LOS ANGELES — My favorite moments in Up in the Air, the 2009 film about a frequent flyer George Clooney, were the ones that captured the landscape below him each time his plane approached a new city. The cities and towns seemed almost indistinguishable from each other from above, just another lump of roads and homes and nondescript office buildings.
This is always the most striking moment of air travel, when the clouds part and we can see the cities beneath us. And while we know intuitively that cities and suburbs rely on a repeating visual language, it’s striking to witness that from above.
A recent photo essay in WebUrbanist tipped me off to the work of photographer Alex MacLean. MacLean got his pilot’s license decades ago and has been capturing amazing views from above ever since. He finds the patterns and images from above that we might not notice from below. And unlike Google Earth, the shots are crisp and clear, taken by a camera from relatively close to the ground, rather than a satellite. There is a book of his aerial work but it is only available in French.
Many of the images seem unreal. Are beaches really that dense? Are traffic jams really that awful? They remind me of the manufactured work of Ross Racine, or photo essays made using Google Earth aerials, whether that be North Korean prisons, odd urban landscapes or assembled objects. As humans, we’ve spent most of our existence looking upward and over, but there’s something, dare I say, New Aesthetic-ish about seeing the world from above.