Here is something obvious, but always worth repeating. Perspective creates insight.
I don’t mean insight in any all-encompassing way. What I mean is the simple fact that taking a picture at toe-level reveals an insight different than what you would learn from a camera held over the artist’s head. We’ve all learned that one step to the left or right, or a small change in elevation, can make the difference between mundane and sharp.
What do we think, though, when a new perspective becomes available? How do we respond, both as artist and audience?
“Water Views: Rivers, Lakes, Oceans” by David Ondaatje
Published by Monacelli Press, 2022
review by W. Scott Olsen
We’ve had aerial photography for a long time, yet we are in the early stages of an aesthetic or artistic consideration of the drone image. Yes, it’s a new perspective. Yes, a drone can provide an unusual image. But what does the drone image tell us that is illuminating and special?
The view from above is a perspective oddly situated in the human mind. The cartographic view, no matter what projection, is a view from above. Looking down on something, and I don’t mean that pejoratively, has always been the point of view of wisdom and insigh – think Mount Olympus.
But you can be too far above. Images from airplanes are usually uninteresting because all detail and context are removed by the great altitude. So we want to be above, but not too far above.
Enter the drone.
Water Views, a new book by David Ondaatje, is a spectacular book. Ondaatje is, for this project, a drone photographer. And, yes, every image is an aerial view of water, most often shorelines and coasts, rivers and streams.
The drone shot, in this book, is a subset of landscape photography. Landscape photography calls to something ineffable in the human spirit. It is evidence of the planet that houses and sustains us. Our relationship to nature has always been simultaneously loving and troubled, so to see it in a new way is fascinating in the new relationships revealed and the new emotions we explore in our reactions.
Water Views is an elegant book filled with aerial views of transitional spaces, the dynamic quality of waves reaching shore, of rivers bending, of people encountering and navigating that transition. Nearly every image has some kind of border involved. Most of the images are taken at about the same height (roughly 400 feet above ground level), some a little higher and some a little lower. In many of the images there is a human, although sometimes difficult to spot, included for a sense of scale. And the effect of this particular altitude is that the world is recognizable, in shape and detail, but so much bigger than our usual view. There is a feeling of hugeness on every page.
Because every page is a similar point of view, a quick scan through the pages might give the impression of repetition. But to say these images are all pretty much the same is to do a gross disservice to this project. Water Views is a beautiful book.
The book is divided into ten chapters with titles like Beaches, Waves, Wilderness, Western Trout, Developed Waterfront, Emerald Escapes. The book travels to places such as the Bahamas, Italy, Oregon, Montana, Florida, British Columbia, Belize, New Brunswick and elsewhere. The colors are rich and deep. Every spread is arresting. Every page is worth a long consideration.
Several of the images from Italy are of beachfronts populated by umbrellas and lounging chairs for sunbathers. From above, they are elegant geometric presentations. Many of the images from other locations frame the area just a few yards offshore, where people swim and can stand in water not too deep.
For me, the most compelling images are the solitary beach walkers, seen in a wide angle look as waves reach shore. The sense of minuteness, of humility, of grandness and scale and scope, is mesmerizing. The images of the Oregon coast or the California coast call for something in me unexpected and deep. Ondaatje’s sense of composition and understanding of line, where the white froth of a wave should be placed in a frame, is masterful. Beyond the beautiful scenery, the perspective creates a fresh emotional charge.
Many of the images in this book are taken straight down. However, when Ondaatje moves from oceans to streams and rivers, his perspective changes to a more angular view. (Many of the pictures are of the artist while fly fishing.) This change is essential because when photographing straight down a sense of vertical scale disappears. The emotional weight of the image, especially given the inclusion of a very small human, includes a new understanding of size. Photograph from any angle and we have vertical scale, size relationships we have seen before, a different mood and a different sense of our relationship to what we’re seeing.
The book has a long-ish collection of plates before we get to the interior title page, preface and introduction. It is as if the book has a photo introduction before one of text. In an author’s note, he writes, “Over the past two years while traveling in the USA, Canada, and abroad, I have taken thousands of aerial photographs went on, in, and near the water. I can’t help myself. Every time I send my camera up, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of these water views and reminded that clean water is the gift we need to celebrate and protect.” Water Views is in fact a powerful environmental argument.
In an introduction, Ondaatje writes about the technical side of drone photography. The information is interesting for those people who wonder about drones. Some of the images inside the book have small narratives, such as an image of a place where he had been swimming only to discover sharks had been sighted nearby. The captions serve to provide a kind of personal narrative or personal relationship. They are not just statements of where and when. They give the book a nicely personal feel a personal commitment on the sense of the author.
Water Views is an insightful re-viewing of where water meets land. The particular aerial perspective of the drone, combined with the fine art aesthetic of a landscape photographer, allows for a new way of thinking and feeling, for which I am grateful and moved.
A note from FRAMES: if you have a forthcoming or recently published book of photography, please let us know.
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