The ecological challenges facing us today are so daunting that many of us are loath to face the inconvenient facts. Fortunately, photographers like Edward Burtynsky, David Maisel, Michael Light and, the protagonist of this exhibition, Massachusetts pilot and aerial photographer Alex MacLean, create spectacular works of art with the bonus of a socioeconomic conscience. The title of MacLean’s latest photo book, Over, echoes the late Robert Cameron’s scenic book titled Above San Francisco. In it MacLean declares the wasteful, unsustainable American way of life to be over: “We cannot go on,” the photographer declares, forthrightly, in a You Tube video.
The fifteen photographs in “The American Landscape at the Tipping Point” make that point subtly and beautifully. Henri Cartier-Bresson once advised photographers to focus on composition, letting the content emerge on its own; MacLean’s elegant photos of tract homes in the desert, interlaced freeway interchanges, parking lots, and wind farms, all set amid and against nature’s immensity, demonstrate the wisdom of that organic, empirical approach — of trusting the material, and his eye.
Relatively early works like “Bay Channel, Newark, California” (1984) and “Tracks of Tomatoes in Field, North Central Ohio” (1994) might almost derive from calligraphy, so strong are their linear designs. In the former, meandering embankments, swooping black curves set against the white water, contrast with the delicate, almost imperceptible, diagonal of the Dumbarton Bridge seen from afar; in the latter, yellow streaks crisscross in a furrowed green field, as lacy and ethereal as airplane contrails or windblown stalks of grass. “Junk Yard Along River, Southeastern New Hampshire” (1991) strikes a discordant note with its jumble of clunkers, but the river behind them, lined with leafless autumn trees, contrasts nicely with the auto graveyard. Funereally fascinating in a different way are “B-52 ‘Bone Yard,’ Tucson, Arizona” (1994) and “Guillotined B-52 Bombers at the ‘Bone Yard,’ Tucson, Arizona” (1994), both high-angle shots down on arrays of retired Cold War bombers, each in its own diamond-shaped plot of dirt; in the second photo we see some of the planes dismembered, and scattered like fish bones, beneath facing squadrons of still-intact comrades. “Vermont Field Burning, Middlebury, Vermont” (2006) and “Time Measured in Dust, Clark County, Nevada” (2009) are swathed with smoke and dust, symbolizing, respectively, agricultural destruction succeeded by rebirth and the manic and mindless exhaustion of life and time, pedal to the metal. The traceries on the landscape in “Desert Overlay, Kingman North, Arizona” (2009) remind us how quickly nature reclaims culture.
But if it’s easy to read ominous overtones into some of these photos, it is also possible to see neutral or even positive aspects to the contemporary world, as modernist artists and photographers did in the early part of the century. Views of industrial plenty reduced by distance into patterns become beautiful in “Stacked Interchange at I-17, Phoenix, Arizona” (2004) and “RV Storage Facility, Sun City, Arizona” (2005), for all their everyday banality; the gigantic cell on the plain in “Concentrated Solar, Clark County, Nevada” (2009), the microchip city in “Housing Patch on Desert Floor, Congress, Arizona” (2005), the airport-like sprawl in “Turkey Point Cooling Canals, Homestead, Florida” (2007), and the forest of “Windmills at Tehachapi Pass, Tehachapi, California” (1991) augur our brave new world, post-petroleum.