Ever since drones have become affordable for ‘normal people’, aerial images from around the globe are booming. British photographer Tommy Clarke, however, belongs to the old school: equipped with a Leica SL2, he photographs the most beautiful landscapes, first hand – literally. In an interview, he explains how it is to photograph from an airplane, enthuses about his newly unleashed passion for the island of Martinique, and clarifies the correlation between aerial photography and environmental awareness.
At which point in your life did you start taking photographs?
I first picked up a camera when I was 16, after breaking my back in a snowboarding accident. I was unable to play sports for a while, so I borrowed my mum’s old camera and started taking photos, so I could still join in and kind of stay part of the team.
How did your passion develop over time?
Well, I started taking photos of sports after my injury; but that lead to my school asking me to take portraits of the team captains at the time, and I loved the process of helping someone relax in front of the lens to get the best shot of them. That then led me into fashion photography, and then travel and, ultimately, aerial landscapes. I love to explore the wider parameters of photography and not pigeon-hole myself too much; so, although my passion has led me currently to this niche, I’m always excited to see what might be next.
How would you describe the island of Martinique and French Caribbean culture?
I fell completely in love with Martinique. It was always a bucket list destination for me, ever since seeing The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan many years ago. They show the island beautifully in the film, and it certainly didn’t disappoint in real life! There is such a brilliant collision of classic French culture mixed with the wonderfully rich Caribbean lifestyle. The architecture is beautifully French, but for me, the landscape is just perfect. Volcanic, black sand beaches down the coast from pristine white sand ones, and jungles and coral reefs to explore too. All that tied up in a Caribbean flavoured, French-feeling bow. It’s a very special place.
What do you want your imagery to provoke in the viewer?
Importantly, I steer well clear of photoshop for my work, so that means I’m able to show the viewer images that truly reflect the incredible landscapes of the world. To have someone look at my work and question if what they are looking at is a real landscape, is a great reaction for me. But as I have been shooting the world from above for 10 years now, I can also see the impact and damage we are having on the earth. So hopefully my work can evoke a feeling of place within our natural environment, a realisation that our species – seen usually as just a tiny dot in one of my photos – is having an irreversible effect on the planet.
Can you tell us something about your photographic approach when shooting projects? How do you compose your images?
I have always looked to find landscapes that can bring a sense of abstraction to my photos. Ideally, a viewer would stand in front of an image and not know if they are looking at a painting or a photograph. I think I find this works well when I’m able to fully hang out of a helicopter and shoot directly down, so as to reduce a sense of scale and perspective for the viewer.
How easy/hard is it to get permission or hire an aircraft to take aerial pictures?
It can be really challenging and very, very expensive. But all that becomes part of the process, working with pilots to fly over the point you need so you can get the shot you’ve planned. As long as you’re not intruding in restricted airspace or flying too low over people, you tend to be okay!
What makes a place interesting or attractive for you to take pictures? Do you have favorite places and, if so, what makes them so special for you?
I have always been drawn to beaches because I grew up on one in the UK. The mix of colourful towels, surf-boards and beach umbrellas, always creates a colourful canvas for me when shooting from above. I always think having a big photograph of a perfect-looking beach on the wall is a good way to get through the winters, particularly in drizzly London!
What equipment did you use? Do you ever use drones, or do you shoot from aircraft all the time?
I started shooting from helicopters before drones were available. It was so enjoyable harnessing in, taking the door off, and actually photographing the world from above, that I decided to stick at it and not move to drones. For this shoot over Martinique, I was lucky enough to use the Leica SL2 and shot from a small plane. We flew higher than I normally do in a helicopter, but the quality of the SL2 meant that I could capture even more detail than before even at the greater height.
What does photography in general mean to you?
Capturing moments, little time capsules of the past. I feel very privileged to be a photographer, but I also know that I am documenting the world. So for me photography comes with responsibility, which is another reason I steer clear of photoshop. Being able to view the changing landscape of the world is a vital tool.
How did you get into the world of Leica cameras?
I was first introduced to Leica in the UK because of my love of shooting on film, and from that I was invited to shoot a landscape in my style on the SL2. It was a beautiful introduction for me as I now can’t imagine shooting on any other camera system. I fell in love with the quality I was able to achieve when pairing it with the 90-280mm SL lens.
Are there any places you want to visit in the near future?
I’d love to shoot over New Zealand in both summer and winter, and also Yosemite Valley, Central Australia, Greenland… there’s a long and never-ending list!
Tommy Clarke grew up on the south coast of England where he spent nearly every childhood holiday by the beach. This sparked a deep interest in the interaction between water and land, and how people connect with that kind of location. However, it wasn’t until he was living in Sydney that he embarked on his first aerial shoot over Bondi Beach, capturing the colourful surfboards strewn across the sand, which became his first series, Shore. Since then Tommy has hung out of helicopters and small aircraft everywhere from San Francisco and Mexico to the Canary Islands and Utah. When not travelling, Tommy is now based out of his studio in London.