BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 JUN 10
Featured in
Issue 132

That Eye, The Sky

How we’re getting used to the view from above

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 JUN 10

Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero, 1977. Courtesy: Eames Office LLC,

In February, the front page of the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung was graced with an image of four people having a picnic – albeit on a red carpet instead of green grass. Photographed shortly before the opening of the 60th Berlin International Film Festival, the unseasonable picnickers were actually film fans who had come so early for tickets that they took breakfast with them and ate it in the queue. The photographer is not named; according to the by-line, the German press agency giant DPA published the shot.

While the subject matter is banal, the aerial perspective of this image makes it exceptional: there is no apparent reason to adopt a bird’s-eye view to show people queuing for tickets on a chilly winter morning in Berlin. Since then, I have seen other, similar images in the press, where this approach seems to be gaining more conspicuous favour than in art. In March, Daniel Ochoa de Olza from the Associated Press snapped the Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher from above before his comeback race. Schumacher’s face was hidden by his cap, while his thumbs-up of readiness looked more like the telephone-imitating gesture of someone soliciting a phone call. It’s an interesting photograph, but, like the one of the queue in Berlin, not particularly informative.

Of course, there are precedents for the bird’s-eye view, but they tend to have practical uses. Consider satellite weather forecasts, cartography, architectural blueprints, aerial surveys, images taken during space missions, military surveillance shots, civilian surveillance footage from CCTV cameras, or even the plan of an exhibition. Yet, I would argue that the origins of the Berlin and Schumacher photographs lie in GPS gadgets and in Google Earth, which circumnavigates the planet from above. While these mapping systems also have practical uses, their popularity may be normalizing the bird’s-eye view, if not creating a desire among viewers to observe events from above – at least until they choose to get closer with the pedestrian roving eye of Google Street View.

For the Berlin shot, there is yet another precedent, closer to film: the design duo Charles and Ray Eames’ documentary Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero (1977). This classic film starts with an aerial view of a couple picnicking in a Chicago park on a warm October day, zooms millions of light years away into outer space, then zooms back down to the pair, ultimately entering the molecular level through the skin of the man’s hand. A model of the concept of scale explored in multiples of ten, the film visually unites the telescopic expansions of space travel with the microscopic reductions of the microchip (NASA is thanked in the credits, while the Eameses made the film for IBM).

Beyond the space and information age, the Eameses’ film recalls the mythological flight of Icarus more than the flight of any bird, although in this version Icarus’ plummet doesn’t end tragically in the Aegean Sea but continues into a human cell. By contrast, the step from Google Earth to Google Street View gives Icarus a soft landing, while grounding him in a neighbourhood where he can wander the streets – it being a virtual representation – safely without worrying about being hit by cars. While the Eameses’ film introduced a revolutionary way of seeing – the planet and the cell became visible to the human eye and could be seen on the same screen – Google seems to be turning the view from above into an accepted convention, if one judges from recent photojournalistic trends.

Does this perspective imply more than just a way of seeing the world? I can’t approximate Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form (1927), but it’s intriguing to contemplate the differences between Renaissance linear perspective and the zooming celestial eye of our advanced space and information age, marked by satellites, digitalization and the Internet. The Renaissance point of view was a stable and singular one; GPS implies a subject on the move while Google cartography lets the subject choose from a variety of perspectives on destinations the world over. In Google cartography, what is homogeneous and continuous is not space, but travel. We get to every point – near and far – in the same way: on the screen. Even when we arrive, we keep moving around. Perhaps photojournalists have started snapping from above to lend their still photographs a hint of the mobility associated with GPS gadgets, just as artists may have started painting film stills to confound their canvases with movie screens.

Perpetual movement on a global scale suggests the highs and lows of Icarus’ trajectory – compare tourists and refugees, flash mobs and mass displacements caused by freak weather. The horizontal views generated by and for the Renaissance homo universalis – gestures, faces, flags, signs or the classic vanishing point – become illegible. Indeed, everyone’s face vanishes in the vedute of Google Street View where the sun neither rises nor sets. Perhaps it’s time to make art works – whether portraits or landscapes – that look more like exhibition plans.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.