Leaving the car, mountains, and solid ground behind, we get into a small airplane to do some landscape photography over Western Australia with International Fine Art Photographer of the Year Scott Jon McCook, not only to cover more ground while we’re at it, but to gain a rather unique perspective of the landscape and the story behind it.
The Perspective of Aerial Photographer Scott Jon McCook
Creating the perfect landscape image is about telling a story visually. Some photographers tell grand, hyperbolic tales of hardship and the impending end of the world through saturated, crimson sunsets. But there’s also a different side to the visual story of landscape photography. Reaching the concluding episode of this series, we’ve come to meet artists that embrace both hardware and software to create art through photography. But I am about to introduce to you an artist who employs a piece of hardware that not many others have used to tell a visual story.
"Rip" – McCook is pretty lucky to have such an incredibly long and beautiful coastline in Western Australia. This particular stretch is located about 20km south of Kalbarri. And while that coastline is stunning, it’s also dangerous at times for tourists and seasoned ocean-goers alike. McCook sometimes sees rips from the shore, but often from a distant and flattening perspective. He was lucky enough to capture this rip from directly above, something he had not seen from the air before in this incredibly defined way. McCook is excited about this image because it not only makes for a beautiful image to look at, but it also helps put these things in perspective for people who haven’t seen one before and might help people understand such phenomenon.
Many of the previously featured landscape photographers show us some kind of elevation in their work: majestic mountains, sweeping vistas, and dense forests with huge trees and even grander waterfalls. McCook’s "backyard" is quite different from those mountainous scenes of past articles in this series: thousands of flat square kilometers; as far as the eye can see.
We can drive for thousands of kilometers on straight and flat stretches of road. So, we get excited when a few degrees rise in the road come along. That’s our version of a hill sometimes.
So, McCook explains, when you have to work with a very flat landscape, you start thinking of ways to see it in its entirety. In areas like New Zealand, where half of the landmass has been pushed toward the sky by continental drift, the landscape is visually very interesting from a human perspective. Western Australia’s landscape might rival that of anywhere else in the world, but it’s once you get into the air over this flat terrain that you realize that mother nature must have painted this land with a brush.
From an aerial perspective, the hidden beauty is revealed. McCook remembers his flights and says that it jumps out at you. When you first see some of these areas, you are in complete awe: All this time, it was right under your nose, but it just took flight to see it. The second thing that makes me take to the skies is the thrill of that type of shooting; it’s incredibly fun and exciting, and it also makes you really quick at decision making while shooting because of the speeds you travel in a light plane.
Regardless of the top-down perspective, McCook’s photography shows an altogether otherworldly view of landscapes, transforming Western Australia into beauty. In the words of the photographer: “I think for me it’s to do with being open to exploration and really trying to 'break the code' within an image.” Sometimes, McCook struggles for weeks or months knowing something exists within an image but just not being able to break that code. Maybe the crop isn’t right or the colour grading is off or something just isn’t clicking into place. But one day, it all of the sudden just appears. “It might be after countless hours of failing that it finally jumps out of the screen.”
Looking at an image, to McCook, is like a battle of thoughts: him versus the image. It knows what lies beneath, but it won’t show it to him until he unlocks the precise sequence of variables, and then it appears from the depths of the abstract landscape. Once the shape, look, or literal form comes out, the fun bit begins. He won’t let go of his “elusive creature from the deep” until the very moment he has worked and pushed and pulled until it’s on the screen as he intends it to be.
I think when I allow this kind of friendly battle to take place with me pushing further and further, in the end I am rewarded with an image that contains a lot more of my emotion, because I worked so hard for it.
Within each of McCook’s aerial images, there’s some amount of experimentation involved to express a certain mood or message. Some of his more abstract images are in shape and colour reminiscent of flowers or even a dragon’s head in the landscape. McCook is mostly driven by his initial reaction to an image. Once something has triggered his curiosity, he will normally embark on a journey of 50% exploration and 50% targeted processing. “Although that percentage fluctuates,” he says, grinning. In his pursuit of creating the abstract images, he sometimes looks at it like he’s creating a painting. “What elements do I need to include, leave out, or bring out to achieve that initial shape or outline I saw?” A workflow without experimentation doesn’t exist for Scott Jon McCook, as his entire workflow is a journey down many dead ends. Until he finds a path that achieves the result he’s after, McCook constantly experiments with his photography.
Experimentation is part of why I enjoy photography so much; the adventure of exploration starts in the sky but then continues on the editing table and can be just as rewarding.
"Tree Of Life" – McCook came to know this area as the “Tree” and flew over it just about every day as he, his pilot, and photographer friend, Paul Hoelen, headed out to new locations. McCook says it was one of those locations that looked stunning from the air ,but once you sat a camera in front of it, you quickly realized that this beast required the perfect lighting conditions to complement the colours and shapes found within it. One morning, they had some very scattered cloud that were causing dabbled light onto the tree. They thought to give it a go and got the pilot to head up to 3,000 ft to be able to fit most of it in with their prime lenses (zoom lenses can move about too much in the high wind speeds). McCook shot away that day and managed to nail this really interesting light, which helped shape and control the incredible colours and lines found in this naturally forming tidal surge area.
Honestly, I’ve found it hard to choose between McCook’s fascinating imagery. But as some of them feature hints of both human and other animal activity, I’ve taken the liberty of addressing environmental concerns through McCook’s aerials. Photo manipulation was a hot topic in previous articles, and I’ve read some comments about me not telling the other side of the story. McCook’s portrayal of human activity on abstract aerial landscapes is sometimes subtle. In other works, it looks quite overwhelming when you know what you are looking at. What is it that McCook is trying to tell humanity, if his message doesn't come across visually?
"Art" – This image was taken over the tailing ponds, found about 20km south of Perth city. These areas are used to separate mining materials and are often the topic of much controversy. (Take note of the recent spill in Brazil, where a tailing pond created a massive environmental disaster.) This particular one is in McCook’s own backyard and is under strict rules and regulations. Nevertheless, as the people of Perth go about their daily lives, they cannot see these tailing ponds hidden behind raised land and barbed wire fences. This is where McCook’s aerial photography comes into play. He enjoys bringing these areas to life in an artistic way and allowing the public to draw their own conclusions. To most people in Western Australia, the mining industry (including these ponds) is a source of income for their family and generations before them. So to say that it’s completely wrong or that operations should be stopped can be a very controversial topic and one close to many people’s hearts. McCook sees it as his duty to ask the hard questions through his images and get people talking. He does this in such a way that the images of something like this “chemical slush” become more eye-catching, something that makes people stop and ask an important question.
Letting the image do the talking is McCook’s way of asking questions about our impact on the environment. It’s pretty obvious that he has a certain agenda when it comes to the environment. He thinks all people do. One thing he tries to achieve is to talk less with his physical voice and more with the camera and the images he makes. He then puts those images in front of people without too much of his own agenda attached and lets them take what they will from the them. He finds that this way you’re not shoving anything down someone’s throat. At the same time, though, soliciting questions about the images leads to a small part of the audience researching the topic displayed. That’s when McCook’s job is done, he admits. “I have found that this approach allows me keep my work more neutral, which in turn allows it to reach further in some cases.” Isn’t that the most exciting type of image making — really thinking about all your images and inserting all of your emotion, questions, and views into a story found on a 2D format? To McCook, at least, it’s incredibly rewarding if he gets it right.
"Shifting Sands" – With McCook and his photographer friend, Paul Hoelen, being on a five-day aerial tour, they were covering a stretch of coastline about 300 km long between Carnarvon and Exmouth. They had done lots of research prior for locations on Google Maps but also had an element of exploration built into their budget. One of the big things on their list was a sand dune to rival all sand dunes. And it’s not easy to find the photographer's perfect dune. You need height, detail, depth, and beyond everything else, the perfect light at the right time during the banking of the aircraft and shooting. Scott and Paul were strapped in the Cessna 210 light aircraft, and both rear doors were left open. Imagine the morning air flowing through the cabin as they pass the dunes at 180 km/h, flooded in sunrise. After five minutes of scouting in an expensive manner, this beautiful, perfectly moon-shaped sand dune jumped out of the landscape as the sun carved into its face, giving it an incredible glow. No other sand dune was around this location but this freakish, one-off dune in the middle of an otherwise barren shrub land. As Scott and Paul exclaimed an audible "wow" in stereo, they signaled the pilot to pull a steep bank and hold it there for 5 minutes. At 1200 ft, they realized a kangaroo had just gone across the back of the dune and down the face, just missing him/her. The footprints were a great second prize and, in this regard, they help make the shot. It tied the landscape to the animals that survive there and captured the isolation of such areas in one line of subtle footprints.
Compositing and Manipulation
Naturally, I’ve asked Scott Jon McCook the all-important question of the fine line of reality. Does he sometimes shoot different scenes that later combine into one work of art? Considering he presents the landscape in a way that should represent the state of the Earth at a certain point in time, I wondered what his thoughts were on this topic. When it comes to his aerial abstracts, he doesn’t composite often. But if manipulation would serve the meaning of his image, McCook wouldn’t hesitate to composite something in. “I don’t produce photojournalism, and I would say I produce more of a “fine art” type work, but even then, I’m not sure that label suits me.” McCook operates without creative boundaries. When it comes to telling a story via images or developing a style, putting boundaries in place limits the journey of exploration. In so doing, McCook finds that those boundaries defeat the reason he took up photography.
This particular subject is a hot topic and one McCook sees going around in circles online all too often. If you were labeling work as photojournalism and then dropping elements that never existed into your images, then he thinks you have a problem. If you’re someone like him, who purely does landscape photography for the adventure, exploration, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible, then dropping elements in can serve the story you’re trying to tell. For Scotty, as he is affectionately called in the community, it’s not about what you did to the image. It’s whether the image can evoke emotion or tell the story you intended. Any bad composite is a bad composite; much like a bad composition can make a bad image technically. The great, thought-provoking image that is technically spot on, stays that, regardless of what’s been dropped in. Sometimes, people completely lose track of this when it comes to fine art photography or similar. McCook admires story telling via image-making when it’s done beautifully. When it comes to composites, the argument is quite often: “Anyone could drop in a unicorn and a rainbow.”
Show me a unicorn and rainbow which are completely convincing, technically sound, along with it serving more of a meaning or purpose than just a unicorn and a rainbow, and now, you’ve got my attention.
"Sunset Salts" – Inclement weather had been closing in on this particular afternoon, as the crew aboard the Cessna was about at about 1500 ft and contemplating heading back to base to land. McCook’s photographing partner-in-crime, Paul Hoelen, had been ignoring shooting the salt flats, and they both wanted to really try to get a flight over them. With the pilot checking the instruments and the weather out there, he decided to bank the airplane away from the landing strip and make their way for the salt ponds. There was a sense of tension in the air that got them excited. A cyclone had been forecast 300 km north of their location, and the sky looked very interesting. About 2 minutes out from the ponds, they were both crossing fingers, hoping the sun would punch through the clouds just before it set on the horizon. It wasn’t looking good, and the salt ponds were looking flat; literally the second they arrived over the first area, the sun just punched its way through the clouds at an incredibly low angle and created some of the most gorgeous and unique light McCook and Hoelen had ever seen over this area. The image here shows the light McCooks describes, illuminating those road edges with a golden glow.
One thing McCook notices is that people get so consumed and focused on the technical aspects of an image, they completely miss the whole story the photographer is trying to convey. Trying to break down the image into pieces of processed chunks and camera gear is a good thing to do sometimes, especially when learning camera craft. But if it’s all someone ever does, they’re missing the whole point of image-making and storytelling. If you’re so focused on the settings, gear, composite, editing etc., you’ll often miss the story unfolding right in front of you. It’s important to learn camera craft until it becomes second nature, but then it’s equally, if not more important to let the story unfold and not miss it.
Sometimes, an attitude like the one above can be construed as a lack of respect for professional standards and “rules,” but McCook thinks it’s quite the opposite. “We spend years learning all the rules so that we know when and how to break them, and I think that’s the key. Make sure you read the book on the rules first (if such an all-encompassing books exists), then, go out, and break the hell out of them.”
In the first chapter of "The Real Versus The Beautiful," I wrote that the difference between what we see in the landscape and what we see on a computer screen might be vast, but as many of the viewers did not actually see the landscape, it might as well be real to them. McCook would answer truthfully if being asked a question about his approach to photography. But he doesn’t care much for the rules that other photographers lay out and adhere by. “If I did this when creating my images, then I wouldn’t honestly be creating something of my own; I’d be creating something that is shaped by others.”
It’s important to McCook that he creates the image that is his vision, his story, and his style. So be it if that lands his photography within the realms of “fine art” photography. He doesn’t like the being confined to that or any genre, but doesn’t mind being labeled that way. Anyone’s creativity should be their own, and in that, I wholeheartedly agree with Scott Jon McCook.
Thank you for reading this series. It has been a wild ride. Your comments helped to shape each subsequent article, much like comments on photography shape the photographer’s next work. I’d also like to thank all of the wonderful photographers who have helped to make “The Real Versus The Beautiful” this successful as a series. Together, these articles have been read nearly one hundred thousand times, and I couldn’t have done it without you. Adam Block, Ted Gore, Felipe Gómez, Simon Roppel, Ryan Dyar, and of course, Scott Jon McCook, you all have been wonderfully cordial and generous in helping me write all this. All the best and until the next article!
Images and words used with permission of Scott Jon McCook.