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Photography in The Age of the Personal Drone

Photographer John Vigg explores a new aesthetic with his drone-enabled landscape photography.

by Morgan O'Leary
Jun 4 2013, 9:55pm

John Vigg thinks everyone should have a personal drone. Maybe you’d use yours to uphold national security, or maybe you’d have tacos delivered to your apartment. Whatever. 

While people have been strapping high-def cameras to their heads and helmets for years now, Vigg still thinks they’re missing the point. He’s going for a new aesthetic. In the search for this “new aesthetic,” Vigg has designed and programmed drones armed with cameras to fly over various areas that are otherwise unreachable by foot. 

His interest was piqued by a section of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. According to Google Maps, there was a housing development in the middle of this vast stretch of untouched land, when in fact trees were the only inhabitants of this remote area. “Google Earth made a mistake, and I wanted to get in there,” says Vigg.

In Vigg’s words, his drones help him “describe contemporary landscape and the changes in current aesthetics while investigating the production of space.” In his most recent work, Vigg pushes the limits of what photography can do with an eye toward traditional landscapes. In order to capture the precise images that he wanted (when conventional means of capturing aerial shots – like kites and balloons – weren’t cutting it) he made drones using the same high-tech equipment scientists are using in unmanned aerial vehicles.

“I’m looking to get the look of the drone. I want to use what everyone has access to. It’s about accepting what this technology is going to give us and looking at the aesthetics and the pleasing nature of that,” he says. In an age where Google Maps and Google Earth have become our preliminary peep show of physical experience, Vigg’s taking the concept a step further, venturing into territory where no Street View car has gone before. 

How did you get the idea to work with drones?

I came across several air bases [on Google Maps and Google Earth] that had drones on them, so I started making drawings of the drones. I needed an idea for more advanced aerial shots and here I’d already been investigating these top secret air bases. I’d had them on my brain for weeks. So I started researching how to produce my own. 

How did you build and program the drones?

I build my own frames because they hold the electronics I like. I source parts from all over the place. The bulk of it is from 3D Robotics. The programming is all open source. You literally click points on the Google Map to tell this thing where to fly. I use GoPro cameras. When I first started, it was with a GoPro 2. I was having trouble with the image resolution, but closer to the tail end is when the GoPro 3 came out. It offers much better image quality and can tether the drones to my iPhone, offering more maneuverability in the air. It helped a lot; it was really a saving grace. It took off so much technology from the drone itself. 

One of Vigg's homemade drones surveys the scene from up top.

Can you talk a little about how your work has changed in tandem with recent technological advancements?

It’s been a realization. A new aesthetic is coming about. Everyone’s used to Google Maps and Google Earth. There are artists producing fine art images from this stuff, but now me, you or anyone can have their own personal drone. Now anyone is able to create these aerial images. The technology is pretty much limitless already. You can program them to do pretty much anything, with flight time being the only restriction. Really, I’m looking for what a geographer would call an “area contradiction” the space between two spaces. Like railroad tracks. We always joke about one side being the “wrong side.” These areas are very interesting. They hide away at times.

What are some areas of contradiction you’ve exposed?

The first is the development in the Pine Barrens that just didn’t exist. That’s an interesting place to be. Somewhere on someone’s radar this place exists, but not for everyone else.

The second is Minetta Brook, a lost river that still flows under the streets of Manhattan. It floods the NYU Law library. There are houses in Lower Manhattan whose basements are flooded. [The brook]’s been around since before Manhattan was built. I walked and took photos of the path of the river. This constant exposure to one area shed light on something that didn’t appear to exist. 

What do we understand as a “place”? How does your work use technology to change this?

Traditionally, or historically, we’ve always used maps to define areas, for example with borders between countries. Technology, because it is so overbearing right now, layers over itself too much. It’s impossible to look at one item to define a place. There are multiple items to define it… Things like this become risky. How do you accurately describe what “place” is when the software we have [Google Maps, etc.] is so overbearing? We see truth but it’s really just an algorithm.

What about the social implications of your work?

If you look at my work, there are always multiple images. I try to combine Google Earth and my own images so the viewer can draw their own conclusions. Like with Minetta – you can see the flow of the river. It follows it truly, geographically. My work lines up with old historical maps.

You’ve mentioned that you’re seeking to show us the new aesthetic of imagery that is upon us. How do you define this new aesthetic of imagery?

It’s that we can have our own personal drone now - this image the drone gives us back and how we get to look at these images. It carries its own aesthetic, just like Google Maps has its own look. Photos are almost just data at this point. Take the tragedy in Boston, for example. People were looking at the photos just for the data. It’s just how computers are looking at photographs: Where are the similarities and differences? People are tending to [consume photographs] along these lines too and it’s because of the sheer number of images that are being made. Something has to be being done with these images. Something sees them beyond just us seeing them.

What’s your next project?

I’ve been hiking these trails in upstate New York and lining them up with old roads in early settler times. I’m looking at how the roads became roads. What geological formations or landmark or river made this road wind up this way? I do this hand-in-hand with GPS. When I look at them on a map or data set, I can see what similarities lay in these certain areas.

new aesthetic
aerial photography
john viggiano