Cameron Davidson: Alone in an Overwhelming Landscape

An Interview with the Photographer

Flower Farm, Florida, USA, Photography by Cameron Davidson

The life of Cameron Davidson life seems to have been lifted straight from pages of Richard Bach’s fabled novella, Jonathon Livingstone Seagull. ‘“To begin with,” he said heavily, “you’ve got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself.”’

In quest of that perfect aerial shot, Cameron Davidson frequently flies in a single-engine VFR or Cessna 172 / 152. These flights give him a vantage point that not many are privileged to gain. This has led him to uncover many instances of a fragile ecosystem. His works on the Great Mississippi River flood or, more recently, in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake are striking examples of that.

‘Chesapeake: The Aerial Photography of Cameron Davidson’ is an emotional interlace of Cameron Davidson’s two-decade-long affair with the Chesapeake Bay. Read the full interview to understand and gain that added perspective that Cameron has been so kind to share here with our readers.

Growing up what were the influences that contributed to the making of Cameron Davidson?

I was raised in a rural area of Michigan and also in Virginia near Washington DC. Both areas and people had a huge influence on me. As a teenager in Michigan, I would tromp through the woods in the winter and explore at will. Near DC, I was exposed to incredible museums. I was influenced by both.

How did you acquire this artistic bend of mind that prompted your experimentation and lifelong tryst with photography?

I started taking pictures when I was 14. I found a camera in the closet and a photographer friend of the family guided me and encouraged me for the first few months of my passion for creating images. I can look at images I shot as a kid and still see the angular lines in my current photographs. Maybe it all goes back to my drafting classes in high school and the need to create symmetry out of chaos.

Wrangel Island, Russian Arctic for Islands Magazine, Photography by Cameron Davidson
Wrangel Island, Russian Arctic for Islands Magazine

Tell us how your journeys into some of the desolate places help in satisfying your curiosity along with fulfilling your creative urge through photography.

I love being alone in an overwhelming landscape. 10 years ago, Islands Magazine sent me to the high Russian Arctic to photograph Wrangel Island. Wrangel Island sits along the Arctic Circle and is usually enshrouded in ice. I was able to fly over the island on a scouting trip as a passenger in a Soviet-era MI-8 helicopter. I loved shooting this barren arctic landscape and to share my views of an island that many people will never get an opportunity to visit. I am always curious about the land and how mankind has changed and modified it. Good or bad, it is exciting and interesting to me.

How these rare insights help you in gaining fresh perspectives as an artist and as a human being?

I’m not sure they do. I always research my projects in depth. I try to approach them full of curiosity and wonder. I make long shoot lists to make sure the client is covered. However, I always prepare to be lucky, to see targets of opportunity and to present a new vision to my client or for a personal project. As an artist, I try to push myself and create new work. As a commercial photographer, I have to bring home the bacon for my client and then add something extra to the mix.

You have been a witness to the horrific natural disasters in Port au Prince, Haiti, the Great Mississippi River flood, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and presented the plight of both nature and man ‘unedited’ to the audience. From the emotional point of view, how difficult are these assignments?

Most of the time you are trying to keep the emotions at bay; to stay calm and focused. If I let the horror get to me, then I can’t do my job of showing the world what has happened. The only time it got me was on assignment for National Geographic shooting the Great Mississippi River flood in 1993. the first day out, I flew eight hours along the Mississippi River in a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. The river was overflowing many levees and was at one point over ten miles wide. I saw many farms and homes washed away. What got to me was the cattle and tree trying to swim to safety. The work is never unedited. I am too close to the images to be able to clearly put the images in order. The unsung heroes are the photography editors who work their way through the ‘takes’ from a shoot and create a solid vision to show to the editors of a magazine. You don’t do this work alone, it is very much of a team effort with a lot of support on the back end.

The earthquake in Haiti I shot for myself. From 1999 to 2011, I was on the board of a medical NGO focused on Haiti. I shot in Haiti fairly often mostly medical images and mission work with children. When the earthquake struck, I was able to catch a ride on a private jet to Port au Prince. My goal was to shoot the NGO doctors working in Port au Prince and Jacmel plus get up into the air. I tried for a week to bring a helicopter in from the Turks and Caicos or from the Dominican Republic. I was unable to and left without shooting aerials. I returned a few weeks later and on my last day, I was able to fly in a Robinson R-44 with a pilot from Germany. It costs me an arm and a leg but it was worth it. There are very few helicopters in Haiti and all of them were tasked with medical missions. The earthquake destroyed most of the city and I felt it was important to show these images to the world.

Mississippi River Flood for National Geographic, Photography by Cameron Davidson
Mississippi River Flood for National Geographic

According to you, in the face of such death and devastation what is the single most humane quality that endures?

People jump in and help. During the Haitian Earthquake relief efforts, I met doctors, nurses, engineers, carpenters from around the world who flew to Haiti at their own expense to help in any way possible. I remember the first night in Haiti, we had Doctors who had not slept in two days and they hit the ground running as soon as they landed at 3 in the morning. One doctor, a world-renowned Russian who specializes in crush surgery (amputations and people involved in industrial accidents or bombings) started performing surgeries within an hour of landing in Port au Prince at the University of Miami field hospital. Within a day, the U.S. Navy flew him to the USS Hope where he worked for ten days straight.

Since, it is through your eyes that the rest of the world witnesses the enormity of loss in the affected area, how significant your role as a storyteller becomes?

I think it is important to bring compassion but also a cold eye to a natural disaster. It is critical that you do not allow yourself to become overwhelmed by the emotions, you feel the pain, but you put it aside so you can do your work.

It is also important to show these stories from a fresh perspective because the world is overrun with images via social media and the constant bombardment from the 24-hour news cycle that equates every event as the worst ever. You have to keep perspective and be compassionate with the people affected, to tell their story as you see it.

Wildfire along the Snake River of Idaho, USA for National Geographic, Photography by Cameron Davidson
Wildfire along the Snake River of Idaho, USA for National Geographic

You have visited and revisited the Chesapeake Bay many times and for the greater part of last decade, it has been the location for the development of a project very close to your heart. That you have become so one with the place over the years what ‘dialogue’ the two of you have each time you visit your friend?

The bay is the bay. It is the largest estuary in North America. It is far larger and much more fragile than most people realize. It is hurting, primarily from farm run−off and over−population within the watershed. I am never bored when I shoot the bay, even if it is a place I’ve visited and shot many times before. The light is incredible when a good clean high-pressure system barrels down from Canada or it can be hazy and soft when a Bermuda high sits over the area. In the winter it can be dreary grey that allows colours to show through that are often overwhelmed in a spectacular light.

Ice and Snow on the Patuxent River of Maryland, Photography by Cameron Davidson
Ice and Snow on the Patuxent River of Maryland

From your point of view, through ‘aerial photography’ what added dimension do you manage to bring that otherwise would have been hidden from sight?

It is a perspective rarely seen by most people. I love sharing that view. In the air, you see how the land is managed, changed and damaged by humankind. I can also show incredibly pristine areas that deserve to be protected.

What are the challenges that you frequently encounter while photographing topography from up above?

Weather. Bad weather combined with more bad weather. I fly with a select group of pilots who know how to fly for the camera. I tend to fly in turbine helicopters with high−time pilots. Occasionally, you run into overzealous air traffic controllers near cities but most aviation professionals are, well, professional.

Is there any specific experience that stands out in memory among all your sojourns?

There have been so many great shots. H.J. Heinz sent me on a circumnavigation of the earth to photograph their facilities. I spent an incredible morning photographing Mount Cook in New Zealand. It had been encircled with clouds for weeks and on the day we shot, it was bathed in clean, crisp, early morning sunlight. I remember shooting aerials of Palouse in 1989 during the wheat harvest. I had an incredible pilot and the images still look fresh. The last shoot for the Chesapeake book was special. Dave Hynes, the pilot who flew me for part of the project got me into some incredible positions where I could show how man’s interaction with landscape permanently changed the Chesapeake.

The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA, Photography by Cameron Davidson
The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

I understand you love playing the guitar during your free time. How does your love of music inspire and influence the visual lyricism of your photography?

I know many photographers who are also musicians. I can name about twenty off of the top of my head. I don’t play as much as I want to. At times in my life, I played every day. Now it is more of a luxury.

Do you have any particular favourite both in terms of genre and musician?

I do. For Bluegrass players I am lucky to count as them as friends: Wayne Henderson is one of the finest luthiers in the United States and an incredible guitarist. I once took a lesson from Wayne and he left me in the dust. I also like the finger style playing of Gerald Anderson, luthier and guitarist who is also a friend. Bluegrass Mandolin player Spencer Strickland is someone I’ve known for a while and photographed many times. He is an amazing Mandolin player. In the rock world, I have always loved the melodic playing of German Guitar God Michael Schenker plus of course, the Godfather of Heavy Metal himself, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. I’ve become friend with Wolf Hoffmann, the mastermind behind the German Metal Band Accept. But I met Wolf through another photographer friend, (Mark Tucker) and I think of Wolf as much as a photographer as a musician. In the Classical world, I have always enjoyed the playing of John Williams and Christopher Parkening. There is a singer who crosses over from Classical to Rock and then back that I like quite a bit. Her name is Tarja Turunen, she is Finnish and formerly fronted the Finnish Symphonic Metal band Nightwish. I actually prefer her religious and classical material more than her rock songs. But what a voice!

Portrait photography also happens to be your forté. How do you make your camera capture the thoughts of the subject hidden beneath the exterior?

Boy, would I be lucky if I could do that all the time! In portraits, you are allowed a glimpse of who the person is if you are lucky. For me, portraits are the balance. I enjoy meeting the people I photograph. Sometimes, it is a rush and you hope for the best. Most shoots allow you the time to plan and research. My goal is to understand the person and come away with an image that allows the viewer to get a sense of who this person is and what they represent.

On one hand, you reveal the characters of land through nature photography and on the other you bring forth the soul of a person through portraiture – how as a visual storyteller do you juggle and play with these two themes?

I am a Gemini. I can never shoot just one type of subject. I would become bored with it if I did.

How the artist in Cameron Davidson has evolved over the years?

In the beginning, I was insecure and made some bad career and life decisions. I was unable to see the incredible opportunities presented to me. That changed about 20 years ago. I wised up and started to understand myself a bit. I loved the rush of aerial photography and the escapes from danger. I consider myself very lucky to not have been involved in any significant accidents or problems (knock on wood!). Nowadays, I am focused on what is truly important.

If you are to aerially photograph your life’s journey what picture would it reveal?

A messy edge with hints of organisation to a clean and clear landscape that is centred.

Portrait of Cameron Davidson

Cameron Davidson

A relationship that started several years ago with an accidental discovery of a post−WWII Agfa camera in a closet still continues strongly and now boasts of a client list consisting of Vanity Fair, Departures, ESPN, Audubon, Wired, Smithsonian, Field and Stream, Preservation, National Geographic, Air and Space and more. Like Tarja Turunen, one of his favourite musician and vocal artist, Cameron’s own life croons, ‘Dream against the flow / Let your garden grow / Overland and water…’

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Cameron Davidson