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Arts

Aerial photographer compares landscapes in Venice and Las Vegas

At first glance, dry Las Vegas doesn't have much in common with water-rich Venice. But in a recent project now on display in Munich, aerial photographer Alex MacLean finds links between the high-maintenance landscapes.

A bus station near Venice, photograph by Alex MacLean

MacLean addresses energy, climate change and aesthetics in his work

American photographer and pilot Alex MacLean is known for his bird's eye shots. Both Las Vegas and Venice are located in areas considering hostile to humans and were built using enormous amounts of resources. The cities are popular tourist destinations, but are both threatened by climate change.

MacLean captures the changing landscapes of Las Vegas and Venice in an exhibition at Munich's Eres Foundation, starting on September 10. In mid-October, the photographs will be published in a book by the Schirmer/Mosel Verlag.

Deutsche Welle: How did you go from being an architect to becoming a photographer and pilot?

Alex MacLean: I was a photographer before I became an architect. I really enjoyed photography. It was on of the things that lead me to the visual arts and thinking about architecture as a career path. When I was in architecture school, I learned to fly and I was interested in flying in part for looking at landscape as a way of site analysis for buildings and urban design and planning.

Vegas - Venice: How did you come to these two vastly opposite poles?

This project was generated by the Berlin Academy of Arts. I was asked to participant in the exhibition they were putting on, "Return of Landscape." It was looking at sustainable landscapes and one part of the show was looking at the landscapes of Vegas and Venice.

When they asked me, I thought it was quiet curious and humorous and didn't immediately see the connection. But when you think about it, we are looking at two very opposite environments that are very threatened by climate change. One is in the lagoon where there is too much water, threatened by sea level rise. Likewise, Las Vegas is a desert with two million people having to survive with water shortages in the future due to climate change.

Venice had a long history of stringent environmental regulations. In particular, they used salt generated in evaporating pits in the lagoon for their trade. They had to keep the salt very pure.

Aerial view of Chioggia Island near Venice, photograph by Alex MacLean

Venice has too much water, while Las Vegas has too little

As you were doing this project what did you discover that surprised you?

There are different layers that you see on the landscape. One of them you see in the lagoon is the impact of globalization. And in the Veneto region with the industry and distribution of goods from other parts of the world, which is a contrast to this ideal local economy.

The other side of it is our dependence on natural systems. You see the reconstruction of wetlands in the lagoon and the importance of keeping natural systems sustainable. Likewise, in Las Vegas you see the regulation of water through the Hoover Dam and you also see retention basins to control flash floods. They represent a big part of the infrastructure of Las Vegas. So, again, it is regulation or trying to control natural systems.

It is an amazing thing that five percent of Las Vegas' water supply is used to irrigate lawns and golf courses.

Doesn't Las Vegas represent enormous waste?

Las Vegas actually got its start sustaining itself from energy from Hoover Dam. But they have far outstripped what they are getting out of Hoover Dam with the air conditioning and the lights.

Looking at these two cities, are there any similarities?

I think both are two big urban populations living under the threat of climate change. One of the things Las Vegas is doing which represents a big cultural shift for the population is moving away from green lawns. There are actually financial incentives for trading green lawns for desert landscaping.

What was the most difficult project you have ever done?


Well, photographing in Venice wasn't easy. The weather is difficult to predict. There is a lot of fog and haze to contend with. Flying in a foreign country is difficult. When you are working with a pilot it is difficult in itself. The pilot is dealing with regulations you are not familiar with. This was a difficult project on the Venetian side.

When did you realize that photography was going to be an art form for you?

I loved the images I took right from the very start. That was the art. The art drove my desire to be in the plane to do the commercial work. But I really enjoy doing the commercial work because I work with very interesting clients: architects, planners, foresters, environmentalists - a whole range of clients looking at landscape from different points of view and perspectives.

It is very informative to get their interpretation of what you see on the land. Being informed really enables you to be in a story telling mode. There are many things you want to express and say about images that you are taking. I can hardly think of photographing without feeling like I am saying something through the photographs.

Click on the picture gallery below for examples from Alex MacLean's Vegas-Venice project.

Interview: Mariana Schroeder

Editor: Kate Bowen

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