Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Evelick Hill Fort and Views Across the Tay

This kite aerial photograph was taken during a short reconnaissance trip to a prehistoric hill fort at Evelick, Tayside. The profile of the fort, which is built into a natural landform, is visible from the dual carriageway between Dundee and Perth. Venturing up onto the plateau for the first time I was met with fantastic views all around; from Schiehallion to the north-west, the Lomond hills of Fife to the south, and Dundee's bridges across the mouth of the Tay to the east.

A series of embankments encircle Evelick hill fort with Dundee behind.
The site is a fantastic example of an ancient enclosure making use of a natural vantage point and adapting existing topography into its architecture. One side takes advantage of the natural defenses of a steep drop while the other has been cut with a series of earthworks. While it is overlooked by a nearby higher summit - like many examples of this type of site - its position visually dominates the low ground below.

In this photograph I have attempted to add to the sense of scale by tying off the kite and running into the photograph (that's me in the orange jacket). This was kind of necessary (if exhausting) to add interest to an otherwise rather ambiguous feature. I am interested in in how a human presence may have an impact on photographs such as this which quickly become quite alienated from altitude. This is in part inspired by a trait repeated in the aerial photography of Yann-Arthus Bertrand, who often chooses to include a human figure in the frame.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Long Meg and Her Daughters: Encounters from Above and Within

When doing aerial photography work I'm used to having my feet firmly on the ground. With kite aerial photography, even if there's a hurry to get the camera in the air, arriving on site by foot always establishes a bit of a feel for the location. One of the reasons I was keen on taking a light aircraft flight above Cumbria - relatively unfamiliarity territory for myself - was to get the chance to approach an archaeological site from the first time from above. Long Meg and Her Daughters was such a site; a fantastic late neolithic stone circle outside of Penrith which I knew very little about.

My view from the hinged window of the Cessna 172.
I was accompanied on this flight by archaeologist, accomplished mixed media artist, and local guide during my visit, Aaron Watson, as well as archaeological illustrator and fellow current PhD sufferer Alice Watterson. With three of us and the pilot, the inside of the the high wing Cessna 172 was a fairly cramped space, although at the same time it feels somewhat exposed with the side window folded up for photography and not much beneath us but the landing gear.

Long Meg and Her Daughters photographed from the passing light aircraft.
We spotted the site on approach using the nearby river and farm building as landmarks. The rugged stone circle looks quite irregular from above, although I'm told that the flattish edge on the right hand side as seen above may have been accounted for by an adjoining lost feature. Nonetheless, as with many prehistoric sites, geometric precision doesn't seem to be a big issue.

The modern road and lines of rig and furrow intersect the stone circle.
As we circled the site is was hard to separate the ancient monument from its contemporary setting, the modern road, trees, and parallel lines of rig and furrow as well as modern farming become an integrated part of the graphic. These images say more about the relationship between past and present than they perhaps do about the Neolithic.

This immediate context of the surrounding valley cannot be seen from the ground.
Leaving the site we were afforded this wider view of the immediately surrounding context; the valley and grid of modern field boundaries are seen alongside the monument. As Long Meg was the last location on our flight plan, Aaron kindly drove us from the airport directly back to the site. Within two hours of taking the above photograph I was snapping this view from inside the circle, looking in the same direction.

The summit of the distant Helvellyn set against the possible entrance to the circle.
These views show an important aspect of the Neolothic site which is largely lost from the air; the way in which the stone circle frames the distant mountains. Long Meg is typical of this type of monument in that the circle an offers an unbroken 360 degree vista of distant high ground, which lies fairly evenly around the perimeter, almost like a second circle (see Bradley, 1998: 116-131). The view above shows how the short, avenue-type entrance-way, flanked by the distinct Long Meg stone, frames the distance peak of Helvellyn.

A circle within a circle - the monument perimeter and distant mountain range.
Whereas the surrounding river and valley dominated the context of the site from above, this middle distance is almost totally obscured when standing on the site. While this is accentuated slightly from the direction seen above by the modern drystone wall, the arena-like effect of the monument's placement is very clear from the ground.

When looking across the site from this angle the dissecting modern road almost disappears.
Needless to say, the site was almost unrecognisable on foot from what we had seen from the air earlier that afternoon. My immediate reaction was that I had read the scale wrong, although I couldn't quite place the size I had imagined from the air. I think this feeling was more likely just a reaction to a very different sense of place.

Long Meg is set apart from the circle, is made of a different type of stone and incorporates carved rock art.
Our contemporary understanding of Neolithic monuments has been largely shaped by a consideration of embodied experience and there is no doubt that the subtitles of placement and design within the landscape are easily lost from above. If there is a narrative which stands out from the aerial view it is about the relationship between modern and past worlds. The significance of this shift in perspective and the question of whether these two aspects can be successfully connected is one for further consideration.

Cited reference:
Bradley, R. (1998), "The Significance of Monuments: On the Shaping of Human Experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe", Oxford: Routledge

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Ye'll Tak' the High Road... Aerial Photography Altitude Comparisons at St Andrews Cathedral, Linlithgow Palace and Brougham Castle

I have recently had the opportunity to take some aerial photography from somewhat higher altitudes than I'm used to, allowing me to compare the process and outcomes of kite aerial photography with that of shooting in person from a light aircraft. Needless to say the two approaches are very different beasts, and the resulting imagery works in quite distinct ways. A convenient place to begin comparison is St Andrews Catherdral, which I tackled using both methods last month.

My first encounter was during a commission for Historic Scotland for a research project in collaboration with St Andrews University. The project will produce an experimental interactive interpretation panel, and the team were looking for some low level aerial perspectives of the current day site, upon which to overlay a reconstruction. The aim here was to gain enough height to separate the elements of the site without loosing the profile and context. Below is an outtake from the shoot looking along the remains of the - largely destroyed - main body of the cathedral. It is always an enjoyable challenge to photograph a lost structure and I think the large area of shadow in this picture helps to give a feel of the volume of the missing building.

St Andrews Cathedral, photograph taken from a kite aerial platform.
St Andrews Cathedral, photograph taken from a light aircraft.
Another feature of the top image is the proximity to the summit of the foreground "spire" (actually just the remains of one corner) which seems remote from the ground. Where the camera is in line with the tops of the structures the perspective is inverted, so that - while people and gravestones become distanced - otherwise inaccessible parts of the architecture seem more tangible and intimate. I particularly like the quirk that the distant caravan park is visible through the high windows.

In the high aerial view on the other hand - taken during a Historic Scotland sponsored flight in a Cessna 172 - the tops of the structures are as distanced as the everything else in the frame. We could say that this view - taken with a strong lens - is normalising, in that features are represented in broadly equal size. There is no possibility to focus upon foreground detail or compress the skyline into the background in the same way. Instead in this photograph it is necessary to include the sea cliffs in the bottom of the frame in order to give a hint of the site's coastal setting. The structures themselves are arranged more formally, almost akin to a measured isometric view. While this gives a more acurate impression of the site overall I think that this image would be somewhat less engaging if it wasn't for the long shadows and snow cover, which place it in a particular moment of time rather than in a technical drawing.

Linlithgow Palace, photograph taken from a kite aerial platform.
Brougham Castle, photograph taken from a light aircraft.
This second comparison shows a low altitude view of Linlithgow Palace, again taken by request from Historic Scotland, and a shot taken just last week from another light aircraft showing Brougham Castle near Penrith, Cumbria. The top image was taken with a very wide-angle lens and exemplifies the diverging vertical lines which often characterise the low altitude aerial view. As well as being graphically sriking, this gives a much better sense of depth and three-dimensional space which the site inhabits. When looking at a site of this scale from high altitude some of the ques for depth perception are missing; the effect of foreshortening and atmospheric perspective are both greatly reduced.

These two images demonstrate another significant difference. While the wide-angle low-level view can include the skyline, from the high-altitude oblique view, middle distance objects - the bridge and river in this case - can dominate the background instead. I have found that when composing photographs from a plane framing is far more of a challenge. Not only is the scene quickly changing as the aircraft passes by but the usual foreground-background structure is replaced with a more fluid juxtaposition of elements within the composition. This of course opens new possibilities in visually connecting features which perhaps share a narrative.