As pilots, one thing we know is that from the air the world is transformed. Patterns emerge. The scale of our lives is put in perspective. We are at once small, as we take in cities at a glance, and large, looming above the world below. And the beauty of the planet below reveals itself in way that only pilots can understand.
We pilots today take photographs of the ground below, a type of photography referred to as “air-to-ground” and one that has been around since shortly after Kitty Hawk.
While many photographers have sought to create great art through their lenses at great heights, it’s nearly impossible to come away with great images from on high. Maybe it’s the scale of the subject, the need for the human eye to put an image, however grand, into some kind of context, and expanses of earth and sea aren’t easy to frame in bite-sized packages.
One look at the startling air-to-ground photography of Californian Robert Campbell reveals a master’s eye, one that has overcome the challenges of the air-to-ground discipline. It didn’t happen overnight, though.
As with so many things in aviation, it may have all started with a two-seat Piper Cub. Campbell’s singular journey began at age 12, riding along with that Piper pilot as he patrolled California’s Sacramento Valley for poachers. Campbell’s father, Douglas, was an avid amateur photographer and filmmaker who, in the 1930s, piloted an airplane he had purchased from his friend, Charles Lindbergh, and growing up in San Francisco, his stories stoked Campbell’s passion—for flying and photography. Eventually, it all would lead to his earning his commercial, multi-engine and instrument pilot certificates in a single year and then studying photography with Don Worth and Jack Wellpott—and a Yosemite workshop with Ansel Adams, who introduced him to noted aerial photographer Bill Garnett.
“Look for and find the beautiful, the odd, the irrepressibly humorous and the factual, and then reproduce it, but always with composition in mind.”
From piloting air taxi charters, to flying air freight, mostly at night, in DC-3s and Beech 18s, to flying tourists over San Francisco Bay in a 1938 Douglas DC-3, Campbell would combine those two passions in an aerial photography business. Over the past four decades, Campbell’s work has been featured in books and galleries around the world.
If you’re wondering how much of Campbell’s work is “real,” you’re not alone. While Campbell works with color and negative space, erasing whole areas of images to highlight the central pattern of the image, he would argue that he doesn’t “alter” the image, but instead “composes it.”
“Philosophically, that became my goal,” he says. “Look for and find the beautiful, the odd, the irrepressibly humorous and the factual, and then reproduce it, but always with composition in mind.”
Today, whether he’s shooting artistic air-t0-ground abstracts from the sky or stunning air-to-air aerials, for clients ranging from aviation companies to the National Park Service, Robert Campbell captures the spirit and beauty of flight that first inspired him soaring over the levees of the Central Valley of California and that inspires each one of us as we fly.
You can see more of Robert Campbell’s photography on his website.