Friday, June 8, 2012

Alex MacLean: Genius from the Air

In a small art gallery last week in Lincoln on a road thick with the green of Massachusetts trees in June, photographer Alex MacLean talked about the rooftops of New York City and it was marvelous.

(All photos by Alex MacLean from Up on the Roof)
MacLean is famous for his many landscapes -- photographs of the earth's surface that he takes from the air. He flies around in a small plane and creates these works of magic with his camera.

He recently turned his mind to the rooftops of New York and he produced a celebration of the incidental art that humans create when they are focused on something completely else.

Rooftops, the Bronx
MacLean explains his motivation as fundamentally environmental.  According to him, 30 percent of the land area in New York is actually rooftop.  That's not surprising when you think about it.  So many buildings means that many tops of buildings.  That many tops of buildings means that much impervious surface.  That much impervious surface means that much stormwater during storms, that many hot sticky tarry roofs during hot sunny days.  In the end, that many tops of buildings means a whole lot of untapped land area in a city that doesn't have any land not spoken for.

His desire was to observe it and record it and his plan of attack was simple: Rent a helicopter with pilot; fly out of New Jersey on runs over the city, mostly Manhattan with some of Brooklyn thrown in for good measure; see what you see.  And photograph it.  Although he describes getting access to the airspace over New York as not the difficult hurdle you might assume, the busyness of air traffic flying in and out of the region's four airports makes flying there safely the challenge. 

New Yorkers are famously inventive.  Put that many people in such a small space, and you're likely to see some creative solutions to some unique problems.  Well, fire extinguisher art is hardly a problem, but it is both creative and unique.  Here's how it works: find a rooftop, preferably large and flat -- there are many in the city.  Get a hand-held fire extinguisher.  Empty out the fire suppressant contents and fill with "better" material.  "Better" means "better to paint with".  Use the extinguisher to paint an image of your choosing on rooftop.  Target audience: viewers of Google Earth.  Really.

Fire extinguisher art next to the High Line

MacLean will be talking at Porter Square Books in Cambridge on Monday, June 11 at 7 p.m.  If you like cities, go.  It's worth it.