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The Privileged View: The Impact of Aerial Perspective On Our Visual Perception of The World

Part 1 Dissertation 2002
Simone Shu Yeng Chung
Architectural Association London UK
This dissertation aims to investigate different techniques developed over four centuries for viewing the landscape from above, in order to discover whether our improved technology, particularly in relation to aerial photography and digital surveying, has led to a greater understanding of the earth’s surface. It begins with a selective overview of 17th Century Dutch painting, and examines the map-like preoccupation with surfaces and textures demonstrated in still-lifes and landscapes. This leads to a questioning of the reliability of maps themselves as a tool for understanding the landscape, due to the coexistence of visible and invisible data selected primarily to serve political or economic ends. The discussion moves quite quickly to the twentieth century and focuses on the new perceptions gained by fighter pilots in both World Wars, particularly well expressed by the aviator and writer Antoine de St. Exupery. The ability to leave the earth offers a new way of viewing the landscape and an image that is no longer static. Painters explored this freedom in individual ways, providing landscapes as different as the abstracted grids of Mondrian or the thick paint textures of Jackson Pollock. The dissertation goes on to look at the phenomenon of aerial photography, particularly the contemporary photographic work of Patricia Macdonald and her collaboration with the writer John Berger in his novel ‘Once in Europa’. The evidence suggests that aerial photography does not create space but registers surfaces. However, Macdonald succeeds in achieving 3-dimensionality through exploiting shadows on the ground and placing images of macro and micro landscapes side by side. The final chapter looks at digital space imaging, and considers the validity of Paul Virilio’s pessimistic view of a world that can now be viewed without moving from one’s seat. But the image is only as good as the clarity of the pixels allows, and in the end relies on personal interpretation. The development of sophisticated data processors aims to create landscape images to which we can directly relate and react, but as the ‘privileged view’ becomes more widely accessible, our bond with the landscape seems to be in danger.

Simone Shu Yeng Chung

Ever since painters and surveyors first set up their drawing equipment on a piece of elevated ground, we have been trying to understand the earth’s surface from ‘above’. This dissertation has been nominated because of the moments of discovery made in charting the development of our technical ability to view the landscape from above, as the topic is explored through mapping, painting, aerial photography and finally space imaging, each development supported by well documented research. Simone has set her parameters wide, and the material is therefore quite dense. The most individual interpretations occur once the dissertation literally leaves the ground, to look at the night skies over the desert with the pilot/writer Antoine de St. Exupery, or at recent photographic images by Patricia MacDonald taken from an aeroplane to accompany John Berger’s novelette “Once in Europa”. The comparison of images of the landscape at macro and micro scale provides an alternative narrative, achieving three dimensionality in what is generally depicted as a two dimensional view of the world. The final chapter looks at the world of Space Imaging and Paul Virilio’s fear that we may all become 'motile'. It will come as a relief to some to discover that although the approach and procedures of digital surveying are highly scientific, the analysis of data is ultimately empirical.
Simone has had the courage and enthusiasm to look at her topic from many angles; indeed the only difficulty has been in knowing where to stop.

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