BRYONY QUINN is a writer, editor and lecturer based in the UK. bmbquinn[at] ABOUT BQ.

ALL PROJECTS —— [2015] OBLIQUE/OBLIKE is a collection of essays devoted to obliquity. Texts include: a speculative etymology, O-OB-OBLIKE, which reads into the conceptual, logical, textural and metaphorical potential of the word “oblique”; a contextual history of the forward slash, A TYPOGRAPHIC CHRONICLE OF STOPS AND STARTS; a series of fragment essays with photographs (HOW TO CROSS A SLOPE) that consider definitions of spatial and architectural inclination on the body; AERIAL OBLIQUITY, a text exploring perceptual shifts, impostor landscapes and the military units set-up for photographic interpretation at the start of the 20th century; a critical reading of Richard McGuire’s comic HERE and other narratives in art and literature that open windows (or tunnel out or fold or fling) the past into the future; and an extract from a slideshow of images and ideas — things that prop versus things that lean — designated as OBLIQUE OBJECTS. This project follows a general notion that lines of thought may not be perpendicular but that does not mean that they are random. [2015] ALBERTOPOLIS COMPANION is a book, website and series of podcasts that write around and over the South Kensington complex of Victorian institutes and museums that were built with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (an area colloquially known as Albertopolis). The essay, ALBERT-O-POLIS, draws a critical cross-section of the words facetious coining and usage. [2014] OF AND FOR TURNER CONTEMPORARY is a series of essays, an event and a website generated in collaboration between Margate’s Turner Contemporary museum, David Chipperfield Architects and the Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the Royal College of Art. Prompted by the lines “On Margate sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing” from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, GAPS is an essay that looks for architectural and figurative breaches in the museum and surrounding landscape. [2014] ROLLING HILLS, ROLLING RS makes use of the multiplicity of the word “cadence”, from vocal modulations to topographic undulations. This text appeared in CRITICAL WRITING IN ART & DESIGN masters programme at the RCA: a very short and very disappointed REVIEW OF MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIONS AT THE BARBICAN; THE BELLS OF LONDON ARE TIME MACHINES (which also appeared on; VIBES, PROPER TO MAKE ANY TONE — part-etymology and part-retrieval for the word “vibes” in cultural criticism, as per the likes of Samuel Pepys and Woody Allen. [2010–2015] OTHER BITS of published writing include AN INTERVIEW WITH NELLY BEN HAYOUN for issue one of NOWNESS on the occasion of Trevor Paglen launching THE LAST PICTURES into geostrationary orbit. And here are all the articles I ever wrote for IT’S NICE THAT.


The picture has tipped over backwards on to the floor, and in being raised again it has brought part of the floor with it John Piper

At the time of its major advancement during the First World War, aerial reconnaissance offered a perspective of the earth that, for most non-military people, could not have previously been imagined. For starters, the photographs taken rarely included the horizon; a disturbing detail during times of conflict but irrelevant to those in special units built for photo sortie gathering and interpretation. Before the camera took to the air and its lens was turned earthward, photographs could only have been read successively and at such a speed and proximity as to be the direct records of experience. An aerial photo captured a landscape of simultaneous events.

Entering into the 20th century, such extreme verticality was the veritable height of modern thought: it was the view from skyscrapers and radio towers and higher still, flattening even those beacons of industrial achievement. It was, according to John Piper, ‘something of the change in consciousness of spaces and vistas that we are not yet quite used to’. The most appropriate term was coined in the middle of the Great War by Viktor Shklovsky: ‘ostranenie’ or ‘defamiliarisation’ – the ‘making strange’ and ‘pushing away’ of what was once common. Up until that inevitable moment when a man hung over the edge of his cockpit with a bellowed box tightly gripped between hands, the record of a landscape that imagined the synoptic and ambivalent view from above leant towards the subjective. For example, draw a diagram of a slope you climbed one sunny afternoon. You will draw an ascent as steep as the effort you took to scale it. A photograph of that same hill could never do justice to your physical experience — especially when the sun is overhead and there are no shadows to define it.

‘To the camera from the air, the hill is not much of a hill’, Piper explained in his short, vivid essay titled ‘Prehistory from the Air’ for the journal Axis in 1937. He ‘read’ aerial photography (in particular, reconnaissance) as analogously close to the work of Klee, Braque and Picasso whose paintings used cubist elevations with the ‘added richness and meaning of plan-patterns’. His comparison highlighted their drawings against the lines and extant impressions of buildings, fields and roads — new and ancient — in an aerial photograph. ‘Because flying has not created any new consciousness about spaces or vistas or anything else’, he explained, ‘it has simply served the new consciousness’.

Ursula Powys-Lybbe was a Photographic Interpreter (PI) at RAF Medmenham during World War II and was not, despite her dispassionate reading of such imagery, oblivious to the beauty under her magnifying glass. The perfect alignment of two plates in a stereoscopic pair built a ‘wonderland of discovery’ and the shadows — ‘tracery of trees in winter, the outlines of cathedrals, spired churches’ — gave her ‘enormous pleasure’. Most aerial reconnoitring happened in the low, early morning sun as the elongated graphic marks of shadows served as an immediate check in the identification of an object which was only legible by its silhouette.

Every shape and topological feature as seen from above, Powys-Lybbe explained, ‘had to be learned so that it could be recognised’. The translation of this new world required new description but the military necessitated straight standardisation. An example Powys-Lybbe gives, ‘a hedge can be seen running along the side of the road’, was frowned upon — the word ‘running’ deemed ridiculous. From up high, one must ‘change perpetually air values into land values’, wrote Virginia Woolf. It was an attempt by those who had seen the pictures of the world from above to wrest control of the sky away from numbers and coordinates that would tether it to earth. As early as 1909, one particular Futurist was demanding freedom from ‘limited syntax that is stuck in the ground’. Writers, poets and artists understood that to assimilate aerial vision, language must, as the image had, be flattened and thoughts recomposed from new, simultaneous perspectives.

The result of this non-expert interpretation is to find compositions in what are simply sites. Gertrude Stein, probably the most well-known proponent of art in the aerial landscape, noted:

‘… when I looked at the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane. I saw there on the earth the mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves, I saw the simple solutions of Braque … yes I saw and once more I knew that a creator is contemporary…’

During WWII, the sole motive of the PI units was to locate from marks on the ground, sites of enemy activity that could be of vital importance to British Intelligence. However, making clear what is a site and what is a composition through ‘expert’ interpretation is obscured when the purpose of detection by a Photographic Interpreter encounters the art of concealment by an enemy camoufleur.

‘“The other side of the hill” no longer existed, and Art alone could screen men and intentions where natural cover failed.’ This remarkable statement occurs on page one of Strategic Camouflage, a book published in 1920 by the painter and future president of the Royal Society of British Artists, Solomon J. Solomon. Throughout his treatise, Solomon analyses aerial photography of the First World War for evidence of and necessity for dissimulation on both sides of the front line. Generally the book was not well received at the time of its publication (though rather back-handed praise was tossed at the illustrations – the author’s own, admittedly gorgeous, painted vignettes of magnified aerial prints) but the message was received, loud and clear: not only should methods of concealment be the duty of artists, he declared, but the role of detective should be left to their skills too:

‘The deductive faculties necessary for arriving at just or probable conclusions must depend on a combination of the following acquirements: A knowledge of the constructive and scenic possibilities of camouflage; a wide view of the ever-changing technique of war; and the painter’s or sculptor’s appreciation of the part played by light, shadow, and tone in the picture examined. No official reader can be said to have been so equipped.’

There is a logic to employing those who design methods of concealment to detect it; Solomon himself approached the War Office with home experiments (what he called ‘the application of art to war’) and intrigued enough officials to gain a temporary post as Lieutenant-Colonel. This position duly expedited his research to the battlefield in a special camouflage unit. By WWII, despite the Painter-Officer’s forensic attention and warnings against ‘dangerous variations in tones’, the detective work of camouflage was mostly undertaken by experts recruited for their experience in analysing data — the whole of the Archaeological Department from Cambridge, for example.

What was strange about the photographs of enemy fields had to be overcome — re-familiarised — or else learned as a new language, as Powys-Lybbe attested. The former would not be a huge undertaking for an artist whose training and temperament, as Solomon repeatedly emphasised, ‘fit them to deal with a subject as difficult and abstruse [as camouflage]’. On the basics, however, all PI were tested by some Conan-Doylian standards, i.e. was the photo taken in the UK or in Europe? Europe. The traffic is moving on the right side of the road. Or: What is the cause of those circular patterns near the cliff edge of coastal fields? Light coastal batteries. Wrong. Tethered cattle – see, there is a dot and it is moving.

Qualitative conditions were set by which these photographs would be taken: no clouds; early light for long shadows; high contrast; as close to vertical as possible. In black and white, incongruities could be picked-out with less confusion than in colour and the qualities of surface absorbed or reflected the light in precise, identifiable ways. Areas of great activity appear spotlit from the tonal world in the whiteness of smoothly worn tracks and roads. Similarly, young crops are evenly toned and in a later season show a kind of mottling from wind disturbance or thousands of marching feet crushing their height. This is, in essence, the art of ‘skiagraphy’ — the study of shadows and outlines.

The older brother of fine art chiaroscuro, skiagraphy is a species of optics concerned with subtle, technical perspective on a two-dimensional plane. It is also a synonym for radiography. Detection of infra-activity demanded that a PI look through and not at the images they were presented with in the same way an x-ray machine would. As camouflage is the science/art of texture, penetrating its surface is a critical study of its flaws. This level of scrutiny had some interesting side-affects that would reverberate with those involved in aerial reconnaissance long after the war was over. The enlisted archaeologists, in particular, were noticing marks on the ground that appeared and disappeared in the short timespan of a photo sortie. So-called ‘shadow sites’, these were signs inscribed onto the landscape by the activity of prehistoric people. ‘As marks of something’, writes Dr Kitty Hauser on such phenomena, ‘as the signs of past movement, intelligible only as such, these tracks demand to be interpreted’.

Deduction of this kind is actually a form of excavation and the method is logically applied to the detection camouflage. The fact that the photographic behaviour of ancient sites as seen from above was never ‘intended’, continues Hauser, makes them ‘naturally occurring photographs’, or ‘acheiropoietos’.  And this is exactly what the camouflage attempted to be. John Berger once said that what makes photography a strange invention (‘with unforeseeable consequences’) is that ‘its primary raw materials are light and time’. It is as true for aerial archaeology as for camouflage, only in the photographs that both fields produce, it is shadow and not light that is analogous of knowledge.

By the particular attention to the shading in these images—from a camoufleur and their counterpart on the other side of the camera—the mind can make the perceptible, rational return to ‘land values’ away from ‘ground pictures’. The latter term, one of Solomon’s, refers to the method of concealment that uses the view as seen from above, specifically, as it then appears in a photograph, and reconstructs it as a roof over illicit activity. The simplest techniques included hanging netting over whole buildings, ships, planes, et cetera to obliterate outlines that throw a classifiable shadow, and surface confusion like ‘pebble-dashing’ or painting disruptive shapes on recognisable forms. On the other end of the scale for incredulity, artistry, organisation and sheer human effort, whole landscapes would be reconstructed: trees planted on tops of railway stations, white roads painted over roofs, airplane hangers decorated as French, Belgian or Dutch suburban homes, an oil refinery converted into a dummy church so that its shadow profile would be overlooked… the ‘conjurer’s false bottom’, Solomon noted.

Early morning sorties over the same stretches of land accumulated comparable prints critical for mapping enemy activity over time. This meant, of course, that the shadows would appear in near enough the same position with each re-taking. The skiagraphic artists on the ground were quick to take advantage. For example many busy roads were concealed by canvas and dense netting and the resultant mole-ish tunnelling that appeared in photographs would immediately alert even an amateur PI. The answer was, on occasion, to paint modified shadows of nearby trees across these structures in a trompe d’oeil effect. On an overcast day, the trees would remain sunlit and on a bright afternoon, they cast two shadows. From his height, speed and with the relative distance of his consciousness from the effect of his mission, an airman flying by could not be expected to register the continuity of shadows made by mundane things. It was all for the camera.

The cinematic legacy of such theatricality recalls a particular outdoor scene from Alain Resnais’ 1961 film, Last Year in Marienbad: people stand on a wide path of a formal garden flanked by perfect pyramidal bushes. The people have long, overtly graphic silhouettes, while the ornamental shrubs cast nothing. The sensation of this surreal device is as affecting in cinema as it is in war: the light of two worlds is shining on one landscape.