Photo Essay

Aerial Wonder

Intrepid Potash Mine; Moab, Utah

"I believe that anyone who flies in an airplane and doesn't spend most of his time looking out the window wastes his money." - Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert

What is "natural" and what is "man-made"? On the surface, the distinction seems simple and intuitive. But the more time I spend digging into this question, the more complex and nuanced the answers become. And as the organic and human-built environments become further intertwined, the distinction ceases to carry much meaning. Grappling with this idea has long been a cornerstone of my photography.

As a lifelong travel addict, I spend an extraordinary amount of time with my head alternately buried in a map, or pressed against the window of a commercial jet. And what I have come to realize is that these two practices are - for me - different means of channeling the same experience. When I look down upon the landscape from 39,000 feet, I am enthralled with how beautiful it is. But not just the "natural" land forms; I am especially drawn to the highways, the railroads, the bridges, and the dammed reservoirs - the unintentionally aesthetic marks of our advanced infrastructure.

Poring over a map is really just a schematic way for me to continue staring out the airplane window after I am no longer basking in the stratospheric sunlight. Likewise, when I am in the air, I often find myself reflexively "reading" the land as if it were a map; identifying notable places and structures in my endless quest to know everything about everywhere. And of course the places that interest me most are those where the organic landscape has been marked or reshaped by people.

I started hiring smaller planes in order to gain more control of my aerial photography. I have made many great pictures from commercial jets, but these images rely upon fortuitous routes and timing, not to mention very clean windows. In a Cessna, with the wings overhead, I can remove the glass altogether, and my hired pilot will bank and circle over the same mine tailings for an hour if I want her to.

The glorious abstractions of Moab's Intrepid Potash Mine, and the evaporation ponds of San Francisco Bay represent some of the more extreme examples of human-built structures taking on a deep aesthetic beauty when seen from above. I can't resist making pictures there. But I am also increasingly excited about the more pedestrian marks - the highways, the railroads, the artificial shore lines - which can be just as magnificent in their own elegant simplicity. These structures are certainly built by humans and can hardly be called "natural" in any objective way. But as I gaze down upon them, and out over the surrounding landscape, their stunning beauty and serene elegance rivals even mother nature's best work. And in many cases the juxtaposition of the two worlds produces a visual harmony that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

When a dam is built across a river to create a reservoir, is that a "natural" structure? Before you answer, ask the beaver who built it. And then let me take a picture.

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