America By Drone: Tomas Van Houtryve’s “Blue Sky Days”

March 24, 2014 | Eugene Reznik

Tomas Van Houtryve, a photojournalist with the VII Photo agency, mounted his camera to a small drone he bought on Amazon and traveled the country photographing “the very sorts of gatherings that have become habitual targets for foreign air strikes—weddings, funerals, groups of people praying or exercising.” He also photographed prisons, oil fields and industrial feedlots — which have become virtually redacted from our visual culture in the wake of “ag gag” legislation enacted in many states around the country (aerial photographer George Steinmetz was arrested last year for doing the same).

In April, Houtryve says his black-and-white series “Blue Sky Days” will be the longest photoessay, at 16 pages, published in Harper’s Magazine’s 164-year history. Only the single press image above from the series seems to be available at the moment — Harper’s really wants you to buy the magazine and insists on paying its contributors. The work will also be on view as part of a group show on the topic of surveillance in DUMBO from April 3.

Surveillance.01-USA exhibits, side by side, works by interdisciplinary artists and investigative journalists who are appropriating and analyzing the tools of surveillance—drone, screen, and camera including Blue Sky Days by Tomas Van Houtryve, Tracking Transience by Hasan Elahi, NSA Files: Decoded by Ewen MacAskill and Gabriel Dance / The Guardian US, Satellite Landscapes by Jenny Odell, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Data visualization of the US drone strikes by Wesley Grubbs / Pitch Interactive, and Emotional Arcade by Brent Hoff.

Satellite Landscapes, Jenny Odell
The distance and anonymity of the photo coupled with the stark grayscale makes me think Doug Rickard meets Lee Friedlander, their respectively iconic cross-country photoessays in mind. Aside from calling on that tradition, here’s another possible motive behind the decision to present the work in monochrome:

In October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her house. At a briefing held in 2013 in Washington, DC, the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of five lawmakers. ‘I no longer love blue skies,’ said Rehman, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack. ‘In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.’

(Lead image: Tomas Van Houtryve/VII) “Surveillance.01-USA,” Tomas van Houtryve and various artists, Apr 3 – Apr 25, Made in New York Media Center, Brooklyn.