I am an aviator, a mining engineer and a photographer, in that order. Or maybe it's the other way around. My life's work has been in aviation and earth sciences, and combining these interests with an inherited instinct for photography has fulfilled my deepest ambition. My Christen Husky airplane has prowled North and Central America, from the Arctic shores of Alaska to the tropical jungles of Costa Rica, and from the remote and harsh Ungava Peninsula of Labrador to the balmy Island of Granada.
On the Morning of Friday, May 14, 1999, I began my westward retracing of the Lewis and Clark route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean in my Christen A-1 Husky, a single-engine, high-wing, bush-type airplane. The day marked the 195th anniversary of the departure of the Corps of Discovery from this point. I had spent five months planning and plotting the route, and I had entered geographic coordinates of known Corps of Discovery campsites and points of interest into the airplane's Global Positioning System (GPS). I also entered many potential camping sites. The nights spent camping with my airplane are treasured times, and I put much thought into selecting locations.
The National Park Service reckons the distance of the Lewis and Clark trail at 3,700 miles. My GPS flight plan showed 2,473 miles. The point-to-point traverse of the GPS-planned route eliminated many miles of river and trail meandering, so the distances are not necessarily at odds. The trip took seven flying days, with eighty hours of flight time. For Lewis and Clark, the time in actual travel was twelve months. In 2001, at the urging of Dr. Mussulman, I flew the eastern portion of the Lewis and Clark route, as well as all the principal side journeys.
My trips over the Lewis and Clark trail produced a total of 3,182 images, all of which were shot with Leica 35mm cameras and Fuji Velvia film. As has been the case with nearly all of my aerial photos, the heights at which the pictures were shot varied from 500 to 3000 feet, with most taken between 1000 and 1500 feet. The average person's view of the earth from six miles high in a commercial airliner, or even from one mile up in a small plane, bears no resemblance whatsoever to the experience of flying alone, low and slow, over the incredible, changing texture of the earth below. It is touching the face of the land and sensing its texture, habitations and geology. It is a close encounter with weather and terrain as a single element.
My single-engine airplane is loaded with a large collection of cameras, lenses, camping equipment and provisions capable of sustaining an adventure of several weeks. The only replenishments needed are aviation fuel and fresh water. Nights are spent sleeping under the wing—or sometimes on the well-worn couch of a friendly small-airport manager. A normal working day is eight hours of flying, resulting in 300 to 400 photos per day. There are times when fair weather prevails for weeks at a time. At other times, low clouds and storms have kept me grounded for several days at one camp or another.
There are countless opportunities to capture images from the air of human activity and achievement, but the biggest rush comes from nature: A special light, a dramatic cloud, an unusual expression of geology, a craggy peak, a reflecting lake, a splendid palate of texture and color. A juxtaposition of any of these things, including human activity, is what makes aerial photography a unique experience for the photographer and for those who view it.
Jim Wark was the 2006 recipient of the first annual Epson Professional Photographers' award. In March 2007, two of his photos were among 103 chosen from 9,968 world-wide entries for the San Diego Lyceum's 2007 "Art of Photography" exhibition.
To date, Jim's published works are:A Field Guide to Sprawl, with text by Dolores Hayden (128 pages, 75 aerial photos), $24.All are available direct from the photographer. To order, email email@example.com, or call 719.545.1051. Add $5 for postage.
America, Flying High, with text by the photographer (650 pages, 600 aerial photos), $25.
Colorado: An Aerial Geographer of the Highest State, with text by Tom Huber (140 pages, 110 aerial photos), $45.
Discovering Lewis & Clark From the Air, with text by Joseph Mussulman (261 pages, 111 aerial photos), $25 hardcover; $22 paper.
See also Jim's on-line Airphoto North America gallery, containing almost 10,000 images selected from his 100,000-image stock library.