Review – OVER: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point

OVERWhile many of us may futilely try to verbally explain abstractions like ‘auto-dependency,’ ‘resource depletion’ or ‘density,’ aerial photographer MacLean heeds the ancient wisdom about the power of a picture.

Transcending usual limits of geography and scale, he rises above and captures in rich detail those scenes we only catch brief unsatisfying glimpses of during our own infrequent takeoffs and landings from commercial airspace. With nothing more than a ‘click,’ he makes all of those abstractions and subjective arguments fade away into beautifully composed, sometimes frightening, always arresting images of our American landscape.

When architect Alex MacLean started photographing the American landscape with a plane’s yoke in one hand and a telephoto lens in the other more than 20 years ago, it kicked off an aerial exploration that would carry him across the country. Through the years, he’s flown over much of the United States, from coast to coast, freezing the American landscape in time.

Early on in his work, the tone of his commentary was cautious at times, leaving the reader or viewer to draw their own conclusions about the wisdom of things like subdivided tract homes and swimming pools far from town in a vast western desert. In retrospect, this was perhaps a fitting tone for an explorer currently on the journey, before he’s seen enough to render his own verdict.

Now, after several decades of seeing and learning about all of the best and worst that America has to offer, MacLean seems confident in the conclusions he asserts about the wisdom and sustainability of the way we live with our land. Confident in his belief that we have truly reached a tipping point, he gives us compelling visual aids to, in the words of his publisher, “reconsider our basic assumptions about how we live, work, and play…” and the ramifications that our choices in the built environment have on nature — and on ourselves.

While he draws conclusions, they are not solely based on subjective visual judgments. The captions and commentary in the book are enhanced with meticulous research that fills even the simplest of photo descriptions with vital information to help illustrate the interconnectedness of our living and artificial systems.

In a departure from some other similar books, each section of images are wrapped around a topic and a brief essay by the photographer. Individual images on topics like auto-dependency, atmosphere, urbanism, and electricity generation — when considered with the whole, become undeniably interrelated.

The power in a book like OVER still lies primarily in the simple ability to examine closely that which we cannot easily observe from the ground. At its essence, this beautiful new book of photographs from MacLean is an examination of the spaces where our natural ecosystems meet the man-made ones. You can decide for yourself whether that intersection is beautiful, frightening, or a surreal combination of the two that might hopefully prompt us all into action.