‘HIGH: Photography from Above’ brings together the work of five photographers who adopt varied, and sometimes extreme, techniques to give the everyday a fresh perspective, sparking the imagination and inviting us to consider the world in new ways. HIGH features works by Olivo Barbieri, David Drebin, Andreas Gefeller, Kacper Kowalski and Michael Light, and marks the first showing of Kowalski’s work in the UK.
The imaginative landscapes and cityscapes of Olivo Barbieri (Italy, 1954) challenge the viewer’s perception of reality by creating seemingly artificial, manufactured scenes. Utilising the technique of ‘tilt/shift’ focusing, Barbieri photographs from¬ a helicopter 200–500 feet in the air above his subject. The resulting compositions distort reality and transform the landscape into an artistic creation of Barbieri’s conception.
Kacper Kowalski (Poland, 1977), also embraces flight as part of his photographic practice. Originally trained as an architect, Kowalski developed a passion for paragliding which he describes as bordering on addiction. Seeking a way to incorporate this love of flight into his work, he began to take aerial photographs for use in developing architectural projects. Soon his photographs became recognised for their visual poetry and he gave up architecture for a career as a fine-art photographer. The works on view at ATLAS are drawn from Kowalski’s latest series OVER, which marks a new direction in the artist’s work; a speculative exploration of the erasure of humans from the landscape:
"What would happen if mankind vanished? What would be left behind? What will stay tomorrow, in a year, in a generation, in a thousand years? I have experienced a futuristic vision of the Earth in Poland, when a few cm of snow covered the world, and I, paragliding above in difficult weather conditions, started to feel emptiness: under my rib cage an unfamiliar planet, abandoned by people. Cold, empty, and strange. The sky merges with the Earth in front of me, the depths of whiteness stretch behind me. Through horizonless fog I move instinctively from one shape to the next, guided by structures and forms.
Kowalski creates this effect by flying in a gyrocopter the day after a heavy snow fall, capturing aerial images before the fresh snow has been disturbed. The resulting works offer intriguing glimpses of partially erased landscapes. Within their white expanse, visual clues of human activity – agricultural structures, helipads, railways – are partially visible, though not immediately recognisable. The images, in their simplicity, invite contemplation on mankind’s impact on the environment, as well as being a meditation on loneliness, and perhaps the ultimate fragility of human existence.
A commitment to exploring the relationship of humans with the environment is shared by Michael Light (USA, 1963), whose work joins a long list of great American photographers who have depicted the landscape of the Western United States since the mid 19th Century. Works shown in the exhibition include nocturnal aerial views of American cities, breath-taking in their expansive sprawl, shot from a light aircraft. The San Francisco-based artist has created six books, published in 22 editions worldwide. In order to make his work, the artist has learned to fly a small aircraft, and operate a large-format camera at the same time.
A distinctive emphasis of Light’s practice is his series of elephant folio photographic books, which hack back to the days of early survey photography. Three of these form part of the exhibition.
The work of David Drebin (Canada, 1970) features human figures embedded in dramatic compositions, consciously evoking the cinematic. Figures appear diminished within vast, panoramic landscapes and suggest a sense of freedom as well as implying our own voyeurism as viewers.
If these artists’ work is characterised by their use of expansive scale, Andreas Gefeller also photographs from above, but at a granular level, walking inch-by-inch across parking lots and golf courses, amassing hundreds of high-resolution photographs of the ground. Gefeller stitches these images together into single, large-scale composites, providing a view of the ground beneath his feet so intensely detailed that it appears abstract.
His works presented at ATLAS almost resemble textured, colour-field compositions, inviting speculation as to what they depict. Water, seen from above in 005 (2016) could be the surface of skin under a microscope, fuzzy static, snow or marble. A turquoise-and-white textured expanse, criss-crossed by an intricate black grid appears alien, but is in fact the familiar pattern of a tiled swimming pool, seen from a totally unfamiliar angle.
Each of the artists presented in ‘HIGH: Photography from Above’ has gone to intrepid lengths to capture life from seldom-seen perspectives, recording that which goes unnoticed beneath our feet. Their commitment to capturing these images allows us rare glimpses of the world we inhabit, as we have never seen it before.