In the 1980s, photographer John Crawford spent hours in a helicopter, capturing naked bodies from hundreds of feet away.
Between 1981 and 1986, photographer John Crawford shot a series of 18 images from a helicopter positioned hundreds of feet above the ground.
No, he wasn’t after awe-inspiring atmospheric landscapes. Not exactly. He was working on a project he calls “Aerial Nudes.” It is precisely what it sounds like — a collection of mesmerizing photographs that capture a single nude body, laid out amongst parked cars, grazing cows, stacked lumber and beached kayaks, from a bird’s-eye view.
“Basically my main motivation [for the series] was seeing the landscape from a bird’s-eye perspective,” Australia-based artist Crawford explained to The Huffington Post. He’d spend hours in helicopters flying from shoot to shoot while working, during which the vibrations and rotor noise would send him into a trance. “Looking vertically straight down from a helicopter, everything is a completely flat plane without the distraction of any horizon lines, where shapes and patterns become abstract forms.”
During this time, he says, he began wondering what it would like if a naked body appeared next to the stretches of train tracks and fields he observed. “I could look directly down through the [helicopter’s] clear Perspex floor,” he added. “From this viewpoint — and that state of mind — all shapes and patterns in the landscape immediately become very linear, clean and strikingly abstract … Sometimes all sense of scale was lost, and the thought came to me to plop a strategically placed nude in any of these graphic pieces of landscape and, bingo, there is the reference point for scale.”
It wasn’t long until this unusual kind of curiosity turned to action, thanks to his nude model of choice — his wife, Carina — and a willing pilot friend with a penchant for experimental maneuvers (he once serenaded Crawford at 7,000 feet, bellowing a high falsetto opera while demonstrating “perilous” helicopter moves).
Crawford shot the resulting series on color negative film, with all of the images constructed in-camera — that is, with no Photoshop manipulation. “I didn’t know what a computer was,” the photographer confessed. He’d plan the photos in advance, scouting locations across New Plymouth, Taranaki, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, from a fixed-wing plane. During his scouts, he’d take reference pictures, placing stick figures in the landscapes where Carina would eventually position herself.
“Some shots had an added bonus of the unexpected,” he said, for example when “the cows appeared from nowhere, as if on cue” in one photo. The biggest satisfaction for Crawford was creating these seemingly impossible images. “Each image has its own funny story,” he concluded. “People still ask me, ‘How the fuck did you get that train to stop, Johnnie?’ Easy answer … Lay your wife naked on the railway lines and the train will stop!”
Today, Crawford lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and continues to work on various nude projects. His work predates many contemporary aerial nude projects from artists like Ruben Brulat and Renee Cox. For more on Crawford’s work, check out his website.