We met up with internationally recognized fine art photographer Andrew Moore to discuss his current project, Dirt Meridian. For the past 8 years, Andrew has had an annual trip to the Northern Great Plains of the US, photographing the land and the people that inhabit it. The work so far has been featured by the New York Times and exhibited at the Yancey Gallery in Manhattan.
Andrew shot a large part of the collection with a Phase One camera system mounted to the side of an airplane. We thought this was a great opportunity to ask Andrew about this project and got the details behind the setup.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and the idea behind this project?
I’ve been a large format photographer for more than 35 years and was shooting film exclusively up until 2013, when I started using the Phase One IQ180. My current project, Dirt Meridian, began in 2005 when I visited a cattle-branding farm in North Dakota. I was completely taken by the vast landscapes of the Northern Great Plains of America, but understanding how to capture that sense of open space took me eight long years to figure out. The real clue was that the history of the country could be told through the landscape itself rather than focusing on the particular lifestyle of the people who live there. Another important factor in pushing ahead with the project was meeting Doug Dean, a highly experienced bush pilot from Western Nebraska. Doug brought both his knowledge of the land and his astonishing abilities as a pilot to the overall work. Without a doubt this project is a true collaboration with Doug, as there is no way I could have hired just any plane or pilot to make the pictures we have created together
What was the setup for capturing the Dirt Meridian?
We attached an IQ180 digital back and a Mamiya 645DF body to the strut of the airplane so we could achieve an unimpeded view of the landscape (as opposed to the traditional light aircraft photography where one shoots out of a window). We tinkered for almost a year to get the equipment to work together. The gimbal system was made by Servo City, and the actual attachment to the strut was custom build by the CAPE Lab, in Rapid City, SD.
We also placed a lipstick video camera on the rig to give us a continuous live feed of the camera’s point of view. The plane itself is a 1973 Cessna 180, the Corvette of tail-draggers, and the 36” tundra tires allows us to land practically anywhere we choose out there on the Plains. . We chose a small plane over a helicopter due to costs and the long range a plane can cover, this made it possible to visit very remote locations.
As for the camera system, why did you choose the setup you did?
I chose the IQ180 because I wanted to make large prints (50”x60”) and there would be no possibility of stitching files together in post-production, mainly because even the slowest speeds of the plane were about 70mph. It was a real trick to balance the exposure, f-stop, and ISO since I obviously didn’t want to use sensor plus settings, and most of the time I had to keep the shutter speed above 1/800th.
I shot with two prime lenses, the 80mm and the 55mm. The 80mm was tack sharp, even nearly wide open, and my lens of choice in most situations. Wide-angle lenses like the 55mm are known for being difficult to focus at the edges, but I stopped down past f/11 to ensure edge-to-edge sharpness. Additionally, the 55mm lens field of view was challenging, as it required the plane to fly dangerously low to achieve the kind of framing I was after and cropping the image would again defeat the purpose of shooting with the IQ180.
The biggest problem of all, however, was finding the sweet spot of the hyper-focal distance, as we had to tape down the focus on the lens before taking off.
I learned quickly that there are all sorts of “infinity”. My first attempt from the plane yielded pictures that were sharp ten miles away, while subjects at 100 yards were out of focus.
How did you balance the high shutter speed for aerial photography with the need for depth of field or loss of detail at high ISO?
Although originally I decided not to go above 200 ISO, eventually it became apparent that correct exposure was better than low ISO. So I ended up using ISO 400 in certain situations and dealt with the extra bit of noise later.
What role did the weather play? Threatening weather is often great for photography, but doesn’t make for the steady, trouble-free flying that you required.
The weather out West was a huge factor. We often had to fly through rain, hale, and lightning. Winds sometimes exceeded 50mph. We even made an emergency landing in a muddy field that completely soaked the camera back and body. I was amazed that the back never malfunctioned in all those conditions. But it was very exciting to shoot from the air in stormy weather, as the light could be so dramatic and varied across the horizon. I guess I preferred to get the shot first and then worry about the equipment later.
What’s next? Will you keep photographing the Dirt Meridian?
I plan to photograph along the 100th Meridian, both from the air and on the ground in the coming year with the goal of making a book in the summer of 2015. This would be produced in conjunction with an exhibition of the project at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha Nebraska. I’ve also got plans to bring the plane to the American South later this year, although I’m afraid we won’t have the same freedom to fly wherever we’d like, as we do out in Nebraska and other parts of the Northern Great Plains.