America's cultural landscape is never really seen by most people. The few that do get a bird's eye-perspective can enjoy a grid full of water parks, football stadiums, baseball diamonds, ski slopes and golf courses and can view the sweeping agricultural beauty of irrigation, rows of vivid produce and open areas peppered with livestock. If those blinking lights we sometimes see in the sky are UFOs, no wonder they are curious about us. From 1,000 feet above land, even parking lots look extraordinary.
Alex MacLean has one of the best perspectives of this country's colorful landscape. His company is located at an altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 feet. His office is his Cessna 182 plane and his tools are a Canon 5D with a variety of lenses.
If, as it has been said, "The difference between men and boys is the size of their toys," MacLean could be perceived as playing hard. A closer look, however, reveals a man who is an intellectual and is thoughtful about the difference he can make from his unique perspective of the environment. The photographer wasn't drawn to aerial photography for the obvious daredevil, globetrotting reasons, but out of his love for architecture.
In fact, MacLean earned a master's degree in architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design and planned to be an architect. Originally, this led him to climb into a Cessna to examine the layout of land for buildings. Sometimes, he took photos of his excursions.
"I thought it would be neat to look at building spaces from air and what is adjacent to it. But, I found I liked to explore planning density and site analysis work instead of what I went to school for," he said.
In 1975, he earned his pilots license and begun a new career with the help of grants from the National Endowment of the Arts. The grants allowed him to buy his first aircraft - a Cessna 172.
The path to being a successful aerial photographer wasn't easy. He was never mentored, something he recommends all novices do. For several years, he waited tables to make ends meet and rented planes to take photos in his free time.
"I wish I apprenticed with someone. I really struggled for a while. In architecture school there was no training in business practices. I was clueless as to the value of photography and how to price it," he said.
Slowly, work came in the form of documenting urban settings for cities and utilities. MacLean now does a range of projects globally ranging from annual reports, municipality studies, educational conservation and fine art.
Now, at the height of his career, he's published five books and 60 percent of his income is generated from fine art and stock sales. He's also sought after for prime assignments in places like Rome and Paris , and earns extra income from public speaking engagements about the environment for urban planners and schools.
But aerial fine art is not all about gorgeous landscapes. MacLean has done projects on land-use planning, abandonment, environmental protection, historic preservation, American cities, air pollution, landfills, urban blight and housing patterns.
Fascinated with the shape and configuration of housing and its changes over the years, many of these images wind up in his fine art work and later in photo exhibitions. Whether single homes, row houses, multi-story buildings or high rises, he's recorded it all.
Upcoming projects include a book to be released by March 2007 entitled, "Visualizing Density" with Julie Campoli and an exhibit, "American Artifacts" at Gallery Gabrielle in Maubrie, Paris, opening Jan. 27.
His book Playbook released this past fall was a labor of love that explored man's capacity to play on a large scale. From the air, he was able to illustrate American's landscape of play.