Review by Wayne Swanson •
This is one disorienting book. It deals with serious social issues — the effects of environmental pollution, institutional racism, the rise and fall of the industrial economy, and more. Yet the photos sure are beautiful. The painterly effects invite comparisons with a who’s who of modern artists.
That’s a lot to ask of a collection of aerial drone photographs. Travis Fox, an Emmy Award-winning journalist and Director of Visual Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY), harnesses the strengths and weaknesses of drone photography to create an impressive collection of dual-purpose images.
Drones have brought to the masses the ability to capture birds-eye views without the need to charter an aircraft. At the same time, there are rules to be followed. Drones are limited by the FAA to a 400-foot maximum altitude, and they are not supposed to fly over people. For Fox, the height limitation turns out to be an advantage because it maintains the human scale of the landscape. While there are no people visible in the images, there are signs of human presence in cars, graffiti, and other human marks on the landscape.
The images document abandoned industrial and residential sites, as well as the toxic side effects of urban growth. They shine a light on the consequences of past planning decisions, institutional racism, environmental disregard, and America’s unchecked manifest destiny.
The remains of industrial sites in places like Youngstown and Lordstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, show the scars left by abandoned automotive plants and steel mills. The effects of redlining and white flight on cities like Baltimore, Maryland, and Chester, Pennsylvania, are evident in the ruins of apartment blocks and shopping centers. The unnatural coloring of the landscapes in Pennsylvania’s coal country and California’s Owens Valley and Salton Sea reveal the ravages of man-made environmental pollution. Fox’s overhead view reveals it all, along with traces of healing as green begins to reclaim some of the damaged land.
At the same time, the images are visually stunning. Like photographic artists such as Edward Burtynsky and David Maisel before him, Fox explores the “apocalyptic sublime.” He gives formal consistency to the project by shooting straight down, eliminating the traditional horizon line. Despite the fact that he is simultaneously piloting a drone by remote control and quickly composing each image on a small video screen, the sumptuous color and refined compositions bring to mind an array of modern art masters. The flattened perspective at times evokes the landscapes of Diebenkorn and Thiebaud. The abstract expressionism of artists like Gorky and Frankenthaler can be seen in the remains of Owens Lake. An abandoned amusement park in Ohio recalls the biomorphic shapes of Miró.
They are all beautifully reproduced as full-bleed images on 13 x 8.5-inch pages. Some are presented as seamless diptychs filling both pages of a spread. Supporting these is an incisive essay by Philip Kennicott, art and architecture critic for The Washington Post. He covers the history of aerial photography as well as the cultural and artistic elements at play here. Fox adds a list of captions that provide the context for each of the sites he has chosen to photograph.
The arresting images help us focus on the quandary presented by the damaged landscapes. Kennicott writes that “Fox isn’t simply documenting the dividing lines that have for centuries corroded social cohesion. He is issuing a challenge, quietly, politely, implicitly. What are we to do with these spaces? What are we to do about a society, an economy, and a culture that keeps churning up land and leaving behind these tattered bits that will never fit into the quilt?”
As the title suggests, the answer remains to be seen.
Remains To Be Seen, Travis Fox
Photographer: Travis Fox, born Kansas City, MO and resides in Krumville, New York
Publisher: Daylight Books, Copyright 2020
Essays: Philip Kennicott
Hardcover book, sewn binding, four-color lithography, 166 pages, 60 color photographs, 13 x 8 1/2 inches, printed in China
Creative Director: Ursula Damm
Articles and photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).