Flying Above Colorado, Photographer Has 'Rare Perspective'

Sep 29, 2013
Originally published on September 29, 2013 12:15 pm

John Wark has had an unusual view of his home state of Colorado. He's a freelance photojournalist who pilots his own plane above the landscape, making pictures of flames and floods, farms and cities as he goes.

When he takes flight, he's usually not on a specific assignment, and when he went up to take a look at the Waldo Canyon fire in June, it wasn't yet a big deal. "I don't think anybody knew that was going to be a disaster," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "They just thought it was a bad fire."

But once he got above the flames, Wark knew he was onto a major story. "I saw this massive ... cloud of smoke, and I thought, something's very big here," he says. He was losing light, so he didn't stay up long, but he returned to the fire the next morning.

"I couldn't believe it," Wark remembers. "I was looking at entire blocks of houses burned." When he returned home to Pueblo to review his shots, he counted hundreds of houses ruined by the flames.

Wark's an experienced back country pilot, and he says it's not too difficult to fly a plane and take pictures at the same time. He gets his plane where he wants it, then picks up his camera and shoots. "It isn't like driving a car where you have to keep your eye on the road."

The distance Wark has from his subjects gives him what he calls a "rare perspective." He remembers flying over the South Platte River during the flooding in Greeley, Colo. Flying low, he saw fences and roads... and then, "a tractor in the middle of a pond, which used to be a field, and now it's a lake. Those are not views you can see from the ground ... so they're curious."

And that distance also changes the experience for the photographer. "That's a strange, somewhat surreal sensation you get," says Wark. "I could be 500 feet away, and yet, a world away."

During the flood, he saw people stranded on a road as waters churned on all sides. "I was able to just fly over, look at it, be there with them, but then leave."

You can see more of John Wark's work on his website.

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John Wark has an unusual perspective on the recent fires in Colorado. He's a photojournalist who pilots his own plane - a Husky A-1. He flies above flames, floods, cities and farms, snapping photos as he goes. He joins us now from member station KRCC in Colorado Springs. Mr. Wark, thanks so much for talking with us.

JOHN WARK: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you. It's a joy.

MARTIN: So, when you take off on one of these flights, what are you trying to capture when you head out? What are you looking for?

WARK: Well, you don't know what you're looking for when you head out and sometimes you don't even know if there's any reason to head out. A lot of the pictures that I took of the fires in Colorado started, you know, a little bit before they were news stories because I just knew they were burning and I wanted to go look at them. So, you go up there.

And in the case of the first fire in Colorado that did a lot of devastation, which was the Waldo Canyon Fire, I don't think anybody knew that was going to be a disaster; they just thought it was a bad fire. I went up about 6 o'clock in the evening and it was not a big deal then. It was barely a news story. When I was up, I saw this massive cloud - I mean cloud of smoke, not a sky cloud - and I thought something's very big here. I took the pictures. And the sun was going down, so I didn't stick around too long. I went back up the next morning and I couldn't believe it. I mean, I was looking at entire blocks of houses burned. So, I went back to Pueblo where I live, looked at the chip - 'cause we shoot digitally, of course - and I started counting, and there were hundreds of houses.

MARTIN: Are there more mundane photos that you have captured, moments that you have been able to seize with your camera because of the distance that you have?

WARK: The fun thing about flying around the way I do is that it's a rare perspective, because people fly on airlines and they get to look at the earth from above. But the airliners take off, they climb rapidly then they're way up there. One of the things that general aviation pilots do is they, you know, get to fly where they want to go and what altitude they want within, you know, restrictions of the rules. And you really get to see the Earth in ways that it's kind of special and it allows us as photographers - if we're an aerial photographer - to take pictures of the Earth that people don't often see.

So, a lot of the images are just interesting because of that. I mean, certainly, it can be a picture so mundane that it's just boring. But, you know, if we're talking about just in the disaster realm, with the flooding, say, in Greeley, I would be flying low over the South Platt River looking at everything from fences to roads to all of a sudden seeing a tractor, say, in the middle of a pond, which used to be a field, and now it's a lake. So, you know, those are not views you can see from the ground. They're not views that you normally see as a person, so they're curious.

MARTIN: How do you fly a plane and take pictures at the same time?

WARK: Flying a plane doesn't actually require that much work once you're flying. You know, taking off, landing, there's a workload. But once you're up there, you're not on a road. Because I do fly in the mountains - I'm a backcountry pilot - I have a good situational awareness about, you know, where the airplane is. So, when I'm flying kind of low to the ground and taking pictures, I can maneuver the airplane to where I need it to be. And then when I'm ready to take the picture, all I have to do is pick up the camera and take the picture. So, it isn't like driving a car where you have to, you know, keep your eye on the road.

MARTIN: How does that distance change the experience for you as the photographer documenting these disasters?

WARK: That's a strange, somewhat surreal sensation you get, because I could be 500 feet away and yet a world away. In some of those flood pictures, for instance, there were people stranded on the road and they were just standing around watching the water go by. And I was able to just fly over, look at it, be there with them but then leave.

MARTIN: John Wark is an aerial photographer in Colorado. You could see the images we just talked about and a couple more at our website, John, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

WARK: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thank you.


MARTIN: On a Sunday morning, you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.