PHOTOGRAPHY and manned flight are roughly the same age. The latter may be a little older – the Montgolfier brothers sailed over Annonay, France in a hot-air balloon some 30 years before Nicephore Niepce took the first heliographic picture from the window of his Burgundy estate in 1826. But aerial photography was born soon after that, as balloonists brought some of the earliest cameras aloft in their baskets, while Victorian meteorologist E.D. Archibald tied them to kites, with explosive charges on a timer to trigger the shutter.
Through the 20th century, both technologies advanced to the point that the sight of the Earth from the air became familiar to us. Anyone with a laptop can now zoom in and out of satellite images willy-nilly, and commercial drones with in-built optics are relatively affordable and easy to use.
“My teenage kids can fly these things, and take pictures with them,” says veteran aerial photographer George Steinmetz. “OK, the pictures aren’t that great, but they can get up there and do it.” A long-time contributor to National Geographic and other publications, Steinmetz will admit that this development has lately seen more amateurs encroaching on territory that used to feel like his alone – that “low altitude” between 100 and 500 feet.
A drone, to Steinmetz, is not much more or less than “a motorised kite on a leash”, though he’s not averse to using them if the situation calls for it. “Every tool has its advantages,” he says. But he made his name on pictures taken from a custom-built paraglider that he calls “the flying lawn chair”. His books, such as Desert Air and Empty Quarter (both published by Abrams) catalogue images gathered over months and years of buzzing solo in that chair above the world’s “hyper-arid” regions, including Rub’ al Khali, the vast expanse of sand across the southern Arabian Peninsula.
Steinmetz started out as a geophysicist at Stanford University, before dropping out to travel around Africa some 30 years ago. There’s a sense in which aerial photography has been a continuation of his studies. “Geographers especially love deserts because everything is revealed,” he says.
“You can see the Earth with its skin peeled away, and you can do a kind of autopsy of the ground from the air. The erosional forces, the faultlines, they all tell the story of the land.”
The paraglider is another practical tool, rather than some kind of gimmick, and Steinmetz is a journalist, not a hobbyist. Or, as he puts it, “I’m a photographer who flies, not a pilot who takes pictures.” The lightweight, portable, manoeuvrable machine allows him privileged angles and positions in space without becoming too far removed or abstracted from human scale. “Well you can still see what people on the ground are wearing, even if you can’t quite tell what brand of jeans they have on.”
(It also puts him in occasional jeopardy, as when sandstorms blow in while he’s airborne. “The wind comes up very fast, faster than you’re flying. So landing in a sandstorm you’re moving backwards as you’re trying to touch down with about 100 lbs of equipment on your back, and basically a drag parachute over your head. It’s very easy to get messed up.”)
In the course of his career, many of his pictures have effectively told stories of environmental degradation. “You try to be even-handed about these things,” says Steinmetz. “The job is to go to problem spots and provide the information to let people decide what they think about it. But what you often see is more evidence that the hand and footprints of man are heavy and widespread. There aren’t many places left untouched.
“Even in the deserts, the animals that were just hanging on to existence are being wiped away. Where you used to see ostriches, giraffes and elephants running around, a lot of those have been hunted out with cars and guns. All these formerly pristine landscapes are all tracked up.”
Of the many uses that aerial photography is now put to, from military reconnaissance to civilian conveyancing, its most urgent application has lately been the documentation of climate change. And where Steinmetz’s approach was always reportorial, others are now taking pictures with more expressly activist purpose.
John Quigley is well-known for his “human aerial art”, by which he arranges crowds of volunteers into certain formations against specific backdrops, staging dramatic images to highlight ecological issues. His art collective Spectral Q has created one-off event-pieces for Greenpeace like the famous Melting Vitruvian Man of 2011, a giant rendering of Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic anatomical drawing, made with copper wire on a floating piece of Arctic sea ice the size of four Olympic swimming pools.
More commonly, he’ll have his collaborators form into words, phrases and figures – a whale on Bondi Beach, “SOS” and “acid ocean” written in floating boats and coloured kayaks off Homer, Alaska, photographed from overhead. Those participants become what Quigley calls “co-creators of a momentary human sculpture that is documented for the world to see then dispersed to the wind like a Tibetan sand mandala.”
David Maisel’s aerial artwork is less explicit, more abstract in its gaze at post-industrial landscapes, inviting a conflicted response. Hanging halfway out the window of a small plane, or the door of a helicopter, shooting on film with a handheld Hasselblad camera, Maisel takes photos of open mining pits, mineral extraction sites, lakes tinctured by toxins.
The resulting square-format images are perversely pleasing to the eye, like hyper-colourful fractals or pictures of blooming nebulae beamed back from a deep-space telescope. At the same time, the viewer is queasily aware that the beauty they are beholding is a close-up of environmental scar-tissue, or an aesthetic side-effect of planetary poisoning.
“I think it’s transformation that I’m really trying to capture,” says Maisel. “Things turning into some other state, environments becoming otherworldly and surreal. That human-induced trauma to the landscape interests me more than industry per se. The unintended consequence of our actions, unfolding over time … ”
Which is to say, he has never seen the appeal of photographing pristine, undamaged natural scenery either. “I can’t go to a national park and make a picture of a pretty mountain. I just can’t. It’s probably a flaw of mine.” He went to Iceland once, and “some of it was quite beautiful”, but his reason for being there was to shoot the construction of the massive Karahnjukar dam in the volcanic wilderness north of the Vatnajokull glacier.
For his latest project, The Fall, he again ventured far beyond his usual American turf. Invited to take aerial photos of Toledo, Spain, for an exhibition pegged to the native painter El Greco on the 400th anniversary of his death, Maisel scouted further afield in his own time. He tasked his helicopter pilot to fly him over the agricultural zone around Fuensalida, with its geometric arrangements of olive groves, and the abandoned, post-crash real estate developments that lie like ancient ruins near Vicálvaro.
(Also nearby is a major army base, which meant that the Spanish military had to send an observer along in the chopper. “I don’t use a digital camera so I couldn’t show him the photos, but I think he could see that we weren’t spies.”) They also covered swathes of Castilla La Mancha, Don Quixote country, where the soil is so alkaline that it appears silver from a height, and looks something like the surface of an alien moon.
“Some of those landscapes are like cubist constructions, and other areas have such a high mineral content, all this borax in the ground creates a kind of glistening effect I’ve never seen before.” Asked how he can make art with a manual camera while travelling at high speed, at high altitude, his head filled with noise from propellers or rotors, Maisel says he “choreographs” each flight carefully, and usually knows how a given shot will look even before he presses the button.
“You do have a lot to think about up there. What’s the speed of the aircraft, how many frames have you got on the roll … I try to know what I’m looking for and time it all out in advance. But there’s also a lot to be said for working looser than that and trying not to edit in flight. When you’re banking in a Cessna, or doing these tight spirals in a helicopter you often get these unintended compositions that are almost like street photography, dependent on your position in space.”
Sometimes, he says, it’s even possible for an aerial photographer to forget where he is relation to the Earth. “I remember one flight where I felt really cold in the cabin, and I was having a hard time with my manual dexterity. Working the camera, changing the film. And the pilot said, well yeah. We were so high up that my brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I hadn’t actually thought of that. So now I always keep the oxygen handy. A couple of hits of that tank makes you feel much more on top of things. Quite literally, haha.”