The Aerial View and Art
Ashley Warriner
Art & Organism
May 7, 2001

The curiosity of viewing landscapes from above has long been an intriguing thought or source of inspiration for humans. Modern technology developed the aerial photograph, while modern art has cultivated it into an aesthetic. Aerial photography has found a way to capture both man-made and natural geographic formations in a new light, in such a way that captures the imagination and alters one’s perception of the earth. Aerial photography has documented the craftsmanship of prehistoric cultures. There have been ancient peoples who have modified their environment in such a way that their handiwork creates ground markings that are only visible as whole images when viewed a great distance from the earth. There is also a genuine wonderment and a thrill in seeing the unadulterated earth from a birds-eye-view. Why is it that some images of our world are so fascinating and pleasing to the eye that we have elevated them to the status of an art form?

I start with one question: What motivates people to take aerial photographs. One of first aerial photographs was taken in 1856 from a camera which was launched into the sky with a balloon. Photographs were then taken from kites and dirigibles, the altitudes became higher and higher. Years later, aerial photography became popular during World War I for reconnaissance purposes. Not long after artists began flying and photographing for aesthetic reasons. They wanted to capture the vast beauty of the earth. But why do we consider the earth beautiful?

People have changed the land in response to their needs to decorate their environment and communicate certain messages. (Schuster 178-9) A desert people of southwestern North America have carved monumental human figures by scraping away the stone surface of the land. John Bourke, described a ritual creation myth dance which may have been performed around smaller ground carvings. If one looks at the large human figures there appear to be two male effigies, and below one of the men’s elbows is another figure which lacks sex characteristics (fig. 1). Often interpretations from similar “Old World” sculptures which lack sex characteristics all together, are often identified by their size, the male always being the larger of the two. A similar phenomenon occurs near Sacaton, Arizona where a large human representation (fig 2) (54 meters long) lies next to a smaller one (4,5 meters long). Carl Schuster, who studies these earth patterns, suspects that “in America, as in Australia, such male-female earth-monuments represented the original tribal, ancestors in ‘primordial copulation,’ the monument being the point of origin of the tribe, and, by extension, the beginning of the world.” So perhaps they wished to share this myth, pass it on to their culture- could this have been a mode of memetic inheritance? Maybe it was a way in which to promote the growth of the tribe by supporting these copulation stories. I’m sure self-actualization theories such as the idea that they may have been communicating with their ancestors or with gods above the earth are not new. Unfortunately, I do not have research to support these claims nor do I really believe them, based on my knowledge of native cultures which rarely saw the spirit world as existing separately from their own. Perhaps, as Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt wrote about in Human Ethology, there could have been mating rituals which took place around these large land drawings. ( Eibl-Eibesfelt 178)

It could be that humans think aerial photographs are beautiful because the land is beautiful, and not only because we have manipulated it, but because we can see it through the eyes of an inspired individual, an artist. Our concept of the land from above as viewed from an aerial photograph is subject to the artist’s perception. What I am fascinated with is how the artist’s perception is the ordered perception. Aerial photographers seem to be sticklers for finding balance and order on the land and capturing it on film. “Nature surprises one again and again by its abundance of forms and of ordered structures that are not only useful but often appeal to one’s aesthetic feelings” (Emmer 67). We can also understand this idea according to Alexander Pope who said, “All nature is but art unknown to the. All chance, direction which thou canst see; all discord, harmony not understood.”

Perception also has biological factors. The human body is built to be great receptors and perceptors, but we have to struggle the most to internalize all the information we receive and figure out a way to deal with it. The theory of synergetics, the study of how subsystems interact to produce microscopic, spatial, temporal, functional structures (Yevin 413) or my simple “pseudo-synergetic” interpretation of the theory, has helped me make sense of some of my questions as to why people may have an affinity for certain aerial photos. Haken, one of the chief experts on synergetics, “Two concepts play a role in establishment of patterns. On the one hand, symmetry. Originally disordered systems have a high degree of symmetry. But when patterns are developed, symmetry is more and more restricted, i.e. symmetries are broken. . . . While symmetrical patterns are to some extent aesthetically pleasing, strict symmetry may be boring” (Emmer 67). This reminds me of the concept of unity with variety that artists must practice. Repetition is important, but it should not be monotonous.

Photography can be used to show that there are similar structures between organic and inorganic compounds. Take a look at some interesting visual comparisons: The first is a capillary network, the smallest blood vessels that connect to arterial and venous vascular systems, (fig 3) (Krommenhoek 86) and an aerial photograph of the drainage patterns made in the saline mud of Lake Natron, Tanzania (fig 4) (Gerster 117) and a close-up of the water patterns in beach sand from Cedric Wright’s Words of the Earth, photography/poetry book (fig 5)(Wright 31). Notice the similar dendritic patterns, the lines that extend out like branches. Another comparison is: a cross-section of a human cerebellum (fig 6)(Burgess 24), an aluminum-silicon alloy (fig 7)(Burgess 131), and William Garnett’s aerial photograph of Salt No. 2, Death Valley, California 1954 (fig 8) (Cahn 75). These also exhibit excitingly similar dendritic patterns, except two of the photos are for the identification of organic and inorganic substances, and one has been made to reveal the beauty of the American landscape.

I thought I’d ask a far-fetched question, whether the similarity to a biological structure is what gives these large-scale images their appeal, and what can we learn from comparing the extremely big with the minuscule? Perhaps salt looks like nerves under the microscope... I knew better but I thought I might learn something... I wondered if I looked at them on the structural level whether I would find out why they were visually similar. Perhaps their basic “units” were the same. I discovered that this must necessitate an investigation through either the crystallography, the study of the atomic arrangement of a particular material, or cytology, the study of the structural phenotype of the cell.

Crystallography illustrates one premise of synergetics, the theory that everything is ordered and rules by a system. Crystallography allows us to see that the majority of atoms within a material is positioned in a similar manner and is surrounded by an identical arrangement and spacing of atoms. These make up a solid unit cell which has a specific shape. In 1948 the French mathematician, Auguste Bravais, proved there are fourteen types of unit cells, and there are seven basic shapes. These shapes are cubic, tetragonal, orthorhombic, monoclinic, and triclinic, and there are variations on these shapes. So what is the crystallographic structure of salt? Sodium chloride, when viewed under a scanning electron micrograph, is revealed to have a cubic unit cell and the faces of the crystal cluster are arranged at right angles to one another (fig 9)(Martin 125).

This crystalline structure did not correspond to the nerve cell. Maybe it is just a tendency toward autopoeisis to which were are attracted. “Organization (or pattern of organization) is the configuration of relationships among a system's components that makes the system what it is - that gives the system its essential characteristics - that must be present for it to be recognized as - say - a chair, or a horse. Structure is the physical embodiment of that abstract pattern - the molecular processes that make that organization manifest.” ( ) Both the salt and the human nerve cell are characterized by their autopoietic organization, meaning they differ in their structure, but have a common element in their organization. Maybe the autopoietic nature of the salt pattern is beautiful or makes for the subject of a work of art because it is necessary for many people to recognize the “variety with unity” in an illustration, a photograph, sculpture or painting to consider an image “aesthetically pleasing.” Was I swayed to make the connection between the nerve cell and the aerial view of the salt scape because my brain forced them to look, organizationally, more similar than they really are? Everytime I go back to them they look more and more distinct and I lose sight of why I originally placed the two images together. It is as if I studied my “fish” until I found out that one was a frog and one was a shrimp!

One assumption could be that we enjoy aerial photographs for that very reason, they perpetuate the concept of illusory art. It becomes quite fascinating when we cannot immediately distinguish between the microscopic and the macroscopic view. We may be attracted to them because they follow the synergetic rubric- or because they display the ordered mathematical relationship. Synergetics can also refer to modes of thought. I have only touched on its surface because my knowledge of the principles which support the theory is limited. But there remains our perception of these interesting morsel of mystery which entertain our mind’s eye.

Photographs, as stated before, are interpretations of subjects, and they are subject to further interpretations. Delecroix once said, “Painting [in this case, think photography] is the bridge between the mind of the artist and the mind of the viewer.” Perhaps there is that possibility one does not agree with what is within the mind of the artist. Least of all, one should recognize the distinction! For example, Marilyn Bridges often offers a pessimistic view of humanity through her pictures which depict industry overtaking the rural landscape. Some would either perceive her statement and disagree, others, say the manager of sucessfully operating steam plant, might relish in the sight (fig 10).

Photographs can be deceiving because people, somehow more than most other media, people believe them, interpret the situations as “real” because they represent “real” moments in time. Of course, in the age of digital photography, the viewer tends to be more aware of an element of illusion. Photographs can be staged, just like theatrical performances. Often they are. I do not know the likelihood of staging an aerial photograph, but one can choose in what light one wished to depict their subject. Marilyn Bridges states “Flying in the early morning entails going from darkness into light- slowly I begin to see the landscape revealed before my eyes. Because the sun is at such an extreme angle, the land is full of contour and shape. (Bridges 104). This creates the three-dimensional quality of the photograph.

Nevertheless, some photographs are not taken from such a relatively low altitude as Bridges’ photos and they do not highlight the appearance of shadows, therefore the spatial depth of the photograph becomes much more ambiguous. This also contributes to a sense of timelessness. Malevich, a modern Russian artist, wanted to achieve this timelessness in his art when he modeled set designs from Victory Over the Sun (1913)(fig 11) from aerial photographs (fig 12). They consist of an even distibution of black and white planes, spaces, and voids which contribute to their topsy turvy look. There’s no up or down, there’s the illusion of “in” and “out” with the central square window effect, but the depth is indeterminable, typical of modernist, abstract space. The elements within the picture seem to shift and move about in space which suggests a distorted representation of time which he was trying to achieve, perhaps a manifestation of the theory of the fourth dimension [defined at the time as a representation of time and space beyond sensory perception.] In essence by using aerial photographs he was trying to fool the senses, create an illusion.

Whether trying to explain why certain photographs look the same, why they invoke a particular emotion, we must remember something when considering these descriptions: All knowledge is limited. This concept reminds me of Branowski’s video “Knowledge and Certainty” from the Ascent of Man series. One must analyze the aesthetic object both on and under the surface, probe it until you can obtain the most detailed knowledge as possible. This is the approach that could be taken to examine the photographs of cells, of inorganic compounds, of aerial landscapes. All knowledge is limited, easy to prove as I struggle with these mathematical theories and terminology. Sometimes I have to use my imagination to create the connection, then I have to delve into finding empirical support. I end up miles away from my initial hypothesis. I know that I must question the validity and the reliability of such an approach, but I must also be open to merely discovering things I did not know before, things that will allow me to link ideas together and begin to formulate an answer.

When talking to the geographer, John Rehder, who has been flying since he was a young kid, and taking aerial photographs for over 30 years now, I learned of the geologist’s way of obtaining empirical evidence for their studies. A geologist often takes aerial photographs and uses methods such as stereoscopy, taking measurements by converting the photograph into a 3-D image, to investigate the territory. When that is not enough they must actually go and traverse the land to uncover any information the photograph could not reveal. The term for this sort of survey is appropriately called a “ground truth.” Dr. Rehder expressed that the discipline of geography does involve the imagination and does require creativity. In fact, it makes the job much easier, it makes identifying aerial views much easier. “Sometimes,” he says, “you have to make a wild guess, go on a hunch, and then try to prove yourself wrong or right.” I interpret the ground truth to be something like examine the fish, attempting to see the subject form every angle.

The more one examines the developmental, ecological, evolutionary, and physiological aspects of these creative processes or of perception, the more one becomes entangled in questions. “The more I learn, the more I realized I don’t know. The more I realize I don’t know, the more I want to know.” (Einstein)


Our perception of aerial views is a learned behavior. As children, we could not understand pictures of the earth from a great distance without being told. Two researchers tried to prove this in their study of pre-school children who they had participate in aerial photography identification (Fig 13) and map-making exercises. Spatial cognition of this sort is not inherent. (Downs 139). Perhaps we have needed these spatial perception skill, but not as applied to a 2-D surface. Perhaps it is when it comes to the illusion of 3-D space from a great distance shown on paper, that we must learn to decode the meaning. There could be a link to the development of our eyes- do we by looking at these photographs encourage a future change in that development. Of course, not I would say, but we must have some reason to be predisposed to these patterns. Perhaps it would be advantageous for us to be automatically familiar with the differences between, say, salt and sugar, in order to fulfill our nutritional needs. I have not found any studies which can prove if we only learn the difference through taste, but I suspect that is the case with modern humans.


I think aerial photographs in an ecological sense are a way for people to “realize” their environments, to see the grand scheme. Since aerial photographs, often very abstract in nature, do misconstrue depth, they fit G. Caeris’s “Theory on Order in the Natural Science and Visual Arts,” which states, “Abstraction is generally viewed as a cognitive process consisting of the removal of features that characterize only a particular object or particular event” (Emmer 66) In essence, they help humans see a new spatial-temporal view of their environment. Maybe these sorts of attractive natural structures have numerological significance because of the mathematical relationships of their components. Perhaps people adorn the earth as a response to their geology. Perhaps scraping at the surface, the actual process of making the drawings was a way to connect with the earth and to learn what minerals exist in the land.


Could aerial views such as William Garnett’s photos have any connection with evolutionary fitness. I think it is naturally tied to the ecological, and makes sense when considering Garnett’s position as an ardent conservationist, “To show people the ugly doesn’t accomplish much. I came to the conclusion that I can’t really make much of a change in society’s attitude towards land use by just showing what is wrong. I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to show them what’s right to inspire them.” In this sense we can think about a push for fitness. By photographing the land Garnett hopes to teach a behavior, a self-preservation behavior, which is linked to the preservation of our own spheres. Perhaps in a similar way, people find these aerial views attractive because they show an ordered view, a view of what is right. If they echo biological structures, they echo them in their healthy stages, not a mutated or unfit stage. Perhaps, this is another example of perception based on memetic inheritance, we have an affinity for that which is good for us. This may be a biased view, but, yet again, it is a start at looking at how these images relate to our evolution.


Some people’s taste for aerial photos that display or mimic self-organizing structures may be due to a physiological factor. In recent investigations characteristics have been found that can be referred to as indicators of domination (in the creativity of artists) of one of two components: drawing style or color style. They are laid out as such:


1. Inclination toward familiarity

2. Rationality

3. Strict form

4. Limited expressive means

5. Dominance of graphic features

6. Steadiness, static features

7. Discrete elements

8.Inclination toward cool part of spectrum

9. No gradation within each color element

10. Smooth painting


1. Inclination toward originality

2. Intuition

3. Free form

4. Diversity of expressive means

5. Picturesqueness

6. Expressive, dynamic features

7. Continuous transition between elements

8. Inclination toward warm part of spectrum

9. Much color gradation

10. Texture painting

Igor Yevin, in “The Synergetic Approach to Art Theory: Recent Investigations” states that “from the neurophysiological point of view, these two styles can be attributed, respectively, to left hemispherical (analytic) and right hemispherical (synthetic) domination of brain activity (Yevin 415). I think it is a mixture of these two ideas which creates an aesthetically pleasing aerial view, such as William Garnett’s Sand Dune (fig 14). It is the artist’s ability to exhibit the ambiguity of space and the ability of the brain to make sense of it that make the picture work.

All of these questions contribute to the holistic approach to viewing aerial art. Whether we are examining photographs of the land or examining why people shaped the land the way they did so that it only makes sense from an aerial perspective, the ethological approach of studying the biological basis for behaviors may help. There are few sources out there that will create these links for you. It is necessary to seek research that can integrate these ideas. While this may be difficult, there is a possibility that with this sort of approach which stresses the infallibility of empirical science, but acknowledges its necessity, you may make a new discover or think of a subject in a unique way. I attempted to shed some light on the relationships between microscopic landscapes as well as photographs of the earth from high altitudes. I acknowledge my own limitations in the field of science, but I did gain a larger vocabulary in the process and finally began to find the sources which could help me make a cross over from art to science.

Bridges, Marilyn, This is your Land, Across America by Air, Photographs by Marilyn Bridges. Essay by William Least Heat-Moon. Aperture Foundation, Inc.: New York, 1997.
Burgess, Jeremy; Martin, Michael and Rosmary Taylor. eds. Microcosmos. Cambridge university Press: Cambridge, 1987.
Cahn, Robert and Ketchum, Robert Glenn. American Photographers and the National Parks. Viking Press: New York, 1981.
Downs, Roger M.; Liben, Lynn S. and David S. Palermo eds. Visions of Aesthetics, the Environment and Development, the Legacy of Joachim F. Wohlwill. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, 1991.
Eibl-Eibesfelt, Irenaus. Human Ethology. Aldine de Gruyter: New York, 1989.
Emmer, Michele. “Statements on the relationships between the natural sciences and the visual fine arts and, in particular, on the meaning of order (part IV). Leonardo XV/1 winter 1982: p 65-67.
Fuller, Buckminster. Synergetics. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York: 1975. p 1-90.
Gerste, Georg. Below from Above. Abbeville Press: New York, 1986.
Krommenhoek, W.; Sebus, J. and G. J. van Esch. Biological Structures. University Park Press: Baltimore, 1980.
Rehder, John. Personal Interview. 11 Apr. 2001.
Schuster, Carl. Patterns that Connect. Harry N. Abrams: New York, 1996.)
Wright, Cedric. Words of the Earth. Sierra Club: San Francisco, 1960.
Yevin, Igor. “The Synergetic Approach to Art Theory: Recent Investigations.” 27 Leonardo 1994: p. 413-415.
On autopoiesis: (from class: Delecroix, Bronowski, Pope, Einstein (actually from an email one of my friends sent me, but you gave us this quote as well)