MacLean "describes for us, with neither animosity nor complacency, how America has changed in a generation, spreading everywhere the tentacles of a life based on the car, which ends up eating space even as it isolates human beings. (Photo: Alex MacLean / "Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point")
"Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point"
Abrams, New York: October 2008
We regret to inform you that the American myth has given up the ghost. It had been fashioned by the anxious wonder of generations of Europeans discovering this unexplored continent, unlimited space just made for every kind of adventure. That has vanished, devoured by shopping centers, golf courses, residential areas, parking lots, hangars, factories. America was empty; now it is full. It was infinite; now it's restricted. It was open; now it's divided into grids.
One felt this conclusion ripen over the course of trips, as one looked at pictures, like a proof the contours of which slowly emerge in the developing bath of a photo lab. Now it's achieved the stage of final clarity, that is, of revelation.
The agent for this operation of elucidation is Alex MacLean, an aerial photographer by trade, whose simultaneously superb and surgical snapshots draw up the death certificate for the naive age of the United States. His book's title, "Over" is as clear as its double meaning: "over" as in the photographer covering his subject as he flies over it and "over" as in "the game is over." What game? That of the infinite, of the inexhaustible horn of abundance, of the pioneers' wagons traveling across the plains at a slow mule's pace, of cars rushing by for hours across the desert, of the solitary meditations of Thoreau and Abbey, of the solar wanderings of Kerouac or Lolita.
Through thousands of snapshots taken from planes over thirty years, MacLean shows us golf courses in the middle of the desert, mobile home cities thrown across the plain, car cemeteries several square kilometers in size, electricity generators spitting thick clouds of smoke, church parking lots empty all week. He describes for us, with neither animosity nor complacency, how America has changed in a generation, spreading everywhere the tentacles of a life based on the car, which ends up eating space even as it isolates human beings.
As Bill McKibben observes in his intelligent preface, "by looking at these images more attentively, we see the endless rows of individual houses, each opening out onto the same ribbon of sterile concrete. But no lateral connections exist, nothing that might link them up together. […] Cheap fossil fuel has created a sort of invasive individualism, a hyper-individualism that makes us a new species." For, of course, transforming space also amounts to transforming society, and in the material excess of the United States one sees a society that loses its connections, its neighborly spirit, its sense of community, i.e., everything that was the crucible of the American personality.
One thinks, of course, of Yann Arthus-Bertrand. But while the latter magnifies the landscape, MacLean explains it: "I focused on the United States," he detailed to us during a meeting in Paris. "Understanding a culture constitutes an important part of photography."
And while one may look at his images for themselves, as the oeuvre they constitute because they are always beautiful and intriguing, they also document in a striking manner the waste of space and resources on which the world's richest society is based. MacLean takes responsibility for this demonstrative bias. He has organized his book according to several explicit themes (atmosphere, way of life, automobile dependence, water use, city planning), introduced by short texts that propose an environmental reading of the photographs.
He insists on the fact that climate change will bring an upheaval in its wake that will force American society to transform itself. "For example, it is entirely possible that the droughts that will occur in the country's Southwest - including Los Angeles - will force millions of people to migrate," he says. He doesn't see how his fellow citizens would spontaneously change their behavior; the increase in energy prices will have a more effective impact: "But, from another point of view, our quality of life is not so great: spending hours in the car, shopping in horrible shopping centers, is not really a model."
"Over:" comes to us as the financial crisis that opened in the summer of 2008 develops and transforms itself into a crisis of capitalism. The cancerous subdivisions photographed by MacLean show us concretely what subprimes finance: a destructive and unhappy society. "There is an end," he says. "There must be a transition, a change; we don't have a choice."