Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Thoughts from High Altitude

Reading an interview with the Scottish aerial photographer and artist Patricia Macdonald, given in 2004, I am reminded of a flight which I took a few weeks ago on a particularly fine morning from London Stanstead to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. I always relish the opportunity for air travel - nibbling overpriced airline food in the relative comfort of an airline cabin while staring out into the the strange no-man's land of high altitude airspace is a surreal experience. As the landscape slowly evolves from the familiar to the other-worldly I find it easy to be lulled into a state of reflection.

The Cantabrian Mountains, Northern Spain.
The view from the airplane window offers a sense of scale and context which is difficult to grasp from the ground. Passing through layers of cloud, which normally appear as if flattened to the inside of a sphere, reveals their depth and complexity. The vast interaction of land, sea, sun and sky can become visually abstracted, an almost alien world yet one which is in some ways more truthful than a ground level perspective. These paradoxical characteristics of the aerial view are referred to by Macdonald as a "...comprehensiveness [combined] with relative unfamiliarity and a related tendency towards abstraction" (Macdonald, 2004).

Passing over the seaport of Lorient in Brittany, France.
While crossing the bay of Biscay only the occasional ship, barely visible, gives the remotest suggestion of scale. The Atlantic swell mimics the patterns of smaller waves, or of ripples, a fractal effect which tricks the eye. I am reminded of this ever changing, almost hypnotic performance by Macdonalds description:
"The aerial viewpoint allows a strange combination of 'gazing' and 'glancing' (two 'modes' of photographic seeing which are normally distinct), which can lead to what feels like a kind of enhanced awareness" (Macdonald, 2004).
(interview by) Stevenson, S., 2004. Patricia Macdonald in conversation with Sara Stevenson. History of Photography, 28, pp. 43-56.

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