~ Posted by Simon Willis, May 2nd 2012
The pictures could be taken by aliens. When you walk into "Transmission", the current exhibition at the Brancolini Grimaldi gallery in London, it's not immediately clear what you are looking at. The images on the wall, hung without labels or titles, are uncannily familiar: landscapes, often captured from high altitude; networks of crevasses and fissures, mountain ranges and isolated craters. We've seen things like this before in photographs of the lunar surface or pictures sent back by rovers on Mars. But you are in fact looking at some of the most photographed places on the planet: the Yosemite national park, the Grand Canyon and Mount St Helens.
Dan Holdsworth is a photographer, but this isn't quite photography, or at least not quite as we know it. He made the pictures out of data, captured by the United States Geological Survey using satellites in space, which make laser scans of the Earth's surface and take coordinates every few metres, which Holdsworth then renders digitally. In the centre of the room is a stack of more than 6,000 sheets of paper, more than a foot tall, printed with nearly 5m coordinate points in neat columns. They represent 0.23 square metres of the print of Yosemite Valley on the wall.
His largest image of the Grand Canyon looks a bit like a frosted branch, and vast swathes of the Cascade mountains in California like scrumpled paper. There are two remarkable pictures of Salt Lake City, except that you have to look very hard to make out the city at all. From a distance, you can see a flat plain abutting mountains. But go in close, and there it is: the faintest outlines of industrial buildings, freeways and convoluted roundabouts, like fine imprints in wet clay. In Holdsworth's pictures we're seeing great American landscapes and a big American city made to look small, no longer the familiar grand vistas, but mere features on a planet's crust.
Holdsworth has just published a new book called “Blackout”, which also shifts our perspective, but this time from ground-level. He has photographed mountains and glaciers in Iceland, near the volcano which grounded planes in 2010. But he’s inverted the pictures, so that light becomes dark—the basalt rock bone-white, the sky black. Oliver Morton, who writes our column The Music of Science, has written the accompanying essay. He says that the images remind him not of Mars or the moon, but of “the volcanoes of Venus", a planet whose "searing heat and extraordinary pressure...have allowed almost no exploration of its surface". The resemblance is sobering. Earth, once again, looks unearthly and strange. For Morton that "opens up a question that is both moral and aesthetic: Why do I care about this barren land—if, indeed, I do?"
"Transmission: New Remote Earth Views" is on at the Brancolini Grimaldi gallery in London until May 19th. "Blackout" is out now from Steidl BG
Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life