The Astrodome from above

I've written before on how using Google Earth is a great way to explore a city, and can even be used to create compositions directly (find that post here). 

One of Houston's most interesting buildings as observed from the sky must be the Astrodome. It has a circular shape with lots of rectangular windows in a triangular pattern on the roof. Here's how I took Google's image of the Astrodome, and processed it to create an almost abstract image to emphasise the shapes and geometries of the architecture.

  1. Overlapping screenshots of the structure were taken and then stitched together in software to create a high-res image. 
  2. Distortions are present because the satellites are not exactly over the building when the images were taken. This was easily corrected in Lightroom or Photoshop. 
  3. To get the super-contrast effect, the image was converted to black and white by reducing the saturation. The levels were then narrowed so that the black and white points are very close together.
  4. The image was cropped to square so that the Astrodome appears very dominant in the center.
  5. Lastly, spot healing was used to remove distracting elements from the image.
Astrodome from above in pure black and white.

Astrodome from above in pure black and white.

Houston as art using Google Earth

I was reading about artists who work photos that already exist rather than make more of them - a book called 'Post-Photography' by Robert Shore. Among the featured artists, there were a few who search through google maps looking for obscure places, glitches in rendering, or making photo-merges with immense detail. One of these artists, Clement Valla, describes the vast database of Google's images as the product of algorithms, created by many sources of cameras and sensors. Because of this, he argues that he is often 'seeing an image materialize...that no other human has ever seen'. An interesting thought.

I've used google maps in the past to hunt for locations, but thought it would be interesting, in the vein of the Post-Photography artists, to explore screen grabbed maps as compositions in themselves. 

Finding Houston's compositions

Obvious places to start looking are highways and rail lines. These provide lines and s-curves that are pleasing to the eye. Complicated highway intersections are a personal favorite. Looks like Spaghetti. Regular streets can  be interesting but Houston, like many American cites, is afflicted by the grid system. The challenge here is to find neighborhoods with windy streets, often forced by proximity to a stream or bayou. Perfect grids may lack natural flow, but can be a great study in repeat patterns, symmetry and pattern disruption.  

Geometric shapes can be found in many places. The tree clusters at Waugh and Memorial are a good example. The landscaping efforts are best viewed from above.  

Of course, Google Maps' imagery is in colour, but colours are often dominated by greens and browns that may not be all that interesting. Black and white is an easy way to get rid of the distracting colours and focus the eye on the more interesting components - shape and texture. The Astrodome's roof is a mosaic of rectangular skylights in pie-piece arrangements. Photos of the roof from inside the dome look great, but this bird's eye view perfectly shows the layers of architectural patterns without the distraction of colour.

Online maps ore often the only way to view certain, otherwise restricted parts of the city. The examples below are of a NASA airplane on Ellington's taxiway and the industrial texture of a refinery near the port of Houston. 

We've just covered taking direct screen-grabs from the available maps, but post-processing opens up another world of possibilities: colour-manipulation, image repetition and symmetry, image-stitching. I'll cover these aspects in a future post.

From streets to continents

If you do go exploring the Earth, spend some time zoomed out looking at geological features that are millions years in the making. Beyond Galveston is the Gulf of Mexico, laden with sediments under the water sliding over a Jurassic salt deposit. This gives the sea floor a dimpled texture all they way out to the limit of the salt. The image on the right is shown rotated so north is to the left. You can easily spot the urban spider-web of Houston in the lower-left corner.

From pixels to real places

The is some stand-alone value to finding compositions in Google Maps, but scouring through imagery of Houston brings me back to my original use for the maps - location hunting. How do things that look great from above look from the side? From below? There are parts of the city I would never think to visit, but now there is a reason to explore.