Guest Post: Inside the Camera with The Aerial Horizon

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Welcome to my blog post about another person. This particular person is a friend from high school who’s all grown up now and is a commercial pilot. He is also a phenomenally gifted photographer and all-around nice guy. While his interest in philosophy and life’s riddles share a place in my heart, it’s his imagery from 30,000 feet above the earth that has stolen it.

After maybe a year of viewing, lurking, “liking” and reading his posts, I had to know more. I picked my favorite 5 or 6 shots and asked him about them.

Putting this post together is a labor of love, we started talking about it in early June. Photography guest posts are also really hard to compile because you need to get the photo, save it to your desktop and then upload it… but it was worth it. Amongst our respective vacations, kids leaving for camps, his numerous trips taking him to the ether and touchdowns through turbulence you don’t want to know about, and the excitement in my life in recent weeks, it’s been a challenge and something I absolutely wanted to see through and share with both my readers.

Please welcome my friend Malcolm Andrews, the eyes and thoughts behind The Aerial Horizon where he shares his visions from one of the best seats off the planet. Click on each of the images to see it larger than the blog allows and if you’re able, zoom in…

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Me: Tell us about this image and why / how it started your sharing of your photography. Where and when and how it was The One that took you to where you are now:

Sun Setting on Canyon Walls (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

Sun Setting on Canyon Walls — (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

TAH: I shot this photo of Canyon de Chelly in December of 2008 while flying a late afternoon trip from Dallas to Los Angeles. The sun was beginning to set as we approached the canyon at 35,000 feet and I caught something with my peripheral vision that made me look toward the canyon. At that moment the low sun was illuminating the orange canyon walls in dramatic contrast to the snow covered terrain. It was an exhilarating moment and thankfully I had a camera in my bag and I took this shot.

The serendipity of this moment amazed me…the right place at the right time and something makes you look at the signpost in front of you. I shot this with a broken 5 megapixel Canon. Later I posted the image on National Geographic’s “Your Shot” web site and they picked it up in their “Daily Dozen.”

Me: !!YEAH!!

TAH: Until I captured this moment and NG shared it, I didn’t realize how much pleasure I could extract from sharing my perspective with other people. Shortly thereafter, I got a Nikon 35mm DSLR and started shooting in earnest and learning more about the technical aspects of photography. I still have a lot to learn, but I find that, through constantly self-critiquing and practicing the art, I am constantly improving.

The lesson of the broken 5 megapixel camera is that opportunities are always out there to capture something meaningful as long as we are prepared see them, regardless of what equipment we have on hand. I find it ironic that my old “happy snap” camera had far less capability than my current iPhone and yet it captured a moment that lit a passion and changed the way I look at the world around me.

Me: Sigh. How fortunate you are to not only have that moment, but to recognize it and then continue to honor it with more imagery. And have Nat Geo pick it up?! Holla.

Me: Tell us about photo 2: “A Delayed Homecoming” – I love flying home. I’ve never had the view of course that you do from the cockpit, and seeing this image strikes me spiritually — that “it’s all going to be ok” and yet it’s almost like an image from another planet. Why did you select this image, of all the ones you can take on a flight home, to share about coming home?

(c) M.C. Andrews Photography

A Delayed Homecoming — (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

TAH: Sometimes I can be struck by a photo that I think is just spectacular and I want to share it. Other times, it is less about that shot than the mood or the thoughts that the shot emotes. In this case it was all of that at once.

To address the coming-home aspect of this shot…Ordinarily, when I’m coming home I am also one of the guys flying the airplane and, though the sights coming in and out of my base are regularly spectacular, doing anything other flying the airplane and ensuring the safety of our passengers and crew is strictly prohibited. The end result is that most of my homecoming images are captured in my memory only.

On this occasion, I was a passenger hitching a ride home after attending my Uncle’s funeral in Boston. After leaving my relatives behind, I was in “go mode” and intensely focused on getting home as fast as I could…that didn’t work out. I missed the early flight and got bumped from the next one. Finally, I got the last seat on the last jet to DC that evening…My mood immediately transitioned from that of the frantic frustrated commuter to that of the relaxed and thankful traveler. The story is relevant because of the mood…

As we approached Mockley Point on the Potomac at about 2500 feet, the golden hour (just prior to sunset) had arrived and the light was spectacular. [This is the ideal time to shoot monuments in Washington as they illuminate in the same golden wash.] I was thankful to be a passenger and able to enjoy the moment. The scene filled me with emotion and I was at once relieved, relaxed, grateful, and reflective…Had I caught the first rushed flight home, I never would have experienced the range of emotions or the joy of the scene…For me it was another lesson in serendipity – Right time, right place, suddenly a purpose… When I looked at this image the next morning, it seemed to tell me that story so I had to share it.

Me: Sigh again. I can’t help but be moved by this; I know so much — we all do — that wonderful punch-drunk feeling of FINALLY getting home and dumping your bags to hug your family and flop on the couch. The gratitude is immeasurable.

Me: THIS PHOTO! I can’t get enough of these colors. Has this been altered? If so, do you have the original? I’d love to see what you’ve done with it. Regardless of any altering, the fantastic chunkiness of the clouds balanced by the trees on the left, the placement of the road, down the right part of the frame but the light in the center… it’s a great image. Very enigmatic and yet serene.

(c) M.C. Andrews Photography

Imagining the Trail — (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

TAH: I took the photograph in Culpeper, Va., looking down St James Church Road toward the Brandy Station Battlefield. The purple glow on the horizon drew me off the main road in an effort to get a better look. The sunset was trapped under the heavy cloud deck and the purple haze was very distinct to the naked eye, but only came clear in the photograph once I had applied a 50% polarization to the image and doubled the color saturation. Doing landscape shots like this one, I don’t like to over saturate the color too often as it can really start to look unreal and I start to lose other desired details. The line of buttercups pointing down the road was more distinct in the unmodified photo, but I had to sacrifice that to get the color of the sky back to what I had originally perceived. The other source of light on the right was from the headlights on my car.

Me: The original untouched image is below; I can’t decide which one I prefer. The first one is dramatic, the kind of thing you’d see in a movie. But the one below, the original, places me there… it’s not so impossible to imagine myself standing Right There taking in those buttercups.

(c) M.C. Andrews Photography

(c) M.C. Andrews Photography

 

Me: This image sends me. I / you / one can see colors in the stars — the blue ones to the right. I used to fall asleep in my parents’  astronomy and space photography books as a child. What’s going on in this image — it looks like cloud formations / or galaxies? And the ground lights — where were you guys? Coming in on a landing? Taking off? It’s fantastic.

 

Night Lights and Milky Way, (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

Night Lights and Milky Way — (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

TAH: I shot this photograph on a cloudless night while cruising over North Texas and the Panhandle. When I wrote about it, I tried to convey the sense of motion and light. There are three elements to this scene: the fixed stars on the horizon, the blurring lights on the earth, and the cloud-like stars of the milky way.

The camera really helps to tell this story better than our eyes do. Our eyes adjust and refocus, so we see each light as a distinct source while the camera focuses once and captures streaks of light. We can only differentiate between the colors of some of the stars and we think of them as white lights. With a long exposure time, the camera captures the broad spectrum of colors in the stars and we see them in the completed shot.

Thinking about photographing these lights is somewhat analogous to dreaming, seeing, and remembering….

We see lights on the distant horizon and they are as crisp and as clear as our dreams, but we can’t always interpret their geometry. When the lights are upon us, we are in the now and our perception of their reality is exact as we see them pass below us. We look down at cities, towns and baseball fields and we experience them in real time. However, as we try to capture these moments, “real time” passes by so quickly that the camera can only capture a blur of light. Meanwhile, on a perfectly smooth night, we look over our shoulders at the oldest lights in the sky and if we are lucky we can capture the blue cloud-like memory of the Milky Way. It’s a pseudo-scientific romantic way of interpreting the night sky, but it works for me. I’ve always loved flying at night and interpreting the lights.

My original post with this photo:

The joy of flying the red-eye is that we get to chase each new star as it rises in the East while racing past the lights that dot the landscape. The chase never ends and the race is always won. But what we don’t always get to see, unless it is very dark, is the Milky Way. Last night, the Milky Way expressed itself so brightly that it looked like a cloud bank we could reach out and touch. In this photograph, a portion of the Milky Way appears high above the horizon to the southeast while the lights of the Panhandle stretch across the dark landscape and reflect off our nose.

And now for the technical…A very slow shutter speed (20 seconds) at an aperture of f/1.8 was required to capture the cloudlike appearance. We were traveling at roughly 8 miles per minute. With a little simple bar napkin math, we can figure out that the lines of light from fixed sources on the ground are each about 3 miles long… fascinating, I know… and now it’s time for bed.

Me: Eight miles per minute … that’s roughly my jogging speed. >snort< And bar napkin math: nope. Not me. I’ll doodle thank you. 

As you can tell from these transmissions between Malcolm and myself, we can easily go meta. I haven’t seen him in at least a dozen years two decades, but when / if I do again, it’ll be very cool. We will need a set of rocking chairs and a blanket (for me) and I’ll play my kazoo.   

Me: I think this was the first image I saw of your photos. I have always had a “thing” for that utterly black expanse beyond the atmosphere. I admire it as possibly the sexiest thing about space — that boundary when we have our shell, our atmosphere that protects us and then … silence, the beginning of it all. It says, “silence.”

What would you say is your theme for when you not only shoot, but when you decide to share an image?

Winter's Approach - An Umber Scene in the Sierras (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

Winter’s Approach: An Umber Scene in the Sierras — (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

TAH: The aerial horizon and its curvature provide the dominant theme for my aerial photographs. I started shooting this way trying to get the most unobstructed and reflection free shots out my window. It was due to a physical constraint. Then I started realizing the effect of a longer horizon line in my photos…The curvature of the earth became more perceptible and more interesting. I think there are a couple of factors at play.. the change in orientation of the horizon starts exercising our brains and we stop looking at the horizon with our preconceived notion that it is a flat line, instead we study it and recognize the curvature. We are using both sides of our brain when we look at the scene set upside down…I find that scintillating. Shooting with a wide angle lens can also exaggerate the curve as the lines spread at the edges of the photo.

To get back to the theme, it’s about trying to communicate the scene as the story of a living planet rather than a snapshot of static landscape. When I am editing, I ask myself, “Does this picture draw me into the scene? Is there a motion to it?” I want to make the planet talk, if only in a whisper. I think my better photographs are beginning to accomplish that. I don’t have a set criteria for what I choose to share, but I try to share the shots that I am excited about.

Me: This one, “Settling Skies” — clouds! I LOVE clouds! They look like I could bounce on them down the sky and then fall asleep on them… The composition of the photo with the wide slant and angle of the horizon point … was the sun “setting” or “rising” here?

Settling Skies (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

Settling Skies — (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

TAH:  In this shot, the sun is setting as we cruise over a broken cloud deck over South Florida. These clouds are the remains of a failed storm that ran out of energy when the sun began to set. Flying relatively close to their tops, the light and shadows really accentuated the drama of the scene. Turning the wide angle lens at various angles helped me create a sense of motion instead of trying to capture a static sunset. The weather sort of speaks for itself and becomes the story and it is complimented by the light (rather than the other way around). We cruise around between 200 and 500 miles per hour (depending on our altitude), but it feels as though we are moving slowly. The fun part of flying around the clouds is that they are our closest source of relative motion so when we pass a nearby cloud, we get a sense of how fast we are moving and it can be exhilarating. By focusing on the clouds in this shot, I tried to share some of that sensation.

Me: The sun never actually “sets” or “rises” it’s the rotation of earth that makes those things “happen” — speak to that. So, you’re sort of chasing the sun, aren’t you? (Aren’t we all?)

TAH:  You have the right idea…as a pilot, I often find myself riding on a ribbon of light between night and day. We may take off after sunset only to experience it again once we get up to altitude. Depending on our direction of flight, that sunset might last a few hours. When flying to the west coast at sunset, I think of the trip as flying into a “perpetual sunset” as the sun will sit just above the horizon from the time we takeoff until we reach eastern Arizona. Not a good time to forget your sunglasses.

These flights also give us a great look at the shadow of the earth as it moves across the surface. The line it creates is called a “terminator” and it defines the twilight zone with an angular haze of purple light where the penumbral and umbral shadows meet. Avoiding the stare of the sun on these flights, we look left and right and see that we are riding in that twilight zone. It’s very hard to photograph, but the lighting effect is utterly fascinating. This is one of those things we see that make us feel like we have a secret to share.

Me: Sigh. FINAL question: I’d love to ask you questions about how your faith (if you’re OK with that) might be confirmed or chipped away by your experiences in flight when so much of it is science — how do you reconcile it? I see these images and it makes me totally believe in God; then I hear all your technical explanations and terms of art and science and then i swing to the science yet it loses none of the romance of mystery and faith. (Let me know if this isn’t making any sense…)

talk about scientific and technical... (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

where it all goes up and down… talk about scientific and technical… (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

TAH: If anything, I have to believe that my perspective has given me a greater appreciation of the world as a natural living thing. Its heartbeats are expressed in water through the arterial flow of rivers and capillary streams. Its breath is spawned by the effect of radiation on it surface causing variations in pressure combining with Coriolis forces that create ever-changing patterns of wind. Its memory is on display through the forms of landmasses and the geological scars that they bear. Science provides the explanations for the nature of our existence, but faith guides us through the atmosphere as we experience forces that influence our reality. What I find fascinating is that we are all influenced by the same forces, but most of us seek sum up our faith in a single finite explanation to address the mysteries (and science) of life in one tidy package of belief. I believe it’s bigger than that.

The concept of the Holy Spirit provides me more comfort with what I know of the world. The earth may have been born from genius or absolute chance, but the manner in which things intertwine and work synergistically to create a world that supports something as fragile as the life we know leads me to have faith that there are forces in, around, between and through us that, perhaps, represent the work of that Holy Spirit. That spirit sends us on a path that we follow if we are wise enough to see the signs. Putting a face or a name or a language to that force seems inadequate.

I feel a little heretical when I discuss this perspective. I feel as though the metaphysical power of prayer is a true expression of the Spirit between all things and that is more to the root of our existence. Putting a human face or a name on our beliefs satisfies a human need to understand but traps us in a small and divisive view of the world that does more to tear us apart than to better our existence. Rather understanding our environment through science and appreciating the mystery of “why” as being unanswerable leaves us with faith as our guide.

I find great comfort in knowing that all things are connected, but I am in awe of creation (and words cannot express this kind of awe that we feel in our nervous system…it’s butterflies, “pins and needles,” and sheer electricity) and I feel blessed constantly to have the gift of perspective that my work gives me. That is the expression I hope comes through in my photography.

[Aside: This all sounds pretty odd (I know) and I don’t know if it fits with where you want to go with this. On the faith front, I think I am becoming more of a Taoist and reconciling that with my Episcopalian faith…I have recently started becoming very “anti-dogma” and “pro-faith”]

Me: What you said… I get all of that. There is no ONE WAY to define faith for me; it’s so expansive, so to me, also should be my appreciation.

Here’s a picture I just nabbed for the fun of it:

Crossing Over the Moon (New Mexico) (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

Crossing Over the Moon (New Mexico) — (c) M.C. Andrews Photography

These photos are just a sampling of Malcolm’s talent and images. I grabbed mostly his aerial photography because it’s so compelling, but his terra firma shots are absolutely nourishing as well. His official website is here: http://mcandrewsphotography.zenfolio.com — check him out before he’s super famous.

Thanks, Malcolm.

Thank you.

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