Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Above the Tay and other landscapes / latitudes

2016 started for me with a solo exhibition of aerial photographs hosted at the Discovery Point Cafe at the RSS Discovery in Dundee. The title "Above the Tay" related to a rather broad geographical area spanning from the Angus Glens in the north as far as Loch Leven in the south, with a particular concentration around my home turf of Dundee and St Andrews.

My "Above the Tay" exhibition at Discovery Point, Dundee.
The exhibition featured a combination of low level kite photographs and higher altitude images taken from light aircraft. It was a welcome break from the focus of my research work to compile the images around the loose constraints of the varied landscape that surrounds the Tay Estuary.

Some of the aerial photographs in the exhibition.
It was particularly satisfying to put the images on display at the fantastic Discovery Point at the epicentre of this geographical area and next door to the historic RSS Discovery, which featured in one of the aerial photographs.

The RSS Discovery and Discovery Point, Dundee. Kite Aerial Photograph.
Also included were some wider landscape shots taken from higher altitude from light aircraft. I have usually focussed on built heritage in my photography so working at a landscape scale presented some novel challenges for me. Directing the position of the aircraft is always tricky (more for the pilot) but at higher altitude there are also atmospheric and weather conditions to contend with. While we were photographing Clen Clova (below) we wanted to be pretty much at cloud level, so breaks in visibility like this one above Loch Brandy were down to good luck.

Loch Brandy with Glen Clova behind. Aerial photograph.
The forces that have created these larger landscape are breathtaking. The corrie that Loch Brandy sits in was formed by glacial ice spilling from the higher ground and gouging out the rock en route to what would later become Glen Clova. It's difficult to get a sense of the scale here but just left of centre frame you can see the popular walking path leading from Loch Brandy to the Glen Clova Hotel and climbers bar.

Skaftafellsjökull glacier, South Iceland. Aerial photograph.
In May this year I arranged another light aircraft flight at a different latitude, this time above the Vatnajökull ice cap in Iceland. Here we can see the same forces at work but in the present day. The glacier pictured above is Skaftafellsjökull, which runs from the Vatnajökull ice sheet down to Skaftafell and the gravel airstrip that we took off from. I've wanted to fly above Skaftafellsjökull since hiking around the lower regions in 2007 so this was a special experience, almost 10 years later! I'm already looking forward to returning to these landscapes and latitudes in future.

Shetland Revisited

When I have time for writing at the moment usually goes towards my thesis, which might go some way to excuse why I haven't posted on here for over a year, that and the fact that it's a been a very busy year. I now feel as if I should document some of that busyness here for prosperity. Perhaps this is a better way to use my blog anyway - some kind of annual review!

Last summer I happily spent a fair amount of time in Shetland, where I did my MSc project, this time gathering some new aerial photographs of Historic Environment Scotland properties as well as taking some time out. As always the stunning scenery and archaeology was complimented by the friendly personalities and good coffee (as evidenced above). I also did some photography with my Allsopp Helikite (above, bottom right), a kind of kite / helium balloon hybrid, which makes a very reliable aerial platform and always attracts the curiosity of passers by.

I also got the chance to return to Jarlshof, the fantastic multi-phase prehistoric settlement that formed the basis of my MSc project. The short film that I produced, which tells the story of Jarlshof using 3D animation based on low aerial photography, is now on display in the on-site museum run by Historic Environment Scotland (above, top left). It was great to explore the labyrinthine settlement remains up close again. This time my only aerial view of the site was from the window of my inbound flight as we landed at Sumburgh (above, top right). Aerial photography so close to an active runway is by permission only! My short animated film "Jarlshof" is viewable online here.

As well as the focus of previous fieldwork it was great to be able to explore the wider Shetland archipelago. There is a lot to see here from some of the lesser known prehistoric sites to cliffs bustling with birdlife. There is always more to come back to!

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Kite aerial photography travels around Scotland

Things have been a little quite here on the aerial photography front while I was on leave from my PhD on a work placement (which was fantastic but ground-based), so time to get hyped again with some recent kite photographs!

Linlithgow Palace with Linlithgow Loch behind, kite aerial photograph.
Driving through West Lothian in soft evening light I made a detour to Linlithgow Palace, one of my favourite locations for KAP. The palace is bit of a labyrinth to explore and I like how this view takes in both the interior and the landscape behind.

Stanley Mills cotton mill and the river Tay, kite aerial photograph.
Despite being very close to home this one was a first time visit for me. Stanley Mills is an 18th century cotton mill that was powered by the river Tay. This turned out to be a great site for KAP with the river providing an opening for the wind amongst tall trees and steep topography. The heavy clouds visible in the background contained hail, which was tipping down about half an hour later!

The ruins of St Andrews cathedral, kite aerial photograph.
Very much an old favourite, this view of the ruins of St Andrews is an alternative angle taken in the very last light of the day. Again the challenge here is to include both the foreground detail and the fantastic setting of the coastline and pier.

Ruthven Barracks with Kingussie behind, kite aerial photograph.
This was another return visit made in passing, this time while driving through Strathspey. Ruthven Barracks is built on a glacial moraine above a flood plain of the Spey river, which follows the course of the once-massive glacier that gave the valley its shape during the last ice age. The barracks itself was built in response to the 1715 Jacobite uprising and remains among the best preserved of its type. The landmark is always a welcome site on the journey up the A9 road, which you can see here raised above the marshland.

Friday, 20 February 2015

North to South: Photographs in transit from a holiday with latitude

There's been very little activity on my blog over the last few months for two reasons. Firstly I am taking six months out of my PhD on a work placement as a research assistant. Secondly, I haven't been out kite flying over the Christmas holidays because I was away travelling with my parents to South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. There are far too many photos of the trip to post here (I also shot this short video) but here are a few that I took with the camera pressed against the airplane window on our way from the UK to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.

I had to include this here as a heritage related image with a really distinct hillfort in the center of the frame. Spotted in passing somewhere in the south of England (in or nearby Sussex). If anyone can identify it please do! [Update - kindly identified by Rik Hammond as Old Winchester - more info linked here.]

Fantastic low light somewhere in the vicinity of Madrid, where we changed planes. The semi-desert environment of central Spain was an odd parody of our deserted destination.

A view on approach to the bustling Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina and our overnight stop-over. Near the height of summer the temperatures reached around 35ºC. This view shows the Puerto Madero waterfront.

A freeway passes over the sprawling city and into the center where it joins the Plaza de la República, site of the iconic obelisk visible in the distance to the top left of frame.

After traveling another 1,500 miles south we reached Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, pictured above. As well as it's impressive setting surrounded by mountains in the beautiful Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia is the busiest port for Antarctic expeditions. My brother Dan is a bosun on the Bark Europa, the tall ship which is just visible on the far right leaving for one of many trips to the Antarctic Peninsula that she will make during the season.

Here is my short video compilation of timelapse and live action footage from our Antarctic trip. The timelapses were shot with the aid of my trusty GentLED device. A fantastic trip amongst some mesmerising landscapes that will stick with me for a long time.

Monday, 20 October 2014

White Caterthun hillfort: Work in progress on a speculative reconstruction for my research film "The Caterthuns"

I've been sketching up some ideas of how to show a speculative reconstruction of the lost structures at White Caterthun hillfort. Here is a work in progress, where I have roughed in a series of palisaded enclosures and the large timber-laced wall. I've left the surrounding landscape as it looks in the current day.

A speculative reconstruction of the enclosures at White Caterthun hillfort.
A kite aerial photograph of the current day monument.
The image represents my own reading of the excavation report and RCAHMS record (linked here), with a good deal of added conjecture! I'm really keen to hear any thoughts and suggestions on this, particularly from the archaeologically-minded. I'm working with Alice Watterson to realise this speculative reconstruction into a three-dimensional visualisation as part of my upcoming research film "The Caterthuns".

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Kite Aerial Photography on the Isle of Skye

During a weekend away on Skye I managed to fit some kite flying around the temperamental hebridean weather. Relatively remote and undeveloped, the island offers some fantastic built heritage from prehistoric to modern.

A brief moment of evening light illuminated this shot of Dun Beag broch near the village of Struan. The two layers of drystone wall would have helped to support a much greater height than stands today. The upper portion has collapsed and remains as a pile of rubble visible at the bottom of the frame while the Cuillin mountain range can be seen in the distance.

Neist Point lighthouse was another superb location fro KAP on an exposed peninsular sticking out into the Sea of the Hebrides. To get this position a little maneuvering around the sea cliffs as shown in this shot looking back down the kite line. I'd like to say that this was very much safer than it looks in the photograph!

We also visited a onc of the clearance villages of particular research interest to my PhD colleague Kiera Shackleton, who arranged the trip. Low angled sunlight revealed the traces of rig and furrow field systems around the ruins of a farmstead in the photo below, taken near Ramasaig.

With no wind for kite flying on this occasion this is a place that, along with similar highland clearances sites, I would like return to and work with in future.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Big Dig: Excavations and kite photography workshops at East Lomond hillfort

As part of the The Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership (website here) the Big Dig, a community excavation, has been investigating the south slopes of East Lomond hillfort in Fife. A series of hut-circle-like structures, which first showed up in geophysical survey, have been uncovered and appear to form an extensive settlement area annexed to the hillfort.

The two trenches with the distant West Lomond hill behind.
I was commissioned to demonstrate kite aerial photography (KAP) and to record some aerial views of the site by Dr Oliver O’Grady of OJT Heritage on behalf of the Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership as part of the Discover the Ancient Lomonds Project (project blog here). The event was supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and New Park Educational Trust.

A near vertical kite aerial photograph of the main trench.
Situated high above the relatively flat Fife, East Lomond offers fantastic views in all directions from the Bass Rock in East Lothian all the way to the Grampian Mountains to the north. The excavations themselves were just as captivating with some enigmatic structures and stone settings accompanied by many interesting finds. While I was on site one of the student diggers came across a well preserved spindle whorl, part of a device for producing yarn for fabric, within an Iron Age context.

An orthographic view of the east side of East Lomond hill.
I used a rotating KAP rig and structure from motion (SFM) photogrammetry to build this topographical model of the area around the dig and the summit of the hillfort. This is a composite of a colour orthophoto and orthographic rendering of the structure data with low-level lighting used to pick up the topography.

In high wind those marquees could have almost served as big extra kites!  
As well as site recording I spent the morning delivering talks and workshops to school groups who were keen to learn about how aerial photography is used by archaeologists, but a little more interested in having a go with the kite. This is one of the shots taken by the students as another group works on excavating the trench. Extra KAP kits were very kindly donated by John Wells of the fantastic Scottish National Aerial Photography Scheme (website here).

The Big Dig with East Lomond hillfort behind.
Many thanks go to the organisers and volunteers who made the Big Dig happen. Events like this are great for raising awareness of the fantastic landscapes which hold the stories of our past, and with any luck we have gone a small way in inspiring the next generation of archaeologists and aerial photographers!