Fearful Symmetry: Aerial Photos Shed a New Light on Suburban Development

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Christoph Gielen
"Untitled VI," a photograph made in Arizona by Christoph Gielen. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Christoph Gielen’s new book, Ciphers, tackles questions of land use and sustainable growth from an uncommon perspective: the air. Photographed from helicopters, suburban developments in the American West are transformed into alien topography; the familiar trappings of residential life (houses, yards, streets and highways) become jigsaws of geometric abstraction. An infinite collection of hexagons, loops and ovals, Gielen’s images are reminiscent of crop circles, wondrous in their scale and meticulous design yet foreboding and possessed of a fearful symmetry.

“My goal with Ciphers is to examine the broader ramifications of building trends well beyond North American borders, and to bring about an understanding of growth machines that systematically generate ever more car-dependent, low-density suburbanization,” Gielen explains. At a time when unprecedented growth is happening in emerging nations, he hopes that this work will contribute to conversations about development that may help other countries avoid the mistakes America has already made.

An artist and environmental advocate, Gielen has used photography as a means of communicating ideas pertaining to development and land use for a number of years. Although he was familiar with the aerial photography of artists like Michael Light, David Maisel and Edward Burtynsky, it was an experience much closer to the ground that turned Gielen’s ambitions skyward. In 2003, his interest in urban planning led him to document the controlled demolition of a public housing project in Scotland. He was camped out on the roof of a neighboring high-rise, waiting for the detonation, when he realized how striking the landscape was from this new vantage point. “[It was] a pivotal moment, which made me realize that in order to provide a larger perspective—quite literally—on how we currently live, I would have to get up above,” Gielen says.

Inspired, the German-born artist decided that, as an epicenter of car-centric growth and its attendant sprawl, Southern California would be his focus. With financing a major concern, Gielen’s process on Ciphers involved doing as much work as possible before he got up in the air. He combed through public records on foreclosure statistics, wildfire occurrences and income distribution to identify potential locations. He then did additional research using geological maps and satellite imagery, looking for locations that would be compelling from the air, whether because of extravagant architecture, cookie-cutter uniformity or layout quirks only visible from above. He was also limited to renting out blocks of time with a flight instructor and shooting photos out of a single-engine, light-utility helicopter with its door removed.

Aerial photography brings with it a range of unique conditions: the vibrations of the aircraft, the velocity of the wind and, for an artist working in a purely analogue format as Gielen was, the challenge of changing film rolls while hanging onto the outside of a moving helicopter. “It took several aerial missions to realize an optimum, workable shutter speed, given that I couldn’t work with a stabilizing gyro,” he says, because it would make moving the camera difficult and “prohibit pointing the camera down vertically.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge was that Gielen depended on the pilot to get him the shots he wanted. Before long, Gielen concluded it was worth the added expense to work with pilots who had experience in the film industry; those pilots had a much better understanding of the altitudes and angles Gielen was looking for, and also kept the aircraft steady while shielding him from the wind.

In the early going, Gielen was able to use his income from working at another photographer’s studio to finance the project. But when he began working independently in 2008, the need for alternative funding became pressing, especially as he began to work with larger and more expensive helicopters and crews. During “countless coffee-fueled days” at the Foundation Center, a grant research center in New York City, he sought out funding from disparate sources whose interests matched his own. Gielen’s approach was to cast a wide net, in fields including photography, visual arts, land preservation and education, and to take anything he could get, no matter how modest. A German citizen, Gielen also actively looked for grants in the European Union.

On a purely esthetic level, Ciphers is an arresting, mesmerizing piece of art, but it’s the inclusion of several thought-provoking essays that gives the work another dimension. For Gielen, his images are a means to an end, and as such are best served by an interdisciplinary approach. From architects, urban planners and climate-change activists, to cultural philosophers and self-described futurist Geoff Manaugh, Gielen brings together a heavyweight collection of thinkers to contextualize his aerial hieroglyphs.

While Ciphers has been well received by architects, Gielen hopes that the book’s publication in the U.S. will bring greater engagement with a broader audience. He believes that seeking out new interdisciplinary collaborations and drawing connections between his work and current events in the U.S.—like post-Hurricane Sandy rebuilding—will help. “The primary audience for this project comes from the fields of architecture, land preservation, art and photography. But of course I’d also like to reach out to a more varied audience, such as educators, students, academics specializing in urban development and policy, journalists and writers, city planners, and anyone interested in society’s role in land use and its effects on the environment.”

Related Article:

Christoph Gielen Photo Gallery

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