Aerial Photography

Friday, December 18, 2009

I like to get high. Get your mind out of the gutter. I swore off controlled substances years ago. Many photographers go to extreme lengths to take pictures. I like to go up. Our motley band of image makers looks everywhere for new venues: behind the scenes, under rocks, out of smoke-filled rooms, into the night sky which extends infinitely above us. I like to look down.

Above eye level the world takes on a dramatically different appearance. The signs of nature & civilization & their shadows become abstract. Most civilians are not accustomed to seeing life from this angle. As I emphasize in my book travel+PHOTOGRAPHY: Off the Charts , “Change someone’s perspective & you can change their point-of-view.”

The average person lives in a two dimensional space. North, south, east, west. But as a physicist by education, I realize we inhabit earthly dimensions on the x/y-axis. Vertically we introduce the z-axis. Up/down. In/out. It is here that things get scary.

Now you have to realize I am afraid of heights. Three/four feet off the ground I am nervous. But put a lens in front of my face & I am attacking life with false bravado. I have flown upside/down in aerobatics planes, strapped so tightly that it stopped blood flow in my shoulders. Your body pulls so many Gs that you cannot raise your arms. But anything for a picture.

Height alters every frame. Even tall people have a privileged vantage. Just getting your camera up a few feet takes advantage of this elevation. At this level it is usually a physical action. Climbing stairs, climbing a fence, climbing a ladder. A heightened reality. You see newspaper photographers, who have been boxed out of a crowd, holding their motordrive cameras high above their heads. It is called a “Hail Mary” since it is such a low percentage shot.

At the incredible Million Man March in 1995 I was buried amongst the largest number of black people I had ever seen. They were pressed up against me, shoulder to shoulder. I could in no way show the enormity of the event. In desperation I noticed there were huge scaffolds with enormous loudspeakers perched on top in order to broadcast the speeches to the audience. The whole crowd was on its best behavior. Not a soul had violated the stanchions. So I shimmied up one of the platforms to get a better look. I jammed in earplugs to fight back the overwhelming sound. Great overview images. Dozens of African American males handed their cameras up to me so they would have a remembrance of the historical event.

From rooftops the earth appears more sinuous, sensual even. Still accessible but much less familiar. Patterns emerge where none existed before. Our imagination is no longer earthbound. We have been released from the restraints of day-to-day vision. We can actually see atmosphere, weather, fog & smoke.

"Up in the air, Junior Bird Men
Up in the air, upside down"
-traditional camp song

Intermediate height: skyscrapers, mountaintops, bridges—a middle kingdom. There is an illusion of psychological advantage. We can see & feel the power of nature & the thrust of mankind & the clash between the two. You get a visceral sense of geography & put things in context.

In addition during my travels I become a “roof skulker”. I will ask hotel management to let me onto the roof. Many grant me permission. But many refuse. My mantra has been “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” Without approval I would usually sneak up to the roof to get my pictures. Once I was trapped at the rear of a penthouse restaurant by staff. I had found the back stairs & they almost caught me but after not breathing for several minutes, behind a door, I gained access to a wonderful view overlooking the Japanese dusk.

"Shadows give away the secrets of what’s down there."
-Marilyn Bridges

I have often told the story of transporting my 87 year old mother to Hawaii while on assignment. She had always wanted to go when she was young but had two trips canceled at the last minute. We stayed in the same hotel room because she got lonely in her own. The Hawaiian Tourist Bureau invited fifteen photographers to document the five main islands to increase their stockpile of promotional images. I cajoled the manager of the tallest hotel in Waikiki to allow me upstairs. It was a beautiful sunset & I got excellent pictures. After a near perfect experience, on the way down in the elevator, I told my mother, who had never understood my profession choice & had always held hope that I would eventually get a “real” job, “Look, Mommy, that’s what I do for a living,” finally expecting validation. Without hesitation she shot back, “They pay you for that?” The space between us widened.

There is a very strong legacy of photographers shooting from bridges, cranes & steeples. The elevated views are compelling because they are risking a lot by being up there. Peter B Kaplan made “high work” an art form back in the 1980s, especially with his unprecedented access to the radio tower installation on top of the then world’s tallest buildings, the World Trade Center. He shot pictures from some of the most compelling heights on earth.

At a certain point you reach beyond your comfort level. Everything rational is swept away. Your mind rebels against you. Fear takes over. The wind whistles in both ears. Your eyes water so you cannot even see to focus. Your knees lock. You become immobile. You are working only on instinct.

I once did a hand-over-hand climb to the top of a bridge. The client told me he wanted his annual report “to sweat”. My assistant & I shimmied up & down several times. I finally convinced the female art director to go up with me because it was so glorious up there. On the top she froze. Had to be helped down. I never worked for her again.

Aerial photography is a very useful & exciting subcategory of travel photography. It is the ultimate in adding height. It can be used in cartography, land-use planning, surveillance, real estate development & archaeology. Careening around in the ether, the topography morphs into a three-dimensional atlas.

"Aerial photography was first practiced by French photographer, Nadar,
in 1858 over Paris."

Objects, landmarks, people seem smaller, yet more majestic, when seen from such distance. From up there you get the proverbial bird’s eye view. But it can be disorienting. It is hard to identify features even though you are very familiar with them at ground level.

Natural landscapes, outcroppings, bodies of water, modes of transportation, mountains & forests can be sized & deciphered. But the land merges with human tenure. It can be a synergistic relationship or hostile encroachment. Our biggest conceit is that everything looks good from up there. It is a myth. When you develop the film, a lot of it is boring. But in the hands of a master like Alex MacLean it can be art.

The most critical choices are fixed-wing airplanes or helicopters. That debate may be resolved more by budget than anything because, pound for pound, helicopters are more expensive than small planes.

In college I came across a black/white photograph showing Alfred Eisenstaedt , the Life magazine staff photographer, shooting from the outside skin of an old fashioned dirigible. A city skyline was grey & out of focus in the background. My heart dropped. I examined that picture for years. Eventually I dreamed of being right there beside him.

On the first visit of tall ships to Boston during the Bicentennial, I did not have money for the normal costs of a helicopter so I convinced the FAA to let one land in my backyard. I shot the Parade of Sails in Boston Harbor & presold shares in using the helicopter to several photographer friends. We slipped into the rotation of news copters to document the myriad of ships under full sail & created a bit of excitement for my neighbors who saw the whirlybird repeatedly landing & taking off in the field behind my studio.


NastyBritish&Short,  December 21, 2009 at 9:23 AM  

OKOKOK. Inquiring minds want to know. Was the 3rd pic down (the pedestrian way) taken in Prague? If not, where the heck is it?

Dick Taffe,  December 22, 2009 at 6:24 AM  

Your observation that "put a lens in front of my face & I am attacking life with false bravado" echoes many news photographers I've known facing visual horrors they only record mentally after the fact ... well put.

angela December 22, 2009 at 9:47 AM  

Love your marketing strategy — coinciding the movie Up in the Air with your aerial photography! Did you say you want to come work for me?

Nicole P December 23, 2009 at 5:27 AM  

Hey Mr. Jones - you are a photographer AND a writer. Thanks for the heads up on this lovely blog.

Nicole P December 23, 2009 at 5:28 AM  

just realized I made a pun

hp December 23, 2009 at 6:18 PM  

Love the pictures, Lou, and the blog writing too.
('Up in the Air' is a great book, can't wait to see the movie...)

jon Sachs December 24, 2009 at 12:47 PM  

Unlike Lou, I'm scared of heights, but the camera doesn't help... I couldn't go to the top of the Eiffel tower; my girlfriend went up with out me. (Though I have no problem with hot air balloons and helicopters)

Kathy Flocco-McMaster,  December 31, 2009 at 8:45 AM  

Hmmm Lou, a new inspiration! Let me go see what I can create!!

Anonymous,  December 31, 2009 at 10:17 AM  

Fascinating and exciting blog for an "old" Physicist to put forward!!...always looking for the new...whatever, wherever, however, -ever!!

Lora Brody December 31, 2009 at 2:12 PM  

Lou - happy new year. May 2010 be filled with more
opportunities for glorious shots. The blog is magnificent the the photos
transport me. The Junior Birdman song zoomed me right back to day camp.
We leave for India in 2 weeks. You will be in my pocket, whispering,
"get that shot.". Thank you.
Lora Brody

Lou Jones January 5, 2010 at 10:39 AM  

i WAS in the clock tower in prague
ive been there two or three times
great view of the city

Padraic Major January 7, 2010 at 2:02 PM  

Lou- Those images are amazing remind me of the time when I did some areial photography in Hsv.
The images I did years ago can't hold a candle light to the images you have in this blog.
Very nice and very inspiring.

Padraic Major

Margot Cheel January 11, 2010 at 1:12 PM  


Thanks for sending on the blog and your own comments on the thrills and daring of aerial photography. I'm just back from the Cascade Mts of Washington State where a chairlift was almost a ground shot, given the height of the region. Soon to Florida & not the shopping mall aerials of the past, but exploring coastline & river inlets while they still exist.

Great photos and good writing.

Best for the New Year,

KMRWILLIAMS January 17, 2010 at 2:50 PM  

The Washington Aerial--Million Man March?

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.