Epic Overview: Benjamin Grant on the Sky-High Art of Aerial Photography

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

When author Benjamin Grant typed in “Earth” on a mapping program back in 2013, he made an accidental discovery that would fundamentally change his view of the world and send him down a path of discovery for the following three years of his life.

“The project really started as a mistake,” says Grant, the author of a stunning photographic compendium entitled Overview, released today. Speaking with Architizer, Grant reflects on the moment when DigitalGlobe — a Google Earth–style application — sent him to a very unexpected location.

“I typed the word ‘Earth’ into the search bar, hoping that it would zoom out and show the entire planet … What actually happened was, it zoomed in to Earth, Texas.”

The First Overview: Earth, Texas, USA; December 14, 2013

Grant discovered that ‘Earth,’ a tiny town with an extraordinary name, is surrounded by a remarkable manmade landscape: Hundreds of perfect circles are stacked row upon row, forming a vast pattern of green polka dots as far as the eye can see. Looking into this enigmatic image, Grant discovered that the circles are formed by pivot irrigation sprinklers, a simple device used by farmers to water their crops in an efficient manner. This was a real revelation: A pragmatic function of agriculture was transformed into an awe-inspiring artwork when viewed from above.

The ‘Earth’ moment sparked Grant’s imagination. “It made a lot of sense that this first image was an incredible pattern that humans had created,” he says, “but there was a deeper story to tell about technology, agriculture or the way things manifest themselves in the landscape like this.” The author was soon going on countless mapping adventures, finding many more patterns that illustrated the impact of humans on Earth in eye-opening and often profound ways.

He decided to set up an Instagram account to record his discoveries — and the Daily Overview was born. Grant sums it up by quoting a hero of space exploration: “I believe the astronaut Jeff Hoffman said, ‘When you’re in space, you can appreciate the Earth’s beauty, but you can also start to see the scars on the Earth that we’ve created.’” Grant refers to mines, borderlines and widespread deforestation as examples of this, but soon, his focus also began to shift towards urban environments with unique architectural properties.

“Brasilia’s urban plan — resembling an airplane from above — was developed by Lúcio Costa and prominently features the Modernist buildings of the celebrated architect Oscar Niemeyer at its center.”— excerpt from Benjamin Grant’s Overview

Many of these beautifully composed images show individual structures, from industrial facilities like power plants to architectural wonders like St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Highlighting dozens of the most extraordinary buildings from a bird’s-eye perspective in a chapter entitled “Where We Design,” Grant calls these moments “beacons of ingenuity and amazing thoughtfulness.”

The author also became increasingly fascinated by the geometries of grouped architecture, depicting the striking planned urban centers of Barcelona, Paris and Brasilia. While the frenetic nature of cities can make them feel chaotic when viewed at street level, these aerial shots lay bare the grand visions of urban planners, orchestrating the fluid movement of vast numbers of people.

“The Zaatari Refugee Camp was constructed in Mafraq, Jordan, and opened in July 2012 to host refugees fleeing the ongoing civil war in Syria. The population of the camp is currently estimated at 83,000.” — excerpt from Benjamin Grant’s Overview

Grant’s increasing awareness of the visual impact of dense architectural landscapes also extended to instances that carry a huge sociopolitical weight: The juxtaposed images of a desert in Jordan, taken three years apart, reveals the rapid emergence of a refugee camp as the Syrian Civil War unfolded.

It gave the author a whole new perspective of how human civilization can transform the Earth, with those impacts extending far beyond the edge of each photograph. “The change to the landscape is far greater than this particular image shows,” emphasizes Grant. “Cities were destroyed, people’s lives were destroyed to create this new landscape.”

“Ordos, China, is considered by many accounts to be the largest ghost city in the world … Reports as of 2016 suggest that only 2 percent of the new buildings have been occupied and many of the city’s other construction projects have been abandoned.”— excerpt from Benjamin Grant’s Overview

Similar social and political resonance lies within Grant’s depiction of Ordos, an infamous example of China’s “ghost cities” — vast planned developments that were never populated due to high prices and a lack of desire of rural populations to transpose their lives to urban settlements. Here, MAD’s distinctive Ordos Art and City Museum is framed by rows of empty high-rises and desolate streets. One of the highlights of a chapter “Where We Waste,” this eerily beautiful portrait of a lonely city encapsulates the misguided belief that “if you build it, they will come.”

From Earth to Ordos, Grant’s book spans the gamut of incredible manmade compositions at an epic scale, each telling their own story about our relationship with the planet and with each other. There are hundreds of images to enjoy within these pages, but we just had to ask Grant the impossible question: Which is his favorite?

“Palmanova, Italy, is characterized by its star fort layout. The town was constructed in this way so that an attack on any individual wall could be defended from the two adjacent star points by shooting the enemy from behind.” — excerpt from Benjamin Grant’s Overview

“My favorite images are the ones that get people to ask me ‘What is that?!’” laughs Grant. “When I’ve done such a confusing job that I’ve got someone’s mind to be open, and for a moment there, they want to learn more, they want to look closer, and they want to figure it out.” As a medium for sparking curiosity in this way, it seems certain that Overview will achieve its lofty goal, and its readers will never look at the Earth — or its architecture — in quite the same way again.

To order your hardbound edition of Overview, click here.

All images reprinted with permission from Overview by Benjamin Grant © 2016; published by Amphoto Books, a division of Penguin Random House; images © 2016 by DigitalGlobe

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