The pilot flew me around the volcanic coast in his tiny homemade plane with the door open and me hanging out taking pictures
I shot this off the southern coast of Iceland, from a ultra-light aircraft, in the days before drones were ubiquitous. I love the stark nature of the Icelandic landscape and its contrasts. Deltas form from glacial meltwater running down towards the shoreline, picking up silt and different materials along the way to create these ribbon patterns. Theres all sorts of wildlife too birds, beautiful wild horses, seals.
So a few years ago after a lot of research, cross-referencing Google Earth with books and photography by others, I took a red eye from New York to Reykjavik. It was kind of funny to take a jumbo jet, have three hours upon landing to rent a car, check into my hotel and nap for 20 minutes and then turn around to meet a pilot and spend the day up in the air again in his homemade plane.
You can do all the research you want for these projects, but nothing compares to actually seeing things in person. Being in an airplane above that landscape was really magical. Emotional, even.
At first, when youre flying around in a tiny plane, opening the door and hanging out to take pictures, its a little nerve-wracking. You see your life flash before your eyes. But Ive become quite comfortable doing it and am able to be extremely focused.
We were looking for the birds they are Arctic tern, or sea swallows. They are small and quite difficult to spot. But we found this flock circling very fast. We were flying above them at a safe distance. Ive come to realise animals are actually not that intimidated by planes. There have been countless times we have been flying over flamingos or buck, seals, turtles, 100 feet above them which is really quite low and they just could not have cared less. .
I knew exactly which terrain I wanted to capture the tern flying over: that patterning of white pebbles against the black sand. We circled several times until finally they lined up as perfectly as I could have asked for and I was able to get several shots.
I started working in this way in 2009. I had just finished a two-week commercial job in Botswana and had a couple of extra days to kick around the area. Somebody knew a bush pilot who had his own plane and said: This guy wants something to do. On a whim, I said, Sure, thatd be fun. I had seen the world from 30,000 feet up, but this was completely different we were in this ultra light aircraft, flying low over a vast mud flat. When it rained, the water would pick up dirt and silt. And when it dried it created really interesting patterns, things I wouldnt have been able to see if wed been flying even just a couple of thousand feet higher. It was an incredible experience and set me off on this path.
What attracts me to aerial photography is that point, at a certain elevation, where the line between abstraction and reality blurs. I never show the horizon because its an obvious giveaway, a point of reference. I want to create an image that works on multiple levels and at multiple distances. Some aerial photography looks like it could be a landscape, or something that youre seeing under a microscope. I want you to know this was taken from the air.
Animals are a good focal point. Theyre recognisable, although Im often showing them from a point of view people arent familiar with. Here, its a bit like a layer cake, you have the flat earth, the birds flying above it, and youre above it all. I like playing with the way the lens flattens this multi-level, three-dimensional space the sense of scale, the textures, the distance.
The fact that Im moving through the same space as the birds is one part of the story that the image doesnt tell,. But it is important for me. Everything is at play, the movement of the ocean, the implied movement of the birds. Theres a connectedness between the living and the moving, to make a beautiful, harmonious image.