Passion Tells the Story
We’d driven eight hours and gotten in later on Friday night than desired. We needed to be in place for the sunrise shoot the next morning, which with the alarm set for 04:45, we were ready to greet it. We’d been trying to make this shoot happen for a couple of months and had rescheduled it numerous times because of weather and smoke from a number of wildfires. While in theory if we got skunked, which does happen more times than not, we could reschedule the shoot again, but the time had been committed to now. So before turning off the lights for the night, sensors were cleaned, batteries charged and everything triple checked. The forecast for the next day was perfect so sleep came fast and hard. Then the alarm went off and it was time. We stepped out of the lodge with gear and coffee only to be greeted by overcast and a rainy mist. I looked up to see a low, dense coastal fog had rolled in and then I knew we were not going to see a sunrise. Off we went as if everything was going to plan. What other option is there? We were skunked this day, but as it turned out, the next morning the stars lined up, we flew and made the images we needed to tell the story.
What continues to push and inspire my photography is a passion to tell the story. My greatest joy still comes when a critter is in my viewfinder sharing their world with me, so I can share it with you. I’m very fortunate to indulge in this love nearly every day. Then a number of years back, our photographic world grew when a closet passion for aviation was able to enter my viewfinder. It came at the right time in our photographic lives when we had the time, photographic tool chest and room in the heart to chase it down as we have critters for over three decades. And it’s with that critter and landscape background that we approached aviation.
The correlations between the disciplines in our photography of critters and aviation are rather spooky. With critters it’s always been the relationship with the biologist as much as the critter that led to eventual success. With aviation, it’s the pilot as much as the aircraft that’s taking us in that same direction. The biologist and the pilot bring to life the story of the subjects who can’t speak for themselves. Because of this, just as our relationships with biologists have been the key to my photographic success with wildlife, it has turned out that our relationships with pilots are the reason for my success with aviation. And without any grand design, this all evolved into a book project, which at this time has no end point.
The Flying Passion – History Alive in Today’s Aviators actually wasn’t a book project in the beginning. It all started with Chris’ portrait, what was originally just going to be an article. We have been good friends for some time, I’d photographed him in his OY-1 Sentinel air to air long ago (thanks Jake!). Tracking down its history he learned it flew over the beaches of Iwo Jima on landing day in WWII! Chris has a deep passion for flying, aircraft and history, and especially sharing all of that and so much more with others. Well his portrait turned out pretty good and as we all know, when photographers make a photo that works, we attempt to repeat it. The next one went well too, so did number three and four (I’m now up to number 43). The single article morphed into a series and that, well you guessed it, morphed into the book. But Chris’ portrait set the criteria for those included in the book, which is how the name Flying Passion came to be.
As a visual storyteller sharing life’s events I’m so fortunate to witness, and the verbal stories I’m told, puts a huge load on my shoulders to share with others. It turns out taking the portraits is the easiest part of the book. Doing the interviews and writing up the accounts, now that’s a cranker! I think one pilot in particular really sums up the passion this project brings to my photography.
Don Rolf’s story in aviation began in Southern California when he was 17, in 1939. Back then he was flying around So Cal in a 1931 Waco delivering airplane parts. He flew out of Monrovia Airport, which is now a shopping mall. Don didn’t realize it but on one of his approaches into Monrovia, his photograph was captured in what turned out to be a very historic image taken by a young photographer, Clancy Hess. Clancy, as fate would have it, also flew that exact same Waco back then and became a famous Naval photographer shooting in the Pacific during WWII. He also became a dear friend of mine. On D Day+1 Don found himself on Omaha Beach, and, as life would have it, he was in a special unit with the Army, not the Air Corp. The unit worked their way across Europe and Don has quite the stories about his adventures. The storytelling turns solemn when Don comes up to the Battle of the Bulge. His unit had to crawl between the Allied and German lines on those dark, cold, snowy days. They were putting orange flagging into place to direct the aerial attack for the P-47 Thunderbolts when the weather cleared. Can you imagine, bullets and shells flying overhead in both directions because no one knew they were there?! He tells the tale all the way up to when the P-47s were directly overhead and making their runs. Here he goes silent. The rest of the story goes untold, so we can only assume it’s too dreadful to be told.
Well that exact same ’31 Waco that Don & Clancy and so many others flew in So Cal in the ‘30s still flies! It was restored by its current caretaker (as he prefers to say) and flown by our dear friend Warren. Sharon & I have flown many times in this gorgeous aircraft and have a real love affair with it. Warren being Warren, he seems to have vets gravitate to him and in this case, Don’s son reached out to Warren. Finding out that Warren owned the plane his dad had flown so long ago and that it still flies, he arranged to get his dad back into the Waco. Two months later Don was in Minot, ND with Warren at the stick flying him around. Don had the biggest smile you’d ever seen! Yes, Warren is very much a part of the Flying Passion project, as are Don and Clancy (who passed this last December). One aircraft touched the lives of these three aviators and time brought them all together. And our camera was there to tell their story. That’s what photography is all about!
And there are SO MANY thousands upon thousands of stories like this out there waiting to be told! We learned this decades ago with critters and it was reinforced when we started working with pilots. The living history they have to share is overwhelming! And any one person can’t do it all! There are some really dedicated individuals and organizations out there working to preserve this history, but as you might imagine that’s still not enough. As you might also imagine, just wanting to take on any personal project no matter what the subject takes more than just the desire. It’s what gets you started and what keeps you going, feeding your passion, but there are some gaps and that’s why we share all that we do. One photograph can change the world!
I’m very fortunate to have a special relationship with KelbyOne. (Hope you’re catching the drift, relationships are important in this business!) Sharing this story with them got them involved in my personal project and taking it to a new level. It first led to the production of our film, Warbirds and the Men Who Flew Them. The response was huge! From this we learned there is an audience on the edge of their seats (that in large part is you!) wanting to hear these stories and getting involved with it all. We’ve recognized the desire, so now we want to help with the tools to mix with that desire to take on that personal project.
We literally need an army of photographers / videographers out there to record the story of our living history! Don is 93 this year and like many WWII vets, is creeping up to the end of his storytelling years. With this pressing need and the response to Warbirds, KelbyOne and I have produced two new classes on Pilot Portraits and Air to Air Photography. The first one comes out tomorrow to get you involved in the storytelling process. Both of these classes are based on the assumption you’re new to all of this and take you from the start to the very end, covering the basics to the most advanced. Small flash and small planes, big flash and big planes and everything in between is covered. Yeah, there is that camera gear and technique stuff thrown about in the classes, but it’s also just as much about building that all-important relationship and telling the story. Both projects are from the heart as much as the camera bag.
Where do you start? Well in Pilot Portraits, you start by first making introductions and the simple portrait. Always working on making the uncommon from the common, we start at the hangar. With nothing more required than a camera and lens, I’ll show you by simply moving a subject back into a hangar you can find dramatic lighting to create that first portrait. That huge door wide open is a great light source and the hangar is a place pilots are very comfortable. Combining the two is how you introduce your skills and passion to the pilot that can lead to so much more, hopefully that air to air photo mission. In our Air to Air class, we also start in the beginning, which means on the ground. Light is what wraps up our visual storytelling and learning that on the ground is essential! How do you do that? You’ll see as we “fly” a model around looking at the light falling on it, the background and then the combo to tell the story. You learn just like the pilots do, in ground school before you take to the air. We’ve laid it all out for you so all you have to do is insert your passion to make it all come to life!
Photographers come to photography often thinking the f/stop, shutter speed and Photoshop are the biggest challenges to be conquered to be successful. Not to scare you, but that’s the easiest and simplest to master in this craft. It’s not till after you think you understand light that the challenge really becomes personal and the mastery creeps along. Because it is then you must invest the most important ingredient for improvement, time! Personal projects where you invest your heart, time and personality to tell the visual story are the true calling of photography. Stories unfold every second of every day around the world providing us all with an opportunity to explore and invest, to fail and succeed in and what I still feel is the grandest pursuit in life. The ball is now in your court to move forward, just remember, passion tells the story!
You can see more of Moose’s work at MoosePeterson.com, and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Check out his KelbyOne classes, including Pilot Portraits and The Art of Air to Air!