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Low & Slow: Cameron's Aerial Magic Show

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

From too high up – say from outer space – the earth looks like the proverbial Big Blue Marble – gorgeous, to be sure, but lacking in context or texture

From not high enough – say from a tall office building or from the Eiffel Tower or the Campanile in Venice's Piazza San Marco – the view will be spellbinding, but will not extend much beyond your immediate, earthbound, neighborhood.

To do it just right, I think, one has to follow the path of Cameron Davidson, a corporate, editorial and fine art photographer who is as comfortable in a tiny Bell Jet Ranger helicopter as he is with his Nikons and his gyro-stabilizer.

Davidson's gorgeous aerial work has been seen in any number of national magazines, books, annual reports, brochures and assorted other corporate and editorial venues. [In fact, he's featured prominently in this month's Washingtonian Magazine.]

Given the number of days he spends on the road, Frequent Flier probably doesn't do Cameron justice. Constant flier, maybe. Compulsive Flier, better. Obsessive Compulsive Flier? A little too harsh. But just a little.

Part of the reason is that Cameron loves to fly – and lives to fly. And not only as a passenger going to and from a job. He's a licensed pilot himself and early on discovered that he is most at peace when he is in the air.

"Early...in my career, I had an assignment to photograph great blue herons in southern Maryland for the magazine with the yellow border" Davidson recalled after last week's opening of an exhibition of his beautiful aerial photography. "I was driving down a country road and I saw a yellow Piper Cub next to a barn on a hill. I drove up to the house and spoke to the man who owned the farm and airplane. He agreed to take me up for expenses."

"We took off down this little dog-legged runway and flew over the lower Patuxent River and Black Marsh Swamp. The heronry sits at the back end of the marsh and we circled low and slow as I shot away with my little Nikon FM. After a while we flew upriver to the marshes at Jug Bay and I shot images of the marsh as we circled it."

"I loved the feeling of being able to compose graphic images from natural patterns. It really brought together my two early loves in photography – shooting patterns and shooting landscapes. Plus, I just really feel happy and comfortable in the air. To me sitting in the back of a Jet Ranger with the door off and watching the world go by from low altitude is just amazing. I love that feeling."

It shows in the images now on display at the Botanic Garden East Gallery Conservatory through June 22. This is a small, almost intimate, show of colorful and comparatively vast spaces – from the Gulf of Mexico, to San Francisco Bay, to the Palouse Hills in Washington State to the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. [Cameron recalled that he made his dramatic aerial view of the Canyon "after I shot the Grand Canyon airport for a client. The pilot and I took the door off his A-Star (helicopter) and flew the official tour route. Flying over the Grand Canyon without a door is a trip and a half!!"]

These are, for most of us, perspectives we never have seen and they fascinate because of that. But they fascinate too because they are beautiful photographs that can stand alone as richly saturated abstracts of a natural world we hardly ever see.

Though he has flown in well over a dozen different kinds of aircraft (often many different times in the same type of plane or chopper) Cameron really prefers helicopters when making pictures from he air. "I really like helicopters because I can spend more time composing and (being) above the subject," he notes. "With airplanes, you use a lot of your time setting up for a shot."

His favorite helicopter is a Bell Jet Ranger or a Hughes 500 "with a great pilot who understands photography" and whose skills Cameron respects. The 500, Cameron says, "is the sports car of helicopters – a great machine," though he also has made pictures from a Bell 47, "the ancient beast of burden featured in the TV show M*A*S*H."

As for fixed wing aircraft, "the Piper Cub is great – slow and fun to fly and just a pretty little airplane. I've flown quite a bit in Cessna 172s...and a modified Cessna 177, which does not have wing struts [and] with windows that fold in."

In addition, he says, "I've flown in a couple of ultra-lights, including a powered parachute – which I thought about buying last year. But after flying it [I] realized that they are not as safe as people claim, and the set-up time plus wind limitations really [do] not make it very useful for the type of aerial shooting I do."

As for more mundane equipment – his cameras and film – Cameron works with Nikons and did most of his aerials on Fujichrome Velvia for its tight grain and almost supernatural color saturation. Another must is a gyro-stabilizer – a gismo that attaches to a camera tripod socket and uses an internal gyroscope to hold the camera steady even against the vibrations of a helicopter.

At Cameron's opening last week, friends and colleagues gathered to wish him well and to drink his wine. (At least that's what I did.) But another friend, graphic designer Doug Keeffe, had an additional plan for his girlfriend and soon-to-be-fiance, Tana Rhodes, a marketing director and realtor.

"Doug called me on Friday," Cameron recalled, "and asked if it was OK with me if he proposed to Tana in the botanical gardens."

"Being better with images than with words," Doug recalled, "I asked Cameron for permission to modify one of his images."

After some discussion to choose the right picture, Cameron sent Doug a file of the James River Marsh and Doug played digital wizard in PhotoShop to change the course of the stream to say "Marry Me Tana."

Keefe then e-mailed Cameron the altered file, and Cameron printed it out and framed it.

The surprise was set.

Doug and the unsuspecting Tana came to the opening, congratulated Cameron, explored the Gardens and then, as planned by Doug and Cameron, bade Cameron farewell.

"Hey, hang on," Cameron said, "I have a print for you."

"I then pulled the print from underneath the serving table and handed it to Doug [who] then gave it to Tana," Cameron said. "[She] looked at it for a second or two as Doug got onto his knee and pulled out a ring. She saw the writing in the photograph and it all came together."

"She said yes, [the] ring was placed on her finger, and I introduced them to the crowd."

Way to go, Cameron: photographer, artist, frequent flier – and matchmaker.

Low and Slow – 300 Feet Over the American Landscape. Photographs by Cameron Davidson. US Botanic Garden, East Gallery Conservatory, through June 22. (at the foot of Capitol Hill on Maryland Avenue SW)

Show moves to the NIH Clinical Center Galleries, July 4-Sept. 6.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Cameron Davidson
Stunning abstract of the Palouse Hills in state of Washington was made in 1989 right after the wheat harvest.

©Cameron Davidson
Sometimes all it takes is a wide expanse of subtle color to make a great shot, as in this picture of the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida panhandle.

©Cameron Davidson
This beautifully lit aerial of the James River Marsh stands on its own as a great photo. But now it has added luster for its matchmaking role.

Photo manipulation of Davidson photo by Doug Keeffe.
Here's the same picture manipulated into a marriage proposal. It worked like a charm at Cameron's opening.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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