The View from Above: The Aerial Artistry of Alex Ferrone
by Charles A. Riley, II, PhD
Point of view is the essential question in so many intellectual fields, from the visual arts to philosophy, journalism, diplomacy, and theology, even ethics. It strikes me as historically appropriate that Alex Ferrone has made glorious aerial views of the bay waters along which Albert Einstein, mankind’s most momentous thinker on the role of point of view in the understanding of the universe, once strolled. There is a longstanding connection between his epochal scientific achievement and the parallax that made Cubism and its “fourth dimension” so thrilling. This philosophical dimension to art can be extended in turn to the perceptual insights that characterize Ferrone’s provocative views of familiar terrain. Her nimble capability to mobilize our perspective permits us to rise, hover, turn and pull back with her from the shimmering waves in which we are more accustomed to swim and the tide lines we trace on our walks. Known from ground level, these places are made strange, even wondrous and more loved, when framed from above by her alert eye.
Take the way her mesmerizing work Transformation deftly alters our sense of place. Its curl of chalky white and silhouettes of underwater sand bars defy our sense of positive and negative space. Emerald waves gently modulate into lavender, the edges rippled at the lower left as though the bristles of a paintbrush had been pulled across them. Among the most amusing comments she receives in response to the bright aquamarines of her seascapes, which suggest the Caribbean, Florida or the Cote d’Azur, is, “I can’t believe that’s Long Island!” The vertiginous sense of dislocation is one of the pleasures of Hamptons Shoreline, which flips the usual view of the incursion of the big rollers surging toward us so that we see them from the horizon’s direction, soaking up the beach, the bleeding of the water disappearing into the dry sand and severing the legato curve of tire tracks effaced by the tide. In the dramatic seascape Jetties One the waves are so active you can hear them among the rhythmic stones of the jetty, its angular geometry giving the composition a bold graphic punch.
One of her most potent illusions is texture. The silken pattern of waves in Hamptons Blues and Greens seemed to me at first to derive from the paper, but it is printed on a matte finish stock. The ripple effect is the interplay of sand bearing the traces of wave action with the waves themselves above it, two levels of disturbance making patterns. The architect and painter Le Corbusier used to photograph these ripples in the sand at his feet as he walked the beach near Marseille. In a recent interview with this writer, Ferrone offers a starting point: “I’m an image maker. I rely on light and how it shifts if the helicopter moves and reveals additional textures from the landscape.”
In an age of over-accessible satellite images, drones and easy air travel, it is easy to take for granted the privilege of the bird’s-eye view. When Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as “Nadar,” photographed the first aerial vistas of the village of Petit-Becetre in 1858, from a height of about 250 feet (about half of Ferrone’s customary altitude in these works), the shock of the new shaped the reception of the images. A decade later, his survey of Paris broke the plane of familiarity for one of the most exhaustively represented cities in the world, along with Venice the darling of painters, suddenly reconceived in the baffling, exhilarating geometry of an axonometric perspective. During World War I, one of the reasons the flying ace was celebrated was not just for the glamour of the dogfight but his heroic role as Icarus, an aristocratic figure who had the privilege of seeing mankind (at its worst, at war) from the divine perspective. Point of view transformed thought as well as strategy (tacticians soon realized that superior aerial photography offered an insuperable advantage), offering the elusive ideal of the Archimedean point that could move the earth, the view sub specie aeternitatis which reduced the heroic to trivia.
Except Ferrone’s height is not that of infinitude, Mount Olympus, a satellite or even the average jet — beyond reach and belief. Her altitude is carefully calibrated not just by machinery (helicopter, zoom lens) but by the human element, governed by the limits of sight and the threshold of legibility at which the objects on the ground trill between recognition and puzzlement. One of my favorite works is one of her earliest, On the Shore (2012). There is an irresistible irony implicit in this view of the gulls on the beach, because the camera eye occupies the customary place of the gull in the sky, the bird’s-eye view as they survey us strolling the beach, trying to determine if we are about to toss our apple core their way. The visual puzzle of the work is the tree, seen both from above and from the side, its silver tips gleaming. “All I have to do is find it in nature, then pull it into one image,” the artist says. This is easier said than done. The banking helicopter from which Ferrone photographed is both overhead and askance, with the clue of the road seen from above tipping us off to the elevation even as the exquisite shadow of the tree seems on a different plane. What is all the more exciting is the way in which the photograph shares the touch and expressiveness of a painting, an effect I find time and again while looking at Ferrone’s work. Within the center of the work, clouds of color in bands, almost botanical in their leaf-like forms, deliver a painterly passage that reminds me of the watercolors of Charles Burchfield (coincidentally, a master of landscapes featuring bare trees).
Painterly suggestion rises to the level of illusion in Impasto, its title a pointed hint to look for the buildup of three-dimensional paint favored by Van Gogh, Turner and so many for whom the physical possibilities of the medium takes on a sculptural dimension. Rippling strokes edged with a lip of what seems like paint play to the conceit, suggesting the creamy impasto of Hans Hofmann or Willem De Kooning wielding a palette knife.
When Ferrone’s work is at its most painterly, it also borders on abstraction. As the artist told me, “I have an abstract eye.” The paradigm for this is Genesis, a marbleized view of dunes whose arabesques and scooping forms bring to mind the work of Edward Weston, a photographer Ferrone has long admired for his masterpieces of curvilinear abstraction. The work has a stroke of verdigris that belongs in a Degas pastel and the chocolate passages that are familiar in the interiors of Vuillard are side by side with the creamy whites of Cy Twombly. Palette, gesture, texture and form bring to mind not only the great photographic predecessors, many of them strong influences on Ferrone’s development as an artist, but painters as well. As keenly as photography is prized for its accuracy, and documentary precision, its legibility and documentary values, there have always been romantics who admire the abstract aspect of the art. Ferrone’s subtle modulation from realism to abstraction, fact to fiction, is negotiated sometimes within a single work. Fluid passages of pure color reminiscent of the blooms of bright tones that Helen Frankenthaler allowed to seep into her canvases mingle from edge to edge, until you spot that telltale sliver of white foam that anchors your apprehension of where the waves meet the shore. Over and again I used the highlight of the waves at the sand to orient my grasp of the scene in realist terms, in tandem with my enjoyment of the abstraction. The effect is scintillating in Zen Flow, where the powdery white pulse of dazzling light on a bay reminds me of the “white writing” of the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Tobey.
White is the keynote of a technique sacred to the watercolorist and is the most elegant finishing touch of Distant Buoy, on the surface of which white flecks, the light caught by waves, are in actuality glimpses of the paper shining from below the pigment. As with watercolor, the paper maintains the highlights. Whorls and veins of aquamarine blue move through the greens, and the engaged eye, pressing close, discerns the accidental inscription of what almost looks like the Chinese character shang (“to live”). Tiny in terms of real estate, but powerful enough to secure its place in the balance of hot and cool color across the broad expanse of Distant Buoy, the fire-engine red buoy interjects a ring of intense color on a field of indigo, cerulean and lapis lazuli. In Division Flow, these glorious blues modulate in a range from depth to light by contrast with the pure gleaming white lip identifying where waves break. The oscillation of a section in the upper right suddenly sweeps away into an extended space beyond the frame.
Alex Ferrone grew up in Merrick, with summers on the Atlantic shore at Lido Beach and later in Montauk. Her first camera was loaded with a 110 cartridge and set up by her father. Although her first pictures were of friends and family, and she later opened a portrait studio, early on she found herself looking past the figure toward the landscape, or focusing on the grain of wood on a picnic table, the ring patterns of sawn trees or the texture of bark, the sea foam along the beach (coastlines are a thematic constant in her life and work). Her first pure landscapes were photographed at the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay. She has lived for the past seven years on the North Fork, and in 2012, first took the bold step to make art in addition to her commercial work with aerial photography.
She is an ardent student of the tradition of the medium with a long list of influences that testifies to her wide-ranging taste, from Man Ray and Henri Cartier-Bresson to Eugène Atget, whose moody landscapes, as free of people as they are charged with emotion, are a discernible antecedent to her work. Along with Man Ray and Weston, she cites the abstract work of Berenice Abbott. Her favorites also include Wynn Bullock, the aerial views of Marilyn Bridges, Joyce Tenneson, Ralph Gibson, Eric Renner, Joel Meyerowitz, Sebastião Salgado and Mary Ellen Mark. She admires Robert Capa for the starkness of his forms in black and white, and the immaculate placement of the figure. Among contemporaries, she points to the dramatic achievement of Andreas Gursky, whose monumental scale photographic works are often shot from helicopters or cranes, not only elevated but pulled back at a distance from the human figures, bicyclists or cars that move in miniature across them. “He sees the timeless space and captures it. You have an immense space and pull it into a tiny frame,” she notes, a comment that applies to her own work as well. Gursky photographs from a helicopter, and has used a crane to rise over a scene – an important aspect of his work is the way he backs off from a scene, at an angle, imposing a further distortion and then printing the work on such a massive scale that the details recede further. I would suggest that in addition to being more cinematic (in a way that I personally do not always admire) he casts a colder eye on the world beneath, more ironic, than Ferrone.
Almost any artist working in the field of aerial photography pays homage to its pioneer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, best known for this international advocacy of environmentalism. Like Bertrand, Ferrone’s eye is ever alert to the ecological significance of the images she captures. “It may not be there tomorrow,” she quietly warns. “Part of the documentary nature of what I do is seeing the image and holding on to it. I go because it changes all the time.” Among the many meanings that may be ascribed to her seascapes, as well as the vivid marks left by tire tracks along the beach in Dune, part hieroglyphs part brushstrokes with vibrating textures, the ecological message is a strong but not exclusive one. As evanescent as the sun catching a cat’s paw that strokes bay waters, the purity of these scenes is startlingly fragile, all the more reason to treasure Ferrone’s achievement in memorializing them. Susan Sontag wrote about how this elevates the mind: “Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art.”
Ascending to the observation deck of a skyscraper lends a similar transcendent sense of departing from the muddled sensations of city streets to attaining a prospect from which the labyrinth is navigable. “Your elevation transfigures you,” the French philosopher Michel de Certeau wrote after a visit to the World Trade Center just after it was built. “It transforms the bewildering world by which you were ‘possessed’ into a text that lies before your eyes. It allows you to read it, like a solar eye, looking down like a god.” Ferrone is flying at less than half that altitude when she photographs. The difference is more than just quantitative, because the human connection with the water, the birds, the trees and sand is what offers these pieces so much of their emotional impact.
Charles A. Riley II, PhD
Cutchogue, May 2016
Charles A. Riley II, PhD is a critic, curator, professor at City University of New York and Clarkson University and author. He has published thirty-one books on art, cultural history, and media. His articles have appeared in Art & Auction, Art & Antiques, Antiques and Fine Art, Flashart and many other international magazines. He is the author of The Jazz Age in France, Sacred Sister, Aristocracy and the Modern Imagination, The Saints of Modern Art, Color Codes, The Tools of Historic Preservation and The Arts in the World Economy as well as monographs on artists including Ben Schonzeit, Arthur Carter, Roy Lichtenstein and others. He has curated museum and gallery exhibitions in Taiwan, Holland, Germany as well as New York. He was formerly editor of Art & Auction magazine and on the editorial staff of Fortune magazine. He reviews for Hamptons Art Hub and other publications. Dr. Riley earned his BA summa cum laude at Princeton University and his MPhil and PhD at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.