Land Beyond The Water

From the sky, we see a coastal landscape preserved by nature. It has mostly rebuffed the advances of human settlement, except for those of the original inhabitants, the natives who took care to make small footprints.

Aerial photographer Peter Stern takes flight and returns with photographs shot from a unique perspective, achieved by making risky solo missions with a small ultra-light aircraft.

His most recent exhibition, Land Beyond The Water, now showing at the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College, is an extensive collection of images captured in mid-winter during a two-day exploration of the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Curator Laura Amussen selected Peter Stern for a solo exhibition in part because his photographs capture the beauty of nature, and facilitate a dialogue about environmental preservation.

“I was even more impressed when I learned that he was both pilot and photographer,” says Amussen. “I was immediately drawn to his aerial photographs of complex landforms, and was particularly impressed by his keen eye for texture, pattern, and color.”

In the wetlands, the nearest house might be fifteen miles away. Vegetation follows elevation, distinctive shrubs and bushes lead down to the marsh, layers of peat adorned with sawgrass create natural boundaries and compositions that can be seen from aloft.

“It was a year ago, December, 2014,” Stern recalls. “These two days were incredible, in the mid-50s, crystal clear, no wind at all, just magical.”

“The image of the Fukuryu Luckdragon to me is symbolic of the whole two days,” says Stern. “Like a miracle coming together, conditions this good, a lack of wind, clear and warm. I would love to be able to go out more frequently and do it again. But depending on the weather and other factors, it might be three or four months before my next flight.”

The exhibition consists of twenty-two photographs Stern selected from six hundred he shot over the course of those two days.

“What’s amazing is, not only were these all taken within a sixteen-hour period, but also in a fifty-square-mile area, and yet you get all these different colors, and an incredible variety of textures, all from the interaction between land and water.”

Stern has explored numerous regions with his unique approach; find more photos on his website.

The plane is an experimental two-place, high-wing ‘pusher,’ with an 80-horsepower, four-stroke engine. The propeller is in the back, which provides unobstructed visibility in the front; the pilot sits in a Plexiglas bubble.

On the left side, Stern installed a sliding window so that he can hold his camera (an “indestructible” 13.6 megapixel Nikon D300 DSLR with a Zeiss 25mm lens) out the window and shoot.

“I’m holding the camera outside the window, I don’t use a camera mounted in the plane because I make such subtle adjustments in the composition. Even if the camera were mounted on gimbals in the plane it would throw me off. I’d be orienting myself horizontally to fly the plane and looking down to shoot. Holding the camera out the window and shooting this way orients me to the landscape.”

“I’ll often fly down in a slow circle,” says Stern, “descending fifty feet a minute and taking pictures, and then I’ll get that one that really comes out right. Flying the plane is part of the process of making the image. As I’m looking at the landscape go by, I’m composing and shooting and orienting myself as I fly.”

Flying along at eighty miles an hour, the photographer/pilot does not have much time to study the composition of the landscape. He steers the plane, gaining or losing altitude as certain distinctive features and contrasts draw him in.

His only constraints are fuel, time and geography; his GPS path is a meandering series of exploratory loops.

“The opportunities to capture these shots come and go very quickly. That’s when I get into my artist’s groove, when things happen and I’m not thinking about anything else.”

“In some areas there is very little human habitation,” he continues. “In other places you’ll see some sculpted lawns with piers and architectural features, but it’s still so rugged and primal.”

“Because of wind and weather you’ll often see that Nature has reclaimed developed waterfront properties and returned the landscape to its natural state. The changing climate may not be affecting most cities yet, but in these coastal areas Nature takes its course, untamed.”

“I’ve been drawn to Matomkin Island just north of Cedar Island. They used to have dozens of properties on them, in fact Cedar Island had hundreds. They kept building, the houses got washed away, and they kept rebuilding; according to developers it was going to be like the new Atlantic City of the Virginia coast.”

“They sold hundreds of properties over the years, but the dune did what it does, it recedes, moves and shifts; the houses got wiped out. They still built some of them back!”

“Then, a year ago last summer, I went on a boat out there with my buddy, fishing, and there was just one abandoned house left up on stilts. I flew back over six months later, and even that was gone; the last trace of habitation. The power of Nature had overcome all these attempts to turn it into a recreation area.”

“Now the property lines from those coastal developments are underwater, a quarter-mile out. People were actually liable for property taxes on these parcels of land they purchased, that are now literally under water.”

“I generally fly at an altitude of about four hundred to eight hundred feet,” says Stern. “You like to fly where you have enough room to glide in for a landing, in case your engine goes out. I’m the one responsible for making sure my engine is maintained, but once you get out there you are miles from anywhere, if I have a problem, at that point I am down in the marsh.”

Chesapeake Map
Chesapeake Map

Does the plane have an emergency locator beacon?

He laughs. “Well I do, I have a spot locator. But I forgot to bring it that day.”

In preparation for his adventures, Stern has to have the plane working properly and take care of any mechanical issues, and he has to be mentally, physically and emotionally prepared.

“I wouldn’t take anyone out with me on these flights,” he says, “because it’s dangerous, and if I went down in the marsh, well, I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through that for me to get a picture.”

“Plus, having somebody sitting next to me in the plane, that would be kind of like painting with someone else holding the brush.”

Peter Stern: Land Beyond The Water is free and open to the public, through Friday, January 22; the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College is open 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday.