Air America

Flying back from Spain a few years ago, Lara Montagne carefully followed her airliner's flight path on a computer screen at her seat. When the screened showed the plane high over Greenland, she recalls, “I jumped up and asked to go to the cockpit—it was obviously pre-Sept. 11. I just went up there and asked if I could take pictures. One pilot was completely distracted reading a magazine about condos in Lake Tahoe, but the other said sure.

“We were very high up; you could see that this is a planet. I couldn't actually see Greenland, but I was there so long taking pictures they ended up kicking me out.”

Two of those pictures are now on display at the Pece/Jones Gallery in Santa Ana's Santora Arts Building. View From Troposphere shows a sky of white clouds piled up like sand dunes, with air streams only occasionally blunting the many ridges. Over Greenland, taken moments later, shows more gentle cloud strands.

“I feel a range of emotions when flying,” Montagne said. “It's extremely peaceful being in the air, off the planet. There's fear, but often just being in the air overtakes the fear.”

Image by Lara Montagne

Now very nearly a pilot herself—she already has more than enough hours to get her license—Montagne has put together an exhibit of 17 aerial photos she took over the past five years. Some from private planes, others from airliners, the images show a unique perspective of America. It's photographic Abstract Expressionism, inchoate images of something familiar—our planet—from a perspective that depends upon imagination to impose order.

Photography is all about perspective—perspective and light—and humans began throwing cameras into the sky almost as soon as we invented them. In 1858, French artist Nadar attached one to a balloon to shoot the French village of Petit-Becetre from 250 feet up. Camera-equipped balloons, kites, rockets, airplanes and satellites followed, not just for art, of course, but also espionage, to make out not just who we are, but also what our enemies are up to—or down to—down there or rather here, in the schematic of roads and buildings that reveal their macro meaning only when we see them from above.

Montagne's Spider shows an Irvine Auto Center X-shaped intersection at night. Snake is a slightly out-of-focus shot of evening freeway traffic—white lights forming the left part of the snake and red lights the right. Thousands of events were going on the instant she took these pictures, but they're too small for our eyes to pick out. So we imagine them.

Most of Montagne's photos are rural. She has a beautiful shot of bright-green crevasses in California as seen from an airliner on a return trip from New York. Four pictures feature snow-covered Kansas—farms, tract homes, a river, all white. Stare at the pictures long enough, and you lose yourself thinking of hiking trips and Christmas dinners—or, if you're more paranoid, wild animals and frostbite.

The only photo in her collection that actually includes identifiable people is Cascade Range, her favorite. Taken in a twin-engine Piper Seneca, the photo shows sunset over a mountain range. In the upper right corner are the plane's pilot and co-pilot reflected in a Plexiglas window.

Image by Lara Montagne

“Everything is caught in that image,” she said. “It kind of brings into focus—no pun intended—the relationship between the technical side of flying and just being in the air. It shows a natural setting in a very unnatural way.”

Montagne sees herself as more journalist than artist. When asked about her camera and film preferences, she laughed and said she has just one camera, and it works well for her. “I'm just documenting things,” she said, adding that she enjoys recording urban sounds as well as shooting photos. “I just take pictures of what already is.”

Lara Montagne shows at the Pece/Jones Gallery, the Santora Arts Building, 207 N. Broadway, Ste. K, Santa Ana, (714) 639-8524. Open by appointment. Through March 29.

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