Photographs of the Palouse from Above

March 27, 2017 ·

Neal Rantoul

I assume most of you know of the Palouse, in the SE corner of the state of Washington. Most have seen photographs from there and many of you may have gone, either by attending one of the numerous workshops taught there or on your own. Think rolling hills of wheat, horizons free from trees and a different palette of colors and textures that change based upon the time of year.

It is a very special place and I highly recommended it. 

I have been photographing there most years since 1996. I live back east so this has become something of a pilgrimage to a land of milk and honey, for in many ways the Palouse is a sort of paradise. Small towns, hundreds of square miles of two-lane roads winding through undulating hills of wheat, safflower, garbanzo beans and lentils. To me it always feels like going back in time to be there: no big cities, no suburbs, no heavy duty commute to work, no tourists or big attractions. As I said, a sort of paradise.

I spent the first five years or so photographing the area with an 8 x 10 view camera, in black and white. The prints from then tend to look like this:

In 1997 I showed 12 of these in a group show at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston. The prints were mounted on aluminum and were 50 x 40 inches. A smaller print of this one is in the permanent collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

Since about the year 2000 I’ve been going up in light planes to shoot the area from the air. Initially, I shot film, of course. I started with and used a  2 1/4 Hasselblad SWC for a few years, beginning with black and white and then using color, using a plane that had a plate in the floor in the back that could be unscrewed to allow shooting straight down.

The Hasselblad SWC: a simply superb camera.

Starting in about 2006 I started going up with a digital camera and a zoom lens, sitting now in the seat next to the pilot and pointing my camera out through an open window. That is primarily the way I work most often now. Helicopters are great but about three times more expensive. I did spring for a gyro stabilizer in 2008. I use a Kenyon, which looks like this when connected to the camera.

Sometimes this takes people aback.  Don’t let the use of this tool scare you off. Perfectly good photographs can be made from the air without the use of the gyro. It just increases the odds of success as vibration and turbulence is a significant factor when photographing aerially. 

Aerially photographing in the Palouse is about as perfect as it gets. Imagine flying over the changing landscape for an hour or more, never repeating the terrain, coming across the changing colors, contours, the abstracted land forms, hills and valleys almost without limit. It can be a very heady experience.

The wheat pictures are my longest running project. Although I have been many many times, each time I go I photograph from the air at most two or three hours, then spend the rest of my time photographing on the ground. Most trips are for about ten days. 

I always fly with Inter State Aviation, out of the Pullman, WA airport. My friend Doug Gadwa runs this small charter company and has both a Cessna 172, a high wing small plane that has a window that hinges at the top permitting photographing through the opening and a Cessna 206, a larger plane with a removable door with a much bigger opening. I usually go up for about an hour.

I almost always use the f2.8 70-200mm Nikon lens for aerial work and we fly somewhere around 1000 feet above the ground. This seems to fit best for the kinds of pictures I want to make.  I almost never include the horizon in my aerial photographs, preferring to abstract the landscape more.

2010, photograph made in August

A print of this image is in the permanent collection of the Houston, TX Museum of Art.

2010, photograph made in August

As small planes can vibrate and react to turbulent air, a fast shutter speed needs to be your priority. I like to use 1/1600 of a second as a minimum. Some photographers use slower speeds with success but I believe they can do that as the plane is higher or maybe they are using a shorter lens. Also, pick your time of day carefully. Although midday is not very interesting in terms of the quality of light, increasing light in the morning is always better than decreasing light in the late afternoon. I always try to plan for light ascending in aerial work, not light descending. There is nothing worse than working late and having to raise the ISO and lower shutter speeds. I know. I’ve been there. As long as I am listing how to’s, do not use the edge of the window frame to rest your camera on when you shoot. This just means any stabilization you are using is now trying to stabilize the plane as well as the lens. Not good. If you are handholding without a gyro turn your stabilization on. If working with a gyro, turn it off.

Other aerial photographs of the Palouse that I’ve seen tend to include barns and silos, sometimes combines during harvesting and so on. Mine don’t. I believe in the purity of the abstraction I am making, not referencing the photograph in reality. For me the richness is the dichotomy between what we know the topography to be 1000ft below us and the incredible richness and diversity of the shapes rendered in color and texture and form.

2014, photograph made in July

The logistics of photographing in high quality from the air are not particularly difficult. A willingness to spend some money (usually about $250 for an hour), make some plans, which includes following the weather, being careful with camera settings and keeping your camera as steady as possible, and this can be an incredibly rewarding and fun experience. Although I now photograph from the air in Europe, all over the U.S. and even Iceland, it all started in the Palouse. It is an excellent place to start shooting aerially for it can be calm and is always beautiful.

Two approaches: thinking of a one-hour flight as a one-time experience would work. Taking some pictures, getting a sense of what things look like from the air.

As a way to round out your time spent in the Palouse, this should be fine. The second approach would be to scout the area aerially, to make some initial exposures then apply yourself more seriously the next time you go up. A “fact finding tour” if you will. This is what I was doing in those earlier flights. I spent some time learning what not to do and what to do, making many mistakes and trying to learn from them, working to become better at aerial photography. 

Neal Rantoul is a career teacher and artist, living in the Boston area. He retired from heading the Photography Program at Northeastern University in 2012, after thirty years. He also taught photography at Harvard University for thirteen years. He has works in numerous permanent collections including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Museum of Art in Houston, the DeCordova Museum in MA and the Kunsthaus in Zurich, CH among others.

His work is represented by 555 Gallery in Boston.

His website is: www.nealrantoul.com and he may be contacted at nrantoul@comcast.net


Neal Rantoul
February 2017

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Neal Rantoul

Neal Rantoul is a career artist and educator. Recently retired from 30 years as head of the Photo Program at Northeastern University in Boston he is devoting his efforts full time to making new pictures and bringing earlier work to a national and international audience. With over 50 one-person exhibitions over the length of his career, Rantoul has just finished two new shows that were in April 2013. One was at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, MA that opened in early April and another at the gallery that represents his work, Panopticon Gallery in Boston, that opened April 6. These two exhibitions emphasized more current work. The Danforth show was of “Wheat” and the Panopticon exhibition featured new aerial photographs of the islands off the coast of Massachusetts.

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