From Above

Neal Rantoul on the dunes at Philbin Beach in Aquinnah. —Sam Moore
A brief second on the clock of evolution

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As a career artist, I first started making photographs from a plane in the early 2000s. I’d been photographing in southeastern Washington for several years, and was seeking a way to extend and inform the landscape photographs I was making on the ground of the wheat fields in the region.
One project led to another, and as I traveled, I would often seek out a pilot and a plane to get above my subjects. I soon learned that what I did was unusual, for I was flying above the landscape to find good pictures. Most aerial photographers have a mission and a client; often to survey the land, to map it, to photograph for a Realtor, a property owner, or the state.

Not me. I go up with one goal in mind: to find subjects I can use as the content of my picture. As such, the pictures I make tend to abstract the landscape. A road here becomes a gestural curve, a stand of trees there is a triangle of green, waves along the shore a horizontal band of whipped cream, and shallow water rippling in the breeze a tapestry, shot from 1,000 feet up.

I backed into the project to shoot Martha‘s Vineyard from the air. It all started with wondering what Nomans Land looked like, the Vineyard’s little sister with the very antisocial history. There it sat, a few miles offshore, and I had no idea what it looked like.

Up we went, and flew over it for about an hour at a time, me shooting through an open window in a high-winged Cessna. That project led me to thinking about other islands nearby that were difficult to access. These included the Elizabeth Islands and Muskeget and Tuckernuck off Nantucket. I called the project “Near But Far,” in that people on the populated islands saw them constantly, sitting right offshore, yet most of us had no idea what they looked like. I found out, of course, that they are incredibly beautiful.

Next came Nantucket, through a curiosity mostly about what are called “the Moors,” preserved land in the center of the island. Then finally, I started going up over the Vineyard, flying from the grass strip at Katama with Mike Creato as the pilot. As the project progressed, I could finally see what was down that dirt road with the prominent “no trespassing” sign that I never dared drive down. From the air, there is very little privacy preserved. It was odd, knowing the Island as well as I do, as there were major discoveries, places revealed I’d never known about, tracts of private land I’d never seen. As we took off from Katama for most flights, we’d head over to Chappaquiddick to see the chaos created by the erosion at Norton Point, and what was going on in the move of the Schifter house.

As the number of flights I took over the Island increased, I found myself thinking of other approaches, other ways I could make landscape pictures that would deepen the work and make a stronger connection between what we saw from above to areas we knew from the ground. That led me to how I am working now, photographing the same area from the air and from the ground. So far I’ve completed portfolios of photographs taken along Moshup Trail in Aquinnah and at Tom’s Neck on Chappaquiddick. Let me be clear: These photographs use the land as a kind of canvas to make my art, clear and simple. But they also display lands that are exquisite and surprising, for one way of photographing informs the other, the aerial in a manner not unlike mapping, and the ground-based pictures more interpretive and tailored in specific ways to make artistic statements.

I teach a class in Boston on “Creative Practice” at the Griffin Museum of Photography. In the class we spend time discussing concepts like idea generation, researching, project completion, and fulfillment. The Island is in the midst of large change. Its shores are being eroded, and the sea around its perimeter is rising; the number of year-round residents is increasing, and its historic industries of fishing and farming are giving way to acute catch quotas and new housing.

Finally and inevitably, my aerial pictures of the Vineyard are very much a product of the time in which they are made, a brief second on the clock of evolution that show us this Island we love in all its beauty, while at the same time drawing attention to its fragility and impermanence.

Neal Rantoul has taught at Harvard University and is the former chairman of the photography department at Northeastern University; he is a seasonal resident of Martha’s Vineyard. His aerial photographs can be seen at the Granary Gallery, and on his website,

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