Fran Gormley is a New York City-based photographer who is fascinated by the dreamlike nature of aerial photography. Her work transforms natural landscapes into otherworldly abstract pictures printed in large format. Her latest solo show at the Chase Edwards Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York, which comes with a 125-photo book, is proof of this obsession–an obsession made notably strange by the fact that she is terrified of heights.
I spoke with Gormley via email about her process and experiences taking photos from thousands of feet in the air. Gormley–who spent her childhood on welfare, won scholarships for college, and built a successful advertising career before dedicating herself to her true passion–started her photography career in 2006, with her first aerial shoot in the Camargue, a region in the southeast of France, flying on a helicopter over the Rhône delta. Since then, she says, she has been “fascinated with the unusual perspective an aerial vantage point provides.”
The photos in her new show were taken over a period of nine years, flying on a helicopter over landscapes in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and Iceland. Gormley tells me that she prepared each shot by interviewing pilots, other photographers, and adventure travel experts to learn about unique landscapes. “I also do a lot of online research although ultimately you have to take a leap of faith,” she tells me, “[but] some of my favorite images were taken when I was on my way to a planned location and noticed a very intriguing landscape along the way.”
One problem: Gormley hates flying. She says she suffers from an extreme fear of heights. Not only that, but she tells me she also experiences severe motion sickness. When she’s taking photographs from a helicopter, she wears a harness so she dangles out the side of the aircraft. “I hate the inherent danger of trusting my life to a single-engine helicopter or plane,” she tells me. “And yet, I’ve hung out of planes and helicopters in some of the most remote corners of the world with nothing between me and the ground below, but a harness and a camera.”
But in the end, the thrill of turning an exotic terrain into abstract art trumps her fears.
“My favorite experience was in the Rift Valley in Kenya,” she says, “[where there] are so many breathtakingly beautiful lakes lining the valley that I could shoot there for days.” One of those lakes–Lake Turkana, a UNESCO world heritage site–especially struck her. At risk of disappearing thanks to a new dam, the lake had gorgeous reds, blues, and greens, with a striking multicolored shoreline due to the presence of different salts and microscopic marine life. “I’ve never seen a kaleidoscopic lake like this one,” she tells me, “the image on the cover of my new book [above] was taken there.”
Sometimes things get breathtaking in a literal way. When she shot in the Danakil Depression in northern Ethiopia, one of the hottest places in the world with temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, opening the door of the helicopter was a suffocating experience, with the sulfur gas from the springs in the lake filling her lungs. However, “the second I started shooting,” she says, “nothing else mattered but capturing the colors, textures, light, and patterns in this alien landscape.”
Above Palette Earth will open at Chase Edwards Gallery in June 30. Her hardcover coffee-table book published by Greenwich Literary Group, containing 125 full color images, will be available on the same day. You can buy it here.