A few weeks ago, we went to an excellent exhibition at Compton Verney called ‘Flight and the Artistic Imagination’. It featured various works in all kinds of media from paintings and photographs to sculpture, video installations and even images from the Hubble telescope, all inspired by flight. It was a big exhibition and I loved a lot of the pieces, particularly ‘Battle of Britain’ by Paul Nash, some large format images of nebulae from Hubble, and a stitched-together panorama from the moon landings.
However, the pieces that really stuck in my mind were a selection of photographs by Alfred G. Buckham. Buckham was born in 1879, and during the First World War he was an aerial photographer in the photographic section of the Royal Naval Air Service. The photographs in the exhibition were taken after the war in the 1920s, when he started taking and selling aerial photographs to make a living. On entering the exhibition, the very first image you saw was an enlargement of one of his photographs of cloudscapes, applied directly to the gallery wall. This image was utterly stunning: you see a vast landscape of towering cumulonimbus clouds. Then you notice a tiny open cockpit biplane — like an insect crawling over the flanks of a huge beast — showing you the scale of the cloudscape. The photograph is black and white of course, and intensely dramatic with the sun glinting off the clouds, but deep greys and blacks hinting at a storm to come.
After you’ve been blown away by the grandeur of the photograph, you start to wonder how it was actually made. The photographer must have also been in a plane, at a time when they usually sported open cockpits. How on earth did he manage to get such a clear, sharp image while at great altitude, in freezing and while buffeted about by the wind? To make matters worse, cameras were not exactly compact and easy to operate at that time. Buckham used a large format glass plate camera which was heavy and cumbersome to focus. His photographs are awe-inspiring when you first see them, but your respect for his immense technical and artistic skill increases when you consider what he had to do to capture them.
When you read a bit more about him, it gets even more impressive. He crash landed 9 times, and after the last crash damaged his larynx so severely that it had to be removed and he had a tracheotomy. This meant that he had to breathe through a tube in his throat, so at altitude the freezing air would have entered his lungs without being warmed by his mouth and nose in the usual way. This must have been excruciatingly painful. He also refused to wear gloves while flying, because they impaired his ability to adjust the camera properly. He found storms dramatic and inspiring, so he often ventured out in very difficult flying conditions. To make matters even more hair-raising, he stood up in the open cockpit to take the pictures. As he apparently once put it, cheerfully:
If one's right leg is tied to the seat with a scarf or a piece of rope, it is possible to work in perfect security.
Well, some people’s idea of ‘perfect security’ doesn’t quite square with my own.
He made expeditions to Central and South America and got some stupendous shots of Rio from the air. However, I think I prefer the simple images of cloudscapes inhabited by tiny, vulnerable biplanes, with no view of the ground. They are so evocative of the freedom, wonder, but also loneliness of flying out of sight of the ground, with only scarf tied around your leg to hold you in the plane.