From North Shore Sunday
Friday, May 13, 2005
Bird's-eye viewfinder
Aerial photo of Memorial Stadium
Parking at Memorial Stadium during Baltimore Orioles game, Baltimore, Md., 1990. (Photo by Alex Maclean)

When the truckers dumped their unripe tomatoes back in the tomato fields, they didn't realize they were making art.

But Alex MacLean was flying overhead in his Cessna 182, and he had his camera with him.

The photograph he took that day shows pale white and yellow lines, feathered like brushstrokes, on a deep green background. Each streak is a different color, and each ends in a pair of tire tracks. A conceptual artist could have spent days setting this up, choreographing the trucks and arranging the tomatoes just so, but on this day, the truck drivers were just getting rid of some useless tomatoes, and MacLean just happened to be flying over.

"Air Lines," an exhibit of MacLean's photographs, opens this weekend at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

Trained as an architect, MacLean is fascinated by the built environment, the intentional and unintentional traces that humans leave on the landscape. He works with architects and planners, taking photographs that document patterns of development and neglect. In the process, he has made some beautiful images, and these are on display in "Air Lines."

These photographs look like abstract paintings at first glance, but when the viewer looks again, they reveal a deeper layer of meaning. A dark pattern like the veins of a leaf becomes canals running through a housing development. Bright blue lines that run diagonally across the canvas are tanker cars in a rail yard. Undulating stripes resolve themselves into furrowed fields in a rolling landscape.

MacLean likes aerial photography because it allows the viewer to quickly grasp complicated patterns. "You can explain complex ideas quickly in a visual, so people get it in 10 or 15 seconds of viewing and have an image in their head, so they can explain the issue and have a better perception of why things work," he says.

Having attractive photographs makes that even easier. "You see this pattern, and at one level it's very abstract, and it draws you to the picture," he says. "You start breaking it down yourself as to what's going on, and in that process, I think you learn a lot about the landscape.

"You're forced to orient yourself as to what is going on, and you start to understand the elements that make this landscape," he continues. "If it was a purely abstract image, without any sort of content beyond that, you kind of let go of it and you don't walk away with any knowledge from it. It's very easy to take purely abstract pictures of the landscape, but they don't necessarily leave you with any information."

Borders and boundaries

Usually, MacLean says, the most "artistic" image is the first one he sees when he reaches a site. It will not be the only one, though. He flies around each site, taking photos from different vantage points to illustrate different aspects; he might include a farmhouse in a photo of fields, for instance, to show both the scale of the picture and the isolation of the people on the land. Or he might pull back to a wide view of a housing development to show the wetlands just behind it.

For this show, curator Elizabeth Padjen suggested MacLean use a theme of lines. "It's looking at an element that is on the landscape in various forms, for various reasons," MacLean says. "I've never really thought of line that purely by itself, but I've thought of line in a lot of different ways, through common things that I do like to photograph, which are borders and boundaries."

One of the photos in the show is of an abandoned cemetery bounded by a white stone wall, its square shape echoed by hay windrows that surround it in a series of parallel lines. "Boundaries and borders and edges are all things that show contrast, so you are able to take one element of landscape and contrast it with another, and through the contrasts you are better able to have an understanding of the two opposing things," MacLean says.

Pathways and containments also intrigue him. "When I started photographing, I looked at the built environment and I started to realize that what you see throughout the landscape is a common theme of pathways and containments that lead through the land or hold things in place," he says.

Still, he hadn't thought of line as a distinct subject until Padjen asked him to do this show. "I guess we started talking about it almost a year ago," MacLean says. "I started looking for lines and the idea of lines in the landscape, which is fun."

The idea of lines brings MacLean to the idea of time, which he says is present in his photographs but on more of a subliminal level. "There are lots of ways you can incorporate time into a photograph," he says. "One is through motion, because motion takes place over time. A pathway, in a sense, is a way where motion takes place. Overlays are things where one thing has happened after another, so it represents a sequence of time and definite things that change over time: shadows, color temperature, seasonal changes, geologic changes. Those take a picture from being totally static to giving it another dimension. It adds to the layer of meaning in the photograph."

Fear of flying

MacLean started college with the intention of going to medical school, but by his junior year, he says, he knew he was more interested in design and the arts. He graduated with a major in social relations, then earned a Master of Architecture degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

"I could have just as easily and happily gone into planning or urban design," he says, but he is happy with his choice. "Architecture is a great discipline for looking at the built environment. It was great education for learning to problem-solve."

Inspired by a chance comment about flying and looking at landscapes, MacLean learned to fly while he was in graduate school. "One of my best friends was a flight instructor and ran a camp for kids between 10 and 16," he says. "I went down there and worked as a counselor and learned to fly at the same time. I was kind of scared of flying - I spent my first 10 hours of flying just thinking about free fall."

But flying lessons themselves provided a valuable education. "What I learned in that process, physics, weather, all these different things coming together and having a definite application - that easily turned out to be more than a semester of college," he says. After graduate school, MacLean traveled for a while, did landscape architecture for about half a year, and then started doing aerial photography.

When he climbs into the cockpit, MacLean is usually working with an architect or planner, photographing a region from above to reveal patterns that may be less obvious from the ground. His Web site,, includes a visual dictionary of the different features of the built environment as seen from above: city centers, single-family homes, abandoned buildings, parking lots (empty and full), even roller coasters. MacLean also has collaborated on several books about development and land use.

"The jobs I like doing most are broad regional surveys," he says. "One example would be looking at the river that goes through Fitchburg and the connections to it. The city is trying to reconnect the downtown plan, and so you do a survey of the area and look at specific planning issues along the corridor. One of the most fun studies was looking at abandoned mill buildings in Rhode Island for potential housing conversion, flying in the Blackstone Valley and seeing what's out there."

He also likes working on master plans for colleges, cities, or entire regions. "It's sort of an exploratory process, and photographing the issues at hand," he says. "It could be parking issues, pedestrian issues, siting a new building."

Along the way, MacLean is alert for images that are more than just utilitarian. "It's fun to frame a picture, to figure out how you're going to construct it with the givens that are there that express some kind of meaning and idea," he says.

In "Cotton Harvesting, Buckeye, Arizona," the first thing the viewer sees is the pattern of diagonal lines made by the harvesters. The pattern is interrupted by the harvesters and the plumes of smoke they emit. "One of the things about putting a tractor in is it gives it scale," MacLean says. "It would be very easy to take the tractor out, but it also talks about the functionality of how the land is worked."

"Dry-land farming field, Shelby, Montana" shows gently undulating stripes that could be a scrap of striped velvet or a simple geometric abstraction. "It is very abstract," MacLean says. "It gives you a feeling for the sensual roll of the country."

After taking that picture, MacLean might pull back a bit and include a farmhouse in the foreground of his next shot to give a sense of scale. "If you shoot that out into the horizon, it gives you a sense of the vastness and the isolation of the people who might be living on that landscape," he says. "It's the same sort of content, but it gives a whole different view of the landscape."

Into the infinite

Working with architects and planners, looking down from above, MacLean is privy to sights that most people never get to see. Sometimes the patterns are accidental. His overhead view of cars parked in Baltimore during an Orioles game looks like a mosaic, with streaks of red and black running from top to bottom - streaks that are made by the chance juxtapositions of cars, not an artist's plan.

Other times, MacLean is looking at very deliberate patterns. What looks like a charming earth-toned abstract painting turns out to be house lots laid out in a development near Denver. From ground level, this may someday appear to be an ordinary subdivision, with green lawns and roads that curve in on themselves. MacLean's photo shows another aspect, a less benign one: the development is placed in the middle of a desert.

That speaks to one of MacLean's chief concerns: sustainable development. "'Sustainable' means it will keep going on into the future, that it is self-managing in a sense," he says. "Non-sustainable design is sprawling out forever on a desert such as around Phoenix and Tucson. Just by the energy and water consumption alone, the amount of consumption that settlement pattern entails is not going to be sustainable. There are not enough resources to keep it going."

His photographs often illustrate development patterns and show where they are going wrong. "If you look at a suburban community with three-car garages facing the street, you can readily understand why street life on that particular block is dead," he says.

"To me, one of the things that is interesting about flying is your subject matter is infinite, either from scale or view angle or content, because you're flying over a continuum landscape from urban centers to wilderness areas," MacLean adds. "In 15 minutes, you can be from downtown Boston to Worcester or almost to the Cape. When you do a cross-country flight, it's so much more."

Of course, infinity has its price. "It takes me forever to fly anywhere," MacLean says. "I'm always deviating."


"Air Lines," an exhibit of Alex MacLean's aerial photographs, opens Saturday, May 14, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and will run through April 23, 2006. The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General museum admission is $13 for adults, $11 for seniors and $9 for students. Members, youth 16 and younger and Salem residents enjoy free general admission. For more information, call 866-745-1876 or visit