Remains to be seen
All of the twentieth century seems to be here. A steeple from a church built in the 1890s and abandoned a little more than a century later thrusts its copper-clad spire toward the camera. An amusement park that opened in 1889 is seen in various states of decay, tracking decades of decline both before and after it closed in 2007. Streetcars, relics of a nationwide network of urban rail lines that flourished until the middle of the last century, lie on their sides in a green field, as a forest encroaches on their makeshift graveyard. A lake once fed by the Owens River in California, now little more than a toxic brine pool and marshland, reminds one of the insatiable thirst and unchecked growth of Los Angeles, the quintessential American city of the twentieth century.
These images by Travis Fox, taken with a camera mounted on an aerial drone, reveal the archaeological remains of forces that shaped American life during the last century: the flourishing and fall of the industrial economy, the growth of the suburbs, the post-war population boom and leisure economy, and the creation of ambitious yet disposable infrastructure, all fueled by a broad prosperity that was coexistent with poverty and racism. You see the margins and fault lines of that society, the sharp and widening gap between rich and poor, the environmental neglect and disdain, the detritus of wildfire capitalism that built, but rarely conserved.
Fox’s intuition, borne out in these images, is that to understand a society, you must look to its interstitial spaces—the shards of parking lots, strips of grass, empty concrete slabs, and patches of shoreline that no longer front bodies of water. Remains To Be Seen offers a taxonomy of these in-between places, the interface between the natural and the man-made world, the porous divide between the haves and the have-nots that cut through urban neighborhoods, and the temporal thresholds between various stages of wrack and ruin, from neglect to decay to collapse and finally, the last faint traces on the landscape, waiting for the archeologist to rediscover them. Or for the drone, which finds things we cannot see.
“As an aerial photographer I look for things I have not lost and find what I am not looking for,” wrote Georg Gerster, the Swiss journalist and photographer. Gerster, whose work included aerial surveys of archaeological sites, was in fact looking for something rather particular and he found it with regularity. He sought hypnotic patterns and appealing forms, evidence of life and order, visual analogies, and benign optical illusions just teasing enough to engage but not tax the mind. He was open, he said, to serendipity, and his images, polished and professional, could live without dissonance on sites like Instagram, or its more specialized derivative, Dronestagram.
Fox’s work is different. He, too, finds patterns and sometimes beauty, and his process, he acknowledges, is also governed by serendipity. But there is darker stuff here too. If we can chart the social history of the twentieth century in the overt subject matter—the worldly stuff we recognize in the images—we can see many of the signal moments in the history of twentieth century art cast their shadow on the style and form of the images too.
The Saint Peter and Paul Church spire recalls Moholy-Nagy’s 1928 photograph of the Berlin Radio Tower, which plunges to earth along a diagonal similar to the one Fox’s camera has captured. The ruins of thrill rides from the Geauga Lake amusement park in Ohio have the biomorphic forms of Jean Arp and Joan Miró. The demolition of a shopping mall in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, creates a rhythm of vertical lines—some clean and taut, others messy and smudged—that recall the vertical “zips” of Barnett Newman. A tr ee, leafless and dead because rising sea levels have compromised groundwater near the Chesapeake Bay in Dorchester County, Maryland, looks like one of Roxy Paine’s spectral “dendroid” sculptures. Images from Owens Lake in California and from Youngstown, Ohio, resemble, in different ways, Andy Warhol’s urine-based oxidation paintings
Some of these affinities may be accidental. Turn an aerial photograph by ninety degrees, and a vertical zip becomes a horizon line or a geological stratum. But in others there are tangible connections between the material content of the image and its aesthetic allusions. The vivid rust colors of the Salton Sea or Owens Lake are the result of chemical processes similar to the way urine interacts with metal paint in the Warhol oxidation paintings. The scouring away of the red and green paints that defined tennis courts in Fallsburg, New York, is a kind of effacement, and effacement was an essential gesture in twentieth-century art, from the literal effacement of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning to the smearing of faces in the figures of Francis Bacon and the rubbing away of color in the abstract works of Mark Rothko.
A curious pattern incised in the desert and makes a photograph of California City—a failed planned city in the Mojave Desert—suggest something sketched but not finished, evoking the intentionally unfinished style that is characteristic of many twentieth-century artworks.
Fox’s work navigates between two broad tendencies in aerial photography: images that have a pragmatic use or purpose, and images that are purely beautiful or aesthetically interesting. The former includes photographs made for scientific or legal use, or to aid urban planning and development; the latter includes work such as that of Gerster and the many amateurs and enthusiasts drawn to aerial photography now that drones have made it widely affordable.
The pragmatic, useful image is broadly used to document and teach us something about the land; the aesthetic image is intended to please the eye or animate feeling. Images that do both somehow seem more important, more meaningful than images that only do one or the other. But why? Why do we want photographs that make us ask questions and delight us at the same time? What value is there in that fusion, sought by so many artists but achieved only by the most accomplished ones?
Read the rest of Philip Kennicott's essay in Travis Fox's book What Remains to be Seen.
Travis Fox is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and the Director of Visual Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Senior Art and Architecture Critic of the Washington Post.