Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point

By Jacinda Russell
Book Review

Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point
Alex S. MacLean
Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2008
336 pp. $45
ISBN-10: 0810971453

For the past three decades Alex S. MacLean has flown his Cessna Skylane 182 over the American landscape, photographing human activity and the environmental concerns that arise. MacLean is interested in the abstract patterns that emerge as "reflections of human desire scattered across the landscape." The overriding themes of the book are diminishing natural resources, overpopulation, the need for greener energy consumption, and the changes that must occur in order to support future generations.
Where will the 400 million people predicted to inhabit the USA in 2040 live? Both MacLean and Bill McKibben, author of the book's introduction, believe that the resolution is to become a more connected society - less McMansions and more semi-detached homes sharing common rooms for dining and recreation; decreased dependency on fossil fuels; living in denser communities with public transportation; more solar panels and wind turbines.

The text is often more engaging than the photographs. Facts like the average American home doubled in size between 1970 and 2005 or extensive examples on why New York City is the greenest location in the USA are more memorable than many of the images. Throughout the 335 pages of the book, the larger photographs are more appealing than the triptychs crammed on one page. Though emphasizing the element of patterns, they are often redundant.
Nothing about MacLean's photographs breaks new ground in the field. An image of the Prestonwood Baptist church in Plano, Texas records the expanse of empty, beige parking lots directly referencing Ed Ruscha's photographic series Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles. The location of the oil spills interested Ruscha (indicating the most sought after spaces) but where the artistic meets the sociological study is absent in MacLean's image. Turn the page of Over and witness a Waltham, Massachusetts parking lot filled with contaminated runoff and one will find the most abstract interpretation of pattern versus politics in the book. I kept hoping to find more images like this but they were few and far between.
Andreas Gursky's digital manipulation of cars parked near a port in Salerno, Italy is reminiscent of MacLean's bird's eye view of white cars in Portland, Oregon, rows of RVs in Sun City, Arizona, or solar electricity generating systems in Daggett, California. MacLean's series also brings to mind Emmet Gowin's Changing the Earth aerial views, Richard Misrach's portrayal of human activity in Desert Cantos, and Bill Owen's documentation of Suburbia. There are some photographic jewels in the chapter devoted to sea-level rise: shifting sand covering parking lots and picnic shelters (upon quick glance the latter could easily be mistaken for the great pyramids of Giza) in Santa Rosa Island, Florida; trucks snaking their way through mountains of cars and boats inhabiting junkyards in New Orleans, Louisiana and Gulfport, Mississippi post Hurricane Katrina.

At the end of his essay, McKibben hopes that these photographs might "help give us the insight to make the changes we must." And do they? Not without the accompanying facts that drive the point home over and over again.
Alex S. MacLean, Galveston, TX. Harborwalk is a planned waterfront community built on wetlands on the western coast of Galveston Bay. In the coming century this land will be some of the most vulnerable on the Texas coast to sea-level rise, yet developers continue to construct low-lying homes to cash in on waterfront property values.

October 2008 Reviewer's Note, these houses were amazingly not damaged during Hurricane Ike.