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Soaring exhibit takes in the view from above

Shooting from on high, 'To Fly' plays with viewers' perspectives

We live our lives horizontally. What verticality we do know - via leap or stair, elevator or airline - is by comparison severely limited. We can rise, but for only so long. What goes up really must come down, especially when it's us. Among the many virtues of "To Fly: Contemporary Aerial Photography," the marvelous exhibition that runs at the Boston University Art Gallery through Oct. 28, is that it lets us look down from on high as long as we like without ever having to worry about the descent.

Aerial photography has a history almost as old as the medium itself. Is there a more famous commentary on picture-taking than Daumier's satiric 1862 lithograph "Nadar Raising Photography to the Level of Art"? It shows the celebrated photographer hunched over his camera in a hot-air balloon. The aerial photographer's means of ascent have changed vastly since. Included among the 48 images in "To Fly" are photographs taken from satellites and lunar orbiters. What hasn't changed is the appeal and fascination of being high in the sky with a guy.

"Guy" should be construed loosely, of course. Three of the 13 photographers in the show are female. Marilyn Bridges's quartet of images from Egypt powerfully convey the immense scale of the pyramids and of Karnak, the vast temple of the pharaohs, letting us fully appreciate their dominance of the landscape. Bridges also playfully marries the solid and the insubstantial, as vast shadows extend from or cover the funerary architecture and its ground-burdening bulk.

The insubstantial takes on sumptuous guise in Barbara Bosworth's four "Untitled Aerial Views," from her series "Rising." Looking from above rather than below, these black-and-white cloud studies are (quite literally) the obverse of Alfred Stieglitz's celebrated cloud studies, "Equivalents." Bosworth's clouds are equivalent to nothing. They are what they magnificently, eerily are.

Terry Evans's views of the interface between Chicago and Lake Michigan testify to the curious effect color can have when seen from on high: It diminishes rather than monumentalizes. Call it the Tinkertoy effect. It's equally evident in Esteban Pastorino Diaz's shots of the Greek island of Skopelos and Olivo Barbieri's oversized images of Las Vegas. One of them, dominated by the Luxor hotel, with its black-glass pyramid and ersatz Sphinx, amusingly chimes with Bridges's actual Egypt. So does a Landsat 5 color image of the Luxor region.

Monumentality is front and very much center in Bradford Washburn's stunning views of Alaskan mountains and glaciers. So, too, with Frank Gohlke's images of Mount Saint Helens months after its eruption. They're pure visual kapow.

Aerial views can often also abstract. Showing irrigation pivots and a Nevada test site blast crater, Emmet Gowin conjures up a geometry of mystery: dark, vaguely sinister circles that dominate the landscape. Alex MacLean's view of two-family houses in Somerville could almost be a textile pattern. And his "Dryland Farming Field Near Shelby, Montana" presents great rolling curves of green, like flattened sine waves or a Sean Scully canvas rotated 90 degrees and made verdant.

The most famous image in the show is "Earthrise - Apollo 8," taken by astronaut William Anders in December 1968. It's not only the ultimate aerial photograph. It also offers a rebuke, however unintended, both to yahoos on the right who rage against government funding of the arts and elitists on the left who seem to think the more transgressive the artist the more deserving he or she is of taxpayer dollars. Who'd have thought that what may well be the greatest piece of US-funded public art - that is to say, the work that best combines enduring cultural value with an aesthetic enrichment of the most individuals' lives - originated not with the National Endowment for the Arts but NASA? Sometimes aerial photography can fly very high indeed.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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To Fly: Contemporary Aerial Photography

At: Boston University Art Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through Oct. 28. 617-353-3329

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