V for Vanishing Point

‘V’ for Vanishing Point: Aiming a camera lens at environmental decline in Italy & Nevada

Alex Maclean, Las Vegas, Housing subdivision built out in the desert, from his solo exhibition, ‘Vegas-Venice’

At first glance, the only similarity between Vegas and Venice is that they both begin with the letter V.  Look closer though, and you’ll see another parity—they’re both vanishing.  Pilot, trained architect, and fine art aerial photographer, Alex Maclean, sees a disturbing beauty between these doppelgangers.  Disturbing because of the environmental destruction these two iconic cities are experiencing, even though their demise is at the extreme ends of environmental catastrophe: drowning and desertification.  But he beholds remarkable beauty too because of no attached preconceived ideas of how the lay of the land should be.  From the sky, he surveys beauty as it exists.

Having traveled through much of the United States and parts of Europe, Maclean documents the changing landscape with stunning aerial images, traversing historical, as well as physical boundaries. He has earned a reputation by perceptively documenting the changing nature of the landscapes below him—from agricultural rows to city grids.  The images he gathers serve as symbols for a larger matrix of ideas.  On a superficial level, Maclean’s photos are spell-binding studies in geometric shapes and patterns.   They might be initially dismissed as studies in form over context.  But the power of the image and a more detailed analysis of his subjects draws the viewer back to read, inquire, and interpret the altered landscape more carefully.  Only then does the viewer encounter the leit motif of Maclean’s work: the impact of the hand of man on his three-dimensional surroundings over the course of a fourth dimension, time.

Alex Maclean, 'Vegas-Venice', Dense island settlement inside the lagoon is connected to the mainland by causeways

Using the sun to cast light and shadow, Maclean captures the changes brought about by both human intervention and natural events, far below him.  While hovering over a site in his fuel efficient Flight Design CT light sport aircraft, Maclean says his methodology is actually circular, rather than a linear approach to history.  “My strategy with a subject is to rotate around it, while taking in the regional and cultural context.  I then shoot at four different angles—vertical, oblique, horizontal, and bird’s eye view,” says Maclean.  “Different angles and shifting lighting can produce very different results when shooting the same subject, exposing years of stories.”

It is human nature to take a chance; the American dream was built on it.  Today, under the ominous cloud of global economic crisis and a wide range of environmental disasters, the dream seems more a mirage, not only in the U.S., but in every corner of the world.  Maclean asks us to consider whether las Vegas and Venice, cities built by serendipity in unlikely and hospitable environments, (and staking their reputations on the game of chance), are destined to collapse in much the same way?

Alex Maclean, 'Vegas-Venice', Las Vegas, single-use residential subdivision block devoid of any urban amenities

The oldest casino in the world was established in Venice, the city of masks. Casinos once served as centers of gambling, dance, and decadence–a perpetual carnivale, as it were, where aristocrats and merchant classes alike were known to mingle. A similar portrait can now be painted of America’s, Las Vegas, the city of sin.  Removed from reality, whether by desert or lagoon, both Venice and Vegas are suffering the consequences of excess and neglect of precious resources.  Climate change is causing sea levels to rise world-wide, while Venice, sitting for centuries on its crumbling sub-structure of ancient foundations and pilings, is slowly sagging into the Mediterranean.  Preservationists are taking measures to preserve the protective wetlands that surround the city, as well as to conserve some of the most beautiful art and architecture in the world.  Vegas’ lights, too, are dimming, as real estate markets go bust and excessive water use to irrigate golf courses and maintain green lawns in a desert climate, is literally drying up the most precious of the city’s resources.

Alex Maclean, Venice, Dense island settlement inside the lagoon is connected to the mainland by causeways.

After photographing Las Vegas and Venice from the air, Maclean discovered in his studio that he had difficulty sorting the photos, noting that, “there were some images where even I had difficulty distinguishing which city was which. I started to see how the cities were coming undone.  Side-by-side, I saw ‘waves’ of water and sand, serpentine canals and paved roadways, all emerging from fragmented lands.  How can two such distant landscapes and cultures seem practically identical?  I love land and am witnessing how history makes things valuable; how places are becoming memories; how we’ve become environmental refugees seeking shelter.  I can’t walk away without taking a chance and hoping that what I do matters.”

Maclean’s solo exhibit, Vegas – Venice, set to open at ERES-Stiftung in Munich, Germany, on September 7th, 2010, is an exploration of two very distinct landscapes in distress, the similar patterns that emerge, and how time changes our perception of what truly exists.  The ERES-Stiftung is a non-profit organization that encourages a collaboration of the arts and sciences to better understand and communicate in an increasingly complex world.  Rather than simply asking questions, ERES-Stiftung emboldens society to be part of the solution.

by Michelina Docimo, CSBA

Michelina Docimo is a certified sustainable building advisor and writer.  Her focus is on sustainable or “green” architecture, landscape, design, and the representation of nature in art.  Her writings have appeared in ARTES Magazine, CT Green Scene, D’Art International, and other industry publications.

Visit her blog

Over the past 33 years, Alex Maclean has exhibited his work in galleries all over the United States, as well as Canada, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany.  He has been the recipient of:  the CORINE International Book Award: For OVER: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point, 2009; Boston Society of Landscape Architects: Award of Excellence, 2006; American Academy in Rome: Awarded the Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture for 2003-2004; The American Institute of Architects: Citation for Excellence awarded to “Taking Measures Across the American Landscape,” 1997; The American Society of Landscape Architects: Honor Award in Communications bestowed upon “Taking Measures Across the American Landscape,” 1997; National Endowment for the Arts: Design Grant, 1990-1992; among a host of other honors.  Some of his public collectors include: Banque Nationale de Paris, Centre Pompidou, DeCordova Museum, Chase Manhattan Bank, Bank of America, Citibank, Fidelity Investments, Goldman Sachs, Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and J.P. Morgan.
Alex Maclean

This article was first published in ARTES Magazine:


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