1858.

To help orient viewers, Nadar helpfully uses superimposed words to provide a few reference points: 'Montmartre' is indicated in the top right, 'Les Ternes' (which in 1858 was a town that had not yet been incorporated into Paris) is at the top left, and the 'Avenue du Bois de Boulogne' is clearly indicated at the bottom. Today an image such as this would hardly merit notice, but it must have sold enough copies to encourage James Wallace Black to produce this photograph of Boston in 1860:

Another magnificent example, produced some decades later, is George Lawrence's aerial photograph of San Francisco immediately after the 1906 earthquake. Rather than using a balloon, Lawrence used a kite to produce his image, and it was striking enough that he sold them for $150 each - the equivalent of several thousand dollars today.

A decade or so later the development of aeroplanes made it much easier to make striking images of cities from the air, and so begins the process by which such images become familiar and less striking. Still, everyone now and then photographs appear that recapture the magic. This is one that I stumbled across recently, taken from the very top of the Burj-Khalifa:

I am prone to acrophobia, and when I came across this image I did (and often still do) feel a mild dizziness. I suspect it is the shoes resting on the edge of the precipice that gives me the flutters. I don't admire the person who can stand there managing to stay calm while they set camera up. Rather I feel a kind of horror.

The Burj-Khalifa is 829.8 metres high, well above the altitude at which the earlier pictures of Paris, Boston and San Francisco were made. Indeed, so much so that what we see below doesn't really look much like a city. That might seem even more obvious in the following image, in which we are spared the feet of the photographer.

If you encountered this last image without any explanation of what it depicted, I doubt many people would quickly be able to identify the subject matter even in general rather than specific terms. The skyscrapers on the left are the best clue, but ignoring them it looks rather like a rather busy abstract composition. Knowing what it depicts, however, I think there is still a bit of 'wow' to be had from this image.

You may have noticed that all of the photographs so far discussed picture their subject matter from a greater or lesser (very much lesser in the case of the Burj-Khalifa images) angle. But the Burj-Khalifa photographs also suggest that a perpendicular perspective provides a potentially very interesting and different way to view a city.

Jeffrey Milstein has noticed tho and produced some quite extraordinary images of Los Angles. Even more than the Burj-khalifa images, which after all are more of the 'hey, look at this', they present urban environments as abstract compositions. One of my favourites is this one of the Los Angles container port.

Would you have been able to work out that it was a container port? And how long would it take you? This gives us the world transformed into forms and colours, disguising its origins. Here is another Milstein photograph, this time of a Los Angles suburban neighbourhood:

and another of the same neighbourhood:

Or another, looking just like a striking abstractor composition:

Not all of his photographs so readily become abstracts. This one of the airport is obviously an airport, and yet the appeal of the forms almost overwhelm the our readiness to see the subject for what it is:

What Milstein manages to achieve is a way of reconfiguring and reinvigorating the wonder at our world seen from above. A similar affect and achievement can be found in the work of many other photographers. Kacper Kowalski, name but one, approaches his subject much as Milstein does, but in his world we find far more organic forms, and a rather more peaceful mood:

But it seems to me that all of these images work their very different magic by being in a kind of Goldilocks zone of not too high and not too low to the ground. Too high up and the disconnect with the world of experience is too great. Too low down and it doesn't provide an interestingly different perspective on our world.

Get it just right and we are given the impression of being in a privileged place, seeing our world in a manner out of the ordinary but also to a degree thrilling.


I mentioned that I suffer from mild acrophobia. Sometimes to test my resilience I try to watch the following film to its conclusion. I usually give up after a while as I simply find it to too uncomfortable. Its such a strange phenomena suffering acrophobic discomfort from a film.


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