During the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), I served as an aerial observer for Marine Corps Artillery. Sometimes called “The Coldest War,” I volunteered for this, as the L-119 planes used were equipped with heaters. Flying low over the mountainous Korean landscape gave me a new perspectiv—an unexpected surprise—a visual reality in map form. This assignment opened a way of seeing from the comfort of a heated cockpit. It started me on a 50-year journey of photographing while flying in a small airplane.
Released from active duty, I moved to the Monterey Peninsula, CA where I established myself as a commercial photographer, including aerial work. I made friends with Sam Nickele, who had flown for the Marines in WWII. In a joint venture, he would fly a rented plane and I would photograph. Blessed with luck, we found the perfect airplane, a vintage fabric-covered Aeronca. There was no starter or parking brakes.
Working in the air brings on a whole new set of demands, both mechanical and visual. Airplanes vibrate. While shooting, if the photographer accidentally leans against any part of the plane, like the door, the vibration is instantly transmitted to the camera, and there goes sharpness. Cameras built specifically for just aerial work are intentionally heavy, and therefore, more stable. Are there compromises? Of course there are. The Pentax 6X7 is a moose on the ground, but is wonderful in the air. It is heavy and stable, with eye level viewing, large enough film size, good lenses available, sturdy anatomically correct hand grips, and wind resistant. In comparison, the Hasselblad, which is seen more frequently, has an awkward grip, doesn’t weigh as much, has a smaller film size, and when used from an open window, is not windproof. Sticking the camera into the wind stream causes film flutter, because the connection between the camera body and the film magazine isn’t tight enough. Granted, this can be offset by taping the magazine to the body, but who wants to always do that?
Visually, scale changes from the air. There is no near-far relationship. Everything is flat and two- dimensional. Nothing you photograph is touchable. Painters like Mondrian come to mind. There is a tendency to posterize composition, to simplify. You make a photograph while moving. Instinct is the prime factor in composing. You have to be able to feel the photograph. When it works, and it does work surprisingly often, the results are rewarding. This thinking, this approach, has worked its way into all my photography, in the air or on the ground. I do not consider it minimalist, but that is close.
In aerial photography, focus is naturally always at infinity. There can be no near-far compositions. The subject is never close; in fact it always is hundreds of feet away. One has to isolate. The subject is always two-dimensional. One is constantly concentrating to photograph just what is important, and no more. Over a period of time this creeps into the rest of one’s photography. Still lifes become flat plane. Landscapes are frequently with a telephoto lens.
Could this be called a style? I think not. It is habit. It enters the way you see, the way you feel. In this clarifying attempt to simplify and literally posterize a photograph, there is a never-ending effort to eliminate all that is unnecessary.
And it happens in seconds. Instinct has to control. At 125 mph, one hasn’t the time to think it over. If you miss the picture, no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to bring the plane around to the same place for a second attempt; it is gone, forever. Wynn Bullock’s Time and Space philosophy comes to mind. Minutes, even seconds, in passing alter the subject. And maybe, just maybe, this is the draw, the attraction of working from a small plane.
For several years I photographed in black and white. I used a surplus K-20 Fairchild and 5.25″ Aerial Tri-X film. I bought the K-20 from a surplus store in Hollywood for $69. Doing aerial photography presented new problems on a daily basis. For instance, aerial film comes in 20-foot rolls of 50 exposures. Just developing the film was a challenge. Military developing tanks and reels cinched the film at the ends. That wasn’t a problem for military use, having cinch marks on several frames, but for my work, the cinch marks always showed up in the wrong place. I finally worked out a way to tray develop in a one gallon porcelain tub, using Acufine 1:3, to get long times for smoother results. Kink by kink, I developed a system that gave consistent results.
Sam moved away, and I started to work with other pilots. I wondered why I didn’t fly myself. I gave that serious consideration, but if I worked alone, my concern was I would become more of a flyer than a photographer.
About this time Kodak discontinued Aerial Tri-X film. Aerial Plus X, the only film still on the market, was just too slow for low-level work. So I switched to a Hasselblad camera. Pentax had not yet introduced their 6X7, and 35mm just wasn’t big enough for me. So from 1963 to the present, I’ve used Hasselblads. Once you get into a system, an expensive system, it is hard to change. The Swedes have a reputation for quality. I also drive a Volvo. I’m on my seventh one. My electronic flash units are Pro-Photo, also made in Sweden. There is logic in their function. There is quality in their construction. In the new world of Digital, I find neither.
I took a job photographing the California College of Arts and Crafts in downtown Oakland from the air, with Bill, a taxi driver, flying. I worked with a Hasselblad 500C, pistol grip and 100mm Planar lens (one of my favorites), and a minus-blue filter. The film was Ilford FP-4 to be developed in Microphen, a good combination. We made three runs. The resulting photographs were fine. As we cleared the area and started home, I realized I was drenched in sweat. So was Bill. I never photographed again over a built up area at a low altitude. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it safe. One way to become an old aerial photographer is to stay away from other airplanes.
However, leaning out of an open door to make a photograph is done without concern. Most planes allow you to work from an open window, but in early days, we frequently rented a Piper Tri-Pacer that was owned by the Smothers Brothers. The windows didn’t open. You had to work with the door off. I liked that old plane, too. I always felt the brothers were there, doing a skit in the backseat, just like at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. The Piper was smooth and responded slowly to directional changes, like riding in a Buick. The old Aeronca we used was quick, bounced around a lot, lively like a young horse. The slightest touch of the stick brought an instant response. One day we called to reserve the plane, and it had been sold. It seemed we were the only ones that rented her, and the bean counters didn’t understand what an asset she was. For me newer planes are somewhat sterile. I really like the old, slow, and maneuverable planes; the new ones just aren’t user friendly. Take a contemporary Cessna 150 series for instance. If the photographer and the pilot each weigh around 200 pounds, which is not unusual these days, you have to take turns breathing. A swell little airplane for a dwarf, but a tough platform from which to photograph.
Recently, I went to a show of aerial photographs in Reno. The prints were large, 25-40 square feet. The print imagery was crumbling. The original film or file just wasn’t big enough to produce the large prints. Image quality was sacrificed for impact, playing the old adage, “if you can’t make it good, make it big.” The subject matter was always startling. Garish colors, bold geometric patterns. It reminded me of a book Richard Avedon did in the 1980′s of working people of the West. His subjects were always unusual, sometimes freakish, in physical structure or dress. He emphasized the bizarre. Looking at the real workers in the West, or anyplace for that matter, there are a lot of common folks out there, just trying to do their job. None of Avedon’s pictures reflected that. The aerial photographs I’m describing were similar. They were startling and shocking. Is that a criteria? Making a snapshot of a freakish subject does not automatically make it art.
To make a successful photograph of a common subject is my co-pilot. To bring forward features of the common, and make them uncommon with grace and simplicity with the best craft available.
When I photograph from the air, I feel I must have a sense of flight in the photograph. The birds eye view. The quickness required. The ever-present wind. The gentle vibration of the plane. The presence of a pilot I like and trust. The wonderful sense of isolation. Everything it takes to make an aerial photograph. Some say an airplane is just an expensive tripod. Expensive, yes; stationary, no. In aerial photography, there
are elements that contribute to the final photograph. For instance, those who photograph under water are definitely in a world of their own. Combat photographers like Joe Rosenthal, David Douglas Duncan (my favorite) or Robert Capa responded in a predictable manner; there is that contributing element. Maybe as Gordon Parks said, “A Choice of Weapons.”
In the work of Bradford Washburn and William Garnett, we have always been able to find natural beauty. They left a legacy in photographic form as testimony to the beauty of our planet.
Product Resources: Camera: Pentax 6X7, Hasseblad; Film: Ilford; Developer: Micrphen.