The view from above

Tom Lamb could never have taken his pictures of a changing patch of Orange County at ground level.

From his vantage point riding in helicopters airborne and tilted at varying angles above the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and surrounding areas — and through his lens and artistically trained eye — the Laguna Beach photographer gives the viewer an entirely different way of seeing the land.

Lamb framed his photographs in a way that deliberately takes them out of context. The pictures now on display in his "Marks on the Land" exhibit at the Orange County Great Park, the site of the former base, depict images where nature's course and man-made developments squash up against each other.

"The idea of these images ... it isn't so much about the place," Lamb said. "It is about the abstract connections that I am seeing about this place. There's not a sense of scale, for instance. You don't know whether this is large or small."

There are photos showing weeds and shrubs cracking through the surface and encroaching on abandoned base parking lots and playing courts, or of natural growth creeping onto the footprints of former buildings.

"The idea that the land is reclaiming these places, I think, is very important to me from a philosophical nature," Lamb said.

There also are photos of sections of the land that seem patterned like paintings.

"Tustin One," Lamb's photo of the no-longer functioning No. 1 helicopter pad at the former Tustin air station crossed out with a yellow "X" and surrounded by overgrowth that resembles an electrical grid, is an example. His "Tustin Artist Palette," which shows mounds of building dirt in a variety of colors at a future housing development, which could be mistaken for paints on a palette, is another.

In her introduction to the show that appears in its catalog, Kristine Thompson, a photography instructor at UC Irvine and Cal State Long Beach, offered an expert's perspective on how to interpret Lamb's photos.

"The production and tension in Lamb's work resides in the push and pull between abstraction and representation," she wrote. "Upon close inspection, we are aware that we are looking at a photograph, at objects and spaces that have an indexal relationship to the camera. But the simple gesture of pointing the camera toward the ground and eliminating the horizon lines causes us to arrive at a different perceptual understanding of these locations."

In his show, Lamb goes so far as to demonstrate his knowledge of art history with some playful photos that evoke the works of giants of American abstract art, such as the photo titled "Late de Kooning." The picture could be mistaken for a piece by the late Willem de Kooning but, in reality, it is a tarmac photographed from above and streaked with tire marks and yellow lines.

Lamb took these photos over more than a decade during idle moments while flying around Southern California in one of his jobs as an aerial landscape architectural photographer.

"What this land is all about is transition," said Henry Korn, the show's curator who manages the Great Park's Arts and Heritage Program.

"It has transitioned from one of the great ranches on the face of the Earth to a military base that stimulated the whole growth of the aerospace industry in Orange County, and now it has a new life as a gathering place in a park and a cultural center," he added. "So, each succeeding generational activity has made a mark on this land, both metaphorically and literally."

Twitter: @ImranVittachi

If You Go

What: "Marks on the Land — The View from Here, Aerial Photography by Tom Lamb"

Where: Great Park Gallery, Palm Court Arts Complex, Orange County Great Park

When: Through June 17

Admission and parking: Free

Gallery hours: Open from noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Information: Call (949) 724-OCGP or visit

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