Alex MacLean’s aerial images concrete and abstract 

In 15 stunning aerial photographs, Alex MacLean’s “The American Landscape at the Tipping Point,” on view at Robert Koch Gallery documents the effect of proliferating man-made constructions — parking lots, housing developments, agricultural fields, freeways, junk yards, et al. — on natural environments such as deserts, rivers, forests and  landscapes.

MacLean’s training as an architect at Harvard University and 30 years of work in urban design inform his award-winning photographs, which have been shown in galleries and museums throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia.

The show gets its name from a 2008 book, “OVER: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point,” in which some of the images were first published.

“Basically, the book looks at our culture and the ongoing collision of population and economic growth with climate change. So the show is about lifestyle and culture expressed on the land and what might be looming in the future,” MacLean said.

The photos are unusually large, each measuring 30-by-40 inches. In the gallery space, they appear gigantic. But size isn’t the only aspect that makes them distinctive — depth, brilliant color and emphasis on detail add to their effectiveness.

Of course, MacLean’s intent is to call attention to the plight of  natural environments.

“I seek out odd occurrences in the physical landscape that serve as metaphors for shifts in societal values. These images tell important stories about our cultural standards,” he said.

At the same time, the aesthetics of the photographs are as fascinating, if not more so, than the messages, and they become the focus of attention.
At first, the works seem like paintings. Only upon closer look does the viewer realize they are photographs. It takes a while for one’s eyes to adjust, the way they do when a person moves from darkness to light.  

“Stacked Interchange at I-17, Phoenix, Arizona, 2004” is a picture of a complex freeway with curved roads zigzagging past, around and above a solid road. Shadows falling on different areas of the freeway add remarkable life to the photo. Its artistry overrides concerns of imposition on the natural environment.
“Bay Channel, Newark, California, 1984” is a landscape scene with water features. The subject’s purpose is not clear, but the image’s sharp contrasts — a sensuous black curve set against the water —  make for an exquisite abstract photo.

There is much variety in the exhibition’s small number of photographs, which, in addition to documenting humans’ relationship to the environment, share an aesthetic beauty that make them unique.

The American Landscape at the Tipping Point

Where: Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary St., fifth floor, San Francisco
When: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes July 2
Contact: (415) 421-0122,

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Murray Paskin

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