Photographer Iwan Baan travels the world, living out of a suitcase and hotel rooms exclusively, in order to document architectural marvels in far-flung locales like the middle of Africa and China. For an advocate of aerial vantage points, drones are often the only way to get up in the air and show the surroundings and the context to give a sense of place within the city or environment. These are photographs and videos that would not have been possible without the remote-controlled technology, exposing new parts of the world.
Similarly, Sir Norman Foster recently narrated a drone video tour of the Hearst Tower in New York City, a polished 3-minute edit that offers a glimpse inside the normally secret building — with the permission of Hearst, of course. While the video shows architecture in an amazing (albeit officially sanctioned) new light, there are other, more subversive uses of unmanned aerial vehicles and photography that are pushing our ideas of privacy, voyeurism, the media, visual trespassing, and even ownership and political resistance. This technology is changing the way we access previously hard-to-reach places, which has potential to open up new territories and expose previously unseen sites, giving the power of producing media transparency to anyone who can fly a remote-controlled aircraft.
For example, recent drone footage released by the Ukrainian Army sympathizer group Army SOS shows the bombed-out destruction of the Donetsk Airport in eastern Ukraine. The terminal was built for the 2012 Euro soccer tournament, but is now a ruin in the bitterly contested warzone at the center of the Ukrainian conflict. These videos are ammunition in a propaganda battle for hearts and minds, and would have been nearly impossible for the group to make, since they do not control the area, according to many reports. You can see before and after photographs here.
In a similarly sneaky move, activist director Mark Devries uses drones to fly over factory farms in the American heartland. In addition to talking with the people on the ground in the communities affected by these industrial meat operations, Devries has been flying over the actual farms, which are normally secluded behind massive fences, far out of sight for passersby. In the footage, several massive facilities that supply pigs for Smithfield Foods are exposed as something more like a factory than a farm, places where we see neither how the food is made, nor the environmental impact of the process.
Of course, the secrecy of Silicon Valley is always an odd side effect of their brand of business. At Apple's sprawling cult-compound corporate headquarters — known as the spaceship — construction has gotten as far along as a huge ring-shaped hole in the ground. The footage is not only from a unique angle, but it is something that would not normally be seen by the public because again the site is hidden behind fences and walls. Rather than sneaking in or peering over the fence, a drone affords an unauthorized peek at this otherwise off-limits worksite. (It is also ironic that the building is designed by none other than Foster + Partners.)
This past December, a winter storm in Buffalo, New York, dumped six feet of snow in one day, resulting in eight fatalities. Haunting images captured the wall of lake-effect snow pummeling the city, and experts note that the freak storm could well be a result of climate change. James Grimaldi of West Seneca, New York, used this opportunity to fly his drone around his neighborhood just after the storm had hit. In the colorless, lifeless landscape, we can see downed trees but no people. The unmanned helicopter goes where people cannot. It not only gets great aerial photographs from flying, but also access to new places that would otherwise not be accessible.
A flood of amazing renderings for the upcoming Milan Expo 2015 came out roughly around the same time. Like all good renderings, they depicted an idealized version of what the buildings would look like, and the cameras swooped around from all angles. In an ironic twist, drones can now easily realize these fantastic computer-generated viewing angles, and a new video released by Expo 2015 shows a flyover of the construction site for Milano Expo 2015. Opening on May 1st, the event features projects from Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, Carlo Ratti, and was master planned by Stefano Boeri, Richard Burdett, Mark Rylander and Jacques Herzog. It will be an orgy of architecture, and the video shows the New Holland Pavilion and everything else, labelled clearly in its nearly completed state.