Imagine the huge, sprawling tangle of JFK airport, of Charles de Gaulle, or of LAX. These airports are so big, we never see them in full—even as we travel through and over them every time we fly. They're so massive that they can only truly be seen from space.
That's what Benjamin Grant realized. A space aficionado, Grant was introduced to the idea of the Overview Effect, a term coined by the writer Frank White, that refers to the psychological change that astronauts who spend a lot of time in the space station experience: an understanding in what it means to be alive, and a deep appreciation for the Earth and its fragility. Inspired by the concept, Grant tried mimic that experience in his own way. First, he searched for the word "earth" in satellite imagery databases. Instead of an overview of the planet, he was taken to Earth, Texas—which filled his screen with irrigation circles, in which he found a strange kind of beauty.
"I became obsessed with finding these manmade landscapes," he says. "Seen from far away, almost like abstract art. There are powerful stories to tell around it."
Fast forward two years and hundreds of posts on his blog, Daily Overview, and Grant is releasing Overview, a book of these satellite images, which he sources from the satellite company DigitalGlobe and stitches together in Photoshop. The book features all kinds of images, both of manmade and natural landscapes, that give a sense of the Earth's vastness. The images become an access point into a deeper awareness about the planet, and how dramatically its surface has been changed with the acceleration of human development over the last 200 years.
On the very first day of the project, Grant was searching for solar concentrators, which are being constructed all around the world to harness the sun's light to create energy. He found the satellite image of the Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant in the province of Seville, Spain, to be a particularly beautiful piece of large-scale infrastructure. The resulting image, showing a circular monolith filled with mirrors, reveals the tension inherent in the enormous infrastructure that supports the energy market. Even solar, a green, sustainable form of energy, has an infrastructural footprint on the Earth's surface that's visible from space.
Still, compare that to another one of Grant's images of the Qinhuangdao Coal Terminal in China.
"It’s one of my favorite visual images, the texture of it, the composition with the line in the middle which makes me feel like it's an illusion to a Mark Rothko painting or something along those lines," he says. "But it’s something where you would not enjoy being there, the horrible fumes, the soot. There are no humans present. You see the cranes, but we’ve removed ourselves from that landscape. To look at it this way and see how vast it is, how much coal that is, and realize that there’s so much more than that on a weekly or monthly or yearly basis that goes through that facility? It starts that conversation about where your energy comes from. It shows you what energy looks like."
The book also features images of ports and airports. One image, of Dallas-Forth Worth, is staggering in its size—and Grant says he could create three more books just out of airports. "These images can zoom out as far as you need to, you get an overview of the whole place. You can see where the fences of JFK are, and have the entire thing in focus," he says. "That's something that makes this perspective kind of unique and leads to new understanding of these massive pieces of infrastructure."
Grant hopes his images, which he artfully frames and positions to make them as visually appealing as possible, will give his readers a stronger understanding of the planet without providing any kind of biased commentary. His short captions are written without political slant, but his own stance is clear. "This book is intended to inspire that awareness: Where is our energy coming from, where is our food coming from?" he says. "With that, hopefully people will act in the interest of the planet."
[All Images: Reprinted with permission from Overview by Benjamin Grant ©2016/Amphoto Books/Penguin Random House, Inc. /©2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.]