Kaid Benfield Archive


Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 30, 2008 at 2:35PM

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When NRDC moved into its then-new Washington office in 1996, a number of large new photographs were mounted on the walls.  No one I know is quite sure where they came from (and I was on the art and facilities committee at the time), but they are large-scale aerial landscapes, very professionally done, mounted and framed.  They are beautiful. 

That is, until you look closely and realize that they are of environmental damage, every one: clearcuts, mine tailings, strip mines, and so forth.  So they are ultimately depressing, and it would be fine with me if I came in one morning and found that they had been replaced by beautiful photos of natural resources that we had actually been successful in defending.  There are quite a few of those, after all.

Galveston, TX - (c) 2008 Alex S. MacLean/Landslides

This is a long and somewhat indulgent introduction to Alex S. MacLean's new book, Over: the American Landscape at the Tipping Point.  MacLean is a pilot, photographer, and architect, and his photography is very evocative and very, very good.  It, too, features the American landscape as its subject and, like the photos in our office it, too, portrays a beautiful picture for the eye but a disturbing one for the mind.

(c) 2008 Alex S. MacLean/LandslidesAs Herve Kempf writes in Le Monde:

"Through thousands of snapshots taken from planes over thirty years, MacLean shows us golf courses in the middle of the desert, mobile home cities thrown across the plain, car cemeteries several square kilometers in size, electricity generators spitting thick clouds of smoke, church parking lots empty all week. He describes for us, with neither animosity nor complacency, how America has changed in a generation, spreading everywhere the tentacles of a life based on the car, which ends up eating space even as it isolates human beings . . ." (English translation by Leslie Thatcher for Truthout.org)

I first got to know MacLean's photography through one of his earlier books, Visualizing Density.  Since learning about Over, I have spent a great deal of time on his web site, and I am mesmerized by his work.  It isn't entirely pleasing, to say the least, though it is comforting in the sense that I believe the US is now moving - if slowly - to a different and more sustainable path.  But I can't help but look at every perfectly composed and beautiful image, again and again.

There is an introduction by Bill McKibben.

Phoenix, AZ - (c) 2008 Alex S. MacLean/Landslides

Kempf continues:

"And while one may look at his images for themselves, as the oeuvre they constitute because they are always beautiful and intriguing, they also document in a striking manner the waste of space and resources on which the world's richest society is based. MacLean takes responsibility for this demonstrative bias. He has organized his book according to several explicit themes (atmosphere, way of life, automobile dependence, water use, city planning), introduced by short texts that propose an environmental reading of the photographs.

"He insists on the fact that climate change will bring an upheaval in its wake that will force American society to transform itself . . ."

Granite Reef Aquaduct, central AZ - (c) 2008 Alex S. MacLean/Landslides

The publisher's blurb ends on a hopeful note as well:

"Over compels us all to reconsider our basic assumptions about how we live, work, and play, and reveals that while the challenges we face today are not insurmountable, the future depends on our collective vision, passion, and commitment."

That's not a bad way to put it.  I would add that, while the subject is a downer, the sheer beauty of the work is inspirational.

Alex MacLean's studio was kind enough to grant me permission to reproduce the images you see in this post, all of which are © 2008 Alex S. MacLean / Landslides.