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Take a look at Christoph Engel’s 11-image exhibit “Approximate Landscape,” and you’ll see the latest iteration in a long and distinguished line of aerial photography stretching back to the 1860s, when Felix Nadar was plying the air above Paris in a hot-air balloon.
Linger over Engel’s image of an icy wasteland, with unexpectedly varying shades of white punctuated by a void of impenetrable black. Puzzle over his arrangement of irregular white polygons, resembling a haphazard mosaic made of mica chips. Marvel over a cluster of large ships that looks, from far above, like minnows adrift in the brine.
Good stuff, no question. Yet visually, Engel’s work isn’t really groundbreaking. His images of congested highway interchanges and airports echo earlier photographs by Edward Burtynsky. His shots of an impossibly dense suburban development could be pulled from Adriel Heisey’s back catalog, while his farmscapes suggest the stark images of Emmet Gowin and the lush corduroy textures of Maxwell MacKenzie.
Nor is the balance between pure nature and human development a novel theme. The trope has been thoroughly picked over by photographers like Mark Abrahamson, with his terrifyingly beautiful images of mining waste.
Yet Engel’s work is forward-thinking in one pivotal regard. Unlike someone such as MacKenzie—an old-school photographic craftsman who flies his own ultra-light craft to locate the most striking aerial perspectives—Engel never goes airborne to take his aerial images. He doesn’t even leave his computer.
Engel uses Google Earth to find satellite images of locations that strike him, and carefully stitches together hundreds of high-resolution fragments into digital collages. In doing so, Engel “radically alters his condition as a photographer,” writes Ulrike Westphal in the exhibition catalog. “He himself no longer presses the shutter button; in fact, he was not even present at the place where the picture was taken. Against this backdrop, one could raise a broader question: Should these pictures even be referred to as photographs?”
The notion of a “photographer’s” distance from the shutter button is not entirely new; it goes back at least to the late 1960s, when humans first saw satellite images from space. But Engel’s works cast a knowing wink toward the march of technology and its interface with art.
Like so many artists who are versed in pixel manipulation, Engel is as much a conceptual artist as a photographer. While he appropriates the terminology and aesthetics of photography, his medium of choice seems to stem more from convenience than conviction. Notably, one of his other projects is “Decode Daguerre,” in which he takes a digital version of an 1830s image by the father of photography—lifted directly from Wikipedia, no less—and teases out its digital source code. He then prints the code in a standardized font and frames it, as if the zeros and ones have their own artistic merit.
“Approximate Landscape” evinces a similar ambivalence about traditional artistic boundaries. Engel’s large-scale pigment prints are unframed and pushpinned to the wall of the Goethe-Institut, looking more like classroom maps and decorations than fine art. This informality, combined with Engel’s apparent disregard for the traditional rigors of aerial photography, might suggest a breakdown of traditional photographic practice.
But like it or not, the times have changed irrevocably. Eighteen years ago, when I began my career in Washington journalism, my occasional forays into photography involved black-and-white film. Within a few years, no one would accept anything other than color. Now, it’s been years since I or anyone else has used film at all.
Photographers, and admirers of photography, may feel dismay that a young artist like Engel has skipped out on the frigid hold of the crop duster in order to produce aerial images from the distance of a home office and a Wi-Fi connection. And they may be justified in feeling so. But they cannot ignore the tide of history. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to live with it.