Around the time Leonardo Da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa, he was also writing his Codex on the Flight of Birds, a roughly 35,000-word exploration of the ways in which man might take to the air. His illustrations included diagrams positing pre-Newtonian theories of physics, a rudimentary plan for a flying machine and many, many sketches of birds in flight. The Mona Lisa, with her secretive smile, is a universe of intimacy captured on a relatively small panel of wood. But the landscape behind his captivating subject shows the world as you would see it from atop a tall hill—or from the vantage point you would get if you had hitched a ride on the back of a giant bird. Even as da Vinci was perfecting one way of seeing a face, he was dreaming of other ways of looking. No wonder he wanted to fly, perhaps less for the physical rush than for the thrill of seeing the world from above.
That’s the pleasure drones give us: they send eyes where our bodies can’t easily go unencumbered. A GoPro camera attached to a bird of prey shows us where the bird wants to go, which clues us in to what it’s thinking. Drones, as of now operable only by humans, tell us what humans find visually interesting. Drones are practical, but like any tool wielded by humans—pencil or paintbrush or maestro’s baton—there’s poetry in them too. Because of this, more and more, drones are finding their way into the art world.
“If you think about traditional art and Renaissance perspective, the ideal viewer was on the ground with a stable horizon line,” says Matthew Biro, a professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Michigan. “And the drone takes us off that. It takes us out of our body in a certain way, kind of giving us an overlaid perspective.”
Some artists, like photographer Trevor Paglen—also a geographer and writer—have depicted drones directly as a means of questioning their role in government surveillance and warfare. In some of Paglen’s works, drones are seen as nothing more than a dark speck against a backdrop of becalming gray or sun-gold clouds, a way of denoting their possibly sinister near invisibility in our world. But as humans in general are seeing less malevolent possibilities in robotic aircraft, people who make art are finding inventive ways to use it.
Graffiti and fine artist Katsu was the first person credited with using a drone in the tagging of a billboard, as a way of disrupting the order of our everyday landscape. In New York City in 2015, he used a small, customized drone, outfitted with a paint sprayer, to mark a billboard image of the model Kendall Jenner with shaky yet adamant red stripes. The YouTube footage of the event—it took place under the cover of night—shows the drone flitting around Jenner’s larger-than-life visage like a pesky mosquito, taunting the image’s manicured perfection. The footage of the drone in action, more so than the marks that would be visible to passersby the next day, is the key to understanding how drones can shift human perspective. A drone has no mind of its own, but its movements—as guided by its operator—make us think about how we process images, where our eyes linger and what they skim over. It’s little wonder that Katsu’s drone never strays far from Jenner’s gaze. Instead, it meets her eye-to-eye in a mechanical confrontation that’s somewhat ghostly, like an out-of-body experience.
Katsu has since moved on to creating paintings with drones. He guides them before the canvas, and while he has a degree of control over their movement, he can’t maintain strict aim. The paint they fling hits the surface in unpredictable ways, resulting in splattery webs and clouds of varying density. There’s a hushed naiveté to the paintings. They’re spontaneous rather than accomplished—but accomplishment isn’t the aim. They’re more about discovery. “It’s kind of a dance between the flight computer and wind turbulence, and then my decisions,” Katsu explains. “So it creates an unexpected result.”
The otherworldly photographs of Reuben Wu represent another kind of exploration. Inspired by 19th century romantic painting, science fiction and notions of interplanetary exploration, Wu has made a series of landscape photographs lit by custom-modified drones. The results, featuring vivid, Maxfield Parrish–like tones of orange, mauve and teal, are hypnotic and transportive, surreal and naturalistic at once. These are places you could visit in real life, though they wouldn’t look anything like these photographs. Wu’s drone lighting renders the natural world in the visual language of dreams.
The casual observer’s understanding of what drones can do is mostly informed by the way they’re used to make movies, television shows and commercials. Since 2014, when the use of drones in filmmaking became legal (it is still highly regulated by the FAA), aerial footage captured by drones has become so common that we barely notice it. In the early days of drone use, filmmakers quickly realized how useful these nimble devices were for close-up action shots. Drones proved especially handy for filming chase scenes, like the opening motorcycle sequence of the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall. In Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street, drones were used to shoot a raucous party scene from above, allowing audiences to peer voyeuristically into characters’ lives. Cinematographers are finding increasingly creative ways to use drone technology: in the 2015 Jurassic World, a drone-mounted camera swoops low over a crowd of people who are being attacked by pterosaurs to mimic the movement of the flying reptiles. But if drones are becoming ubiquitous, they’re also still somewhat controversial, and some filmmakers are turning their cameras on the machines themselves. On an episode of the sci-fi show Black Mirror, for example, characters lose their privacy when a blackmailer films them with a drone. The audience sees the scene through both regular cameras and through the drone’s lens, underscoring the ways in which these devices make us vulnerable.
Although drones can be extremely cost effective for certain applications—in place of, or in combination with, dollies and jibs, for example—when it comes to aerial views, they haven’t fully vanquished the use of helicopters and cranes. Their limited battery life still makes some uses impractical, and they can be flown legally only at relatively low altitudes. But when they can be used, the savings are significant. Tony Carmean, a founding partner of drone cinematography company Aerial MOB, estimates that a helicopter can cost a filmmaker from $20,000 to $40,000 for a 10-hour day shoot. Aerial MOB can supply a drone for $4,500 to $13,000 a day, including crew, equipment and insurance.
The more drones are used, the more likely we are to take elaborate drone shots for granted. Yet these machines are still finding ways to wow us. Looking for a moment of zen at work? Join the more than 2 million people who have watched a particularly soothing YouTube video, the work of aerial photographer Tim Whittaker. In it a flock of New Zealand sheep, flanked by tiny moving dots that are actually running dogs, undulate in and out of formation—they’re disorderly, fat white molecules that eventually succumb to sanity and order as they squeeze through a fence opening and into the next field. Viewed from above, they’re a lyrical representation of chaos and resolution, a piece of woolly free jazz that ultimately lands on the most calming note.
The aerial perspective—of sheep or anything—is liberating precisely because it’s destabilizing, Biro says. “Drone vision allows us to see that there are multiple ways of seeing ourselves and seeing the rest of the world. We step out of ourselves to some extent. That’s its positive potential.”
—With reporting by Abigail Abrams/New York