The invaluable and often overwhelming ffffound! recently tipped me off to the incredible work of Alex S. MacLean. An aerial photographer, he takes shots from his plane that are simply unlike anything I’ve never seen before. There’s a geometrical precision to his work that is mind-blowing–his overhead shots of various parking lots (!) are without a doubt some of the most satisfying aerial photographs I’ve ever come across. Remember when you first saw those examples of great tilt-shift or even–heaven forbid–HDR photography a while back, before that “oh man this is cool” feeling quickly gave way to “this is getting old”? MacLean’s stuff–all of it–exists solely in that little ‘wow’ moment.
He’s got a photo called “Snowplow Stripe in Snow Covered Parking Lot”, and its strange symmetrical organization of what is nothing more than a few tracks left by a departed snowplow is far more beautiful than it has any right to be. It looks like a series of guitar or mandolin strings, only slightly out-of-place. His shots of the suburbs are exactly what you might expect, and yet entirely amazing.
This is the best aerial photography I’ve seen since Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Earth From Above, except where that project chronicled both the near and the far, and the incredible man-built and natural features of earth as seen from the sky, MacLean’s work is much more fundamentally concerned with human intervention on the American landscape. It’s all about patterns and unfailing precision, and his work really gets to the heart of how beautiful some of those patterns can be, and at the same time how very coldly they sit on the landscape.
I’ve never been one to heartily defend the post-war American suburb, and I doubt I ever will be, but MacLean is the first photographer to ever make me stop and think to myself “damnit, that’s beautiful” in regards to something I see as fundamentally mistaken. While it’s really his photographic eye that makes these things gorgeous, before seeing them myself it would have taken a long while to convince me that overhead shots of land plots and suburban arterial roads could be so incredibly enticing.
In November MacLean will release his latest book, entitled Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point. It features an introduction by Bill McKibben, who without hyperbole is probably one of the finest nature writers in the world. There’s no question where the two of them stand on the issue of North American land-use policies, and viewed in sequence, the evidence Maclean’s collected (you really do need to see how these things look from the air at times) makes a powerful argument against wasteful development.
From his website, which will easily be the best thing you see all day:
Pilot and photographer Alex MacLean has flown his plane over much of the United States documenting the landscape. Trained as an architect, he has portrayed the history and evolution of the land from vast agricultural patterns to city grids, recording changes brought about by human intervention and natural processes. His powerful and descriptive images provide clues to understanding the relationship between the natural and constructed environments. MacLean’s photographs have been exhibited widely in the United Sates, Canada, Europe and Asia and are found in private, public and university collections.
He has won numerous awards, including the American Academy of Rome’s Prix de Rome in Landscape Architecture for 2003-2004 and grants from foundations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and Graham Foundation.
MacLean is the author of seven books including: Visualizing Density (2007), The Playbook (2006), Designs on the Land: Exploring America from the Air (2003), Taking Measures Across the American Landscape (1996) and Look at the Land; Aerial Reflections of America (1993) and Above and Beyond; Visualizing Change in Small Towns and Rural Areas (2002). MacLean maintains a studio in Cambridge and lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts.