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New photography book is breathtaking aerial view
PHOTOGRAPHER RON LOWERY’S OFFICE CHAIR IS REALLY small, but his workplace more than makes up for it. He shoots most of his photos from the tiny cockpit of Cloud Chaser, a grasshopper-green twin-engine plane that is entirely open to the sky. No roof, doors or windows, just a small windscreen at the front, like a motorcycle.
In October, he and his wife, graphic designer Sue Lowery, published a second book of his aerial photos, Tennessee River: Sparkling Gem of the South. The book follows the Tennessee River from its beginnings above Knoxville, down to Chattanooga, into Alabama and back up through Tennessee until it empties into the Ohio River.
He captures some amazing vistas: Big Frog Mountain under a thin layer of snow; the flooded ridges (now thin peninsulas) that make Hiwassee Island look like an angelfish from above; Fontana Dam creating a deep lake in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains; the strangely mixed up (but beautiful) land-and-water-scape the river creates as it floods back into its own stream tributaries and its old meanders like the lake it really is; cityscapes of Chattanooga and other cities along the river.
“From ground level the river looks like a flat plain, but when you get up at my vantage point, you see all the beautiful curves,” he says. “When you blend that with the textures of the hills and trees and the light it forms a composition.”
Ron took me up in Cloud Chaser for a spin above Chickamauga Lake a few weeks ago, so I could see the world as he sees it.
There is no door. I climb in, carefully placing my feet on the hard parts of the plane. A lot of it is lightweight canvas-y plastic, and I really don’t want to put my foot through it. And, by the way, he says, don’t touch that stick control or step on those pedals, please. Yeah, I have my own set of controls. Not to mention the self-control my fidgety self must exert now to avoid a casual bump that could send us plummeting into the lake, I imagine.
Taking off from the Collegedale airport is like a turbocharged elevator ascent. With two powerful engines, Ron only needs about 100 feet to get the plane airborne. We cruise over the lake usually 200-500 feet above the surface but dip down about 50 feet above the water to race a ski boat. We win.
I know I don’t see what his trained eye sees, but the view is breathtaking. Every fold of the terrain framing the river,
of the water
back into the land. Everything is so close, nothing between me and it except what I’m sitting on and the air that’s buffeting me.
Like a dog next to an open car window, I can’t resist sticking my arms out both sides to feel the sky go by.
Back on the ground, I ask how he can shoot and fly at the same time.
“If you trim the plane out level it just flies,” he says.
Ron and one of his sons built Cloud Chaser 13 years ago with this book of Tennessee River photos in mind. His plane came from a kit, based on an experimental prototype designed and built for National Geographic in the mid-'90s.
Until then, Ron had made a living creating digitally manipulated aerial photos, things like an image of clouds shot from above, with an open manhole in their surface and a ladder popping up from below. He shot his own photos using another plane and sold the composed images for premium prices in the stock photo market. That phase of his career came to a halt with the advent of digital age, which meant photo newbies were selling digital photos for next to nothing and people were stealing his photos because downloading and copying had become easy.
So he recast himself as a fine-art photographer and built Cloud Chaser to get even closer to his subject.
“Every flight is an exploratory flight but it doesn’t turn into a photography flight until you see something exciting,” he says.
As he flies, he is composing the shot in his imagination. A shot of Wilder Tower on the Chickamauga Battlefield shows how he works.
“It was late one evening and I flew right beside the tower, maybe 100 feet above it,” he says. “People think I planted models on the tower because everything worked out so perfectly. It took a lot of luck, but the lighting I control. I knew it was going to be right, right then. I knew where the sun was going to be. I knew which side I needed to be on to shoot the picture.”
He only shot six or eight exposures.
“People think I shoot hundreds, but I don’t,” he says. “I hate editing. I edit in the camera. Soon as I see it in the viewfinder I know I got it.”