THE CENTER WAS ASKED TO do something about a re-release of the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, to be shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, October 25, 2009–January 3, 2010. This historically important exhibition of photography, originally organized in 1975 by the George Eastman House, had the effect at the time of defining a new genre of vernacular landscape photography, and included many small black and white photos of suburban housing, office parks, diners, motels, gas stations, streetscapes and industrial sites by photographers such as Louis Baltz, Robert Adams, the Bechers, Joe Deal, Franke Gohlke, and Stephen Shore.
It seemed the best response to this was to expand the frame of what this sort of landscape photography could be, how it has evolved, and how now it needn’t be even photographic anymore, or shot by a photographer. It could be electronic, kinetic, robotic, like the factories and informationscape of today, and the future. It could be about a place, an actual physical place, so clearly and evocatively depicted that it would seem like science fiction, but it was real, here, and now. The project called for a “landscan.”
The museum agreed, and commissioned the work. Because it was the sesquicentennial year of the oil industry, in the midst of the Age of Oil, and the CLUI was opening an exhibit about California Oil the week the LACMA exhibit was to open, it was decided that it should be a landscan of the oil fields of Kern County, California, part of the largest oil producing area in the state, and a major source for the oil that drives Southern California. After scouting the area by map, GoogleEarth, car, and small airplane, a swath spanning the length of the South Belridge Oil Field was selected, coordinates and landmarks noted.
The shoot was conducted over several hours spent in a helicopter rigged with a gyrostabilized high definition video camera, aimed obliquely downwards. Several passes were made of the same seven-mile stretch of oil field, back and forth, forwards and backwards, scanning the land.
The purpose of a landscan is to show a section of ground with a minimum of intervention, to allow the place itself to be the object of attention. No edits, limited camera movement, a fixed focal length, no vibration or sudden moves; just let the camera roll over the landscape at an oblique angle, following a scripted path through the terrain, like a vacuum cleaner sucking up the sights.
But its not about the technical means of capturing. Its about the selection and presentation of a place. The site needs to be of sufficient scale, complexity, and import to warrant and support the attention. The view is not a meandering in a scenic landscape, it is a picture of a site, a portrait of a subject, one of such a large scale, that it can only be shown in a lengthy durational cross-section.
Though the place may or may not be familiar to viewers, the view of the site from a low altitude oblique, using the great detail now available through high definition video, and with the rock-solid stabilization of the gyro, makes it seem new, even though it has been there all along. The point of view of the landscan can be compelling, even shocking, as well as mesmerizing, alienating, and hyperreal.
People, certainly, are accustomed to aerial video, but normally viewed in short shots, and as part of an edited documentary, or film. The landscan is new, because it is one shot, a scan, which continues for as long as possible, until the subject runs out. The longer the shot the better, at least ten minutes seems about right – enough so that people can sit down and watch it. Photography and place merge: the land itself becomes like a strip of film, unwinding its story.
Sound completes the cinematic experience. A landscan needs just enough sound to fill the void, and provide an atmosphere. A sort of room tone for space. If one were to record the actual live sound present when making the landscan, the noise would be wind noise on the microphone and loud helicopter chop. If it were recorded on the ground, it would have to be of a fixed point, not reflective of the kinetics of the scene. So it has to be made up, adding a layer of artifice. But if the sound is right, its artifice melts into the scene, making it seem like an inevitable byproduct of the view.
The landscan shown at the New Topographics show was shown in tandem with a previous one, the Houston Petrochemical Corridor. Side by side, these views represented upstream: the source of oil from the ground, and downstream: the processing of the oil into fuels and plastics that make up our world. The audio bringing them together was constructed by the musicologist and sound designer George Budd. Videography was by Ron Chapple of Aerial Filmworks.