In January 1990, Jim Wark flew his single-engine plane from his home in Pueblo, Colo., to Utah’s Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
The valley’s red sandstone buttes – as much a star in Westerns as Clint Eastwood – are iconic. But cruising overhead, Wark had a view of the landscape few had ever seen. There was Stagecoach Butte’s jagged crest, dusted with snow and cloaked in morning fog.
“It was the first time I thought I’d go specifically to take pictures,” says 80-year-old Wark, who has loved to fly since he became a Navy pilot in the 1950s. “The pictures I took on that trip were the best I took as a group ever. That’s what got me hooked on making a living on it.”
Once available only on Wark's website to buyers of stock photography, the image of Stagecoach Butte will now be one of 15 U.S. Postal Service stamps in a 2012 series called Earthscapes. The sheet of stamps, according to the Postal Service, is an homage to the “beauty and diversity of America’s landscape as seen from above.” The images were captured from aircraft or Earth-observing satellites. The series also includes Wark’s photos of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, commercial barges near Houston Ship Channel in Texas, skyscraper apartments in New York City and a railroad roundhouse in Scranton, Penn.
Wark retired as a director of mines for a steel company in 1984. A geologist and mine engineer by training, Wark combined his passion for landscapes with his love for flying after buying a single-engine Husky plane in 1988.
Since that first trip to Monument Valley, Wark has taken 16,000 published photos of landscapes and landmarks from the North Slope of Alaska to Nunavut, Canada, to Costa Rica to Grenada and all points in between. In addition to the stamp collection, Wark’s work will be featured in three books this fall, including “Leave No Trace: The Vanishing North American Wilderness,” which will be released on Sept. 13.
Wark has never been a serious stamp collector, only stashing ones that caught his fancy into an envelope over the years. But he’s looking forward to the 2012 release of the Earthscapes series. “I’ll buy up a lifetime as soon as I can get them.”
Q: Why aerial photographs?
A: The big love of my life is airplanes. I was a Navy pilot and before the Husky I had aerobatic airplanes, I did airshows on the side. I had a bad air show experience, so I bought the Husky to go camping in Alaska. I went to go pick it up in Oregon and flew it home; I could just tell it was made for taking pictures. Between 1988 and 1990 I played around and sold a few [photos] locally, but it was that trip in January 1990 that convinced me I could take pictures that were good enough to sell.
Q: Explain how you photograph while flying.
A: The airplane is a very stable photo platform. It’s the perfect platform for aerial photography of this kind. You’re flying slow, usually you’re flying low. The most common altitude is 1,500 feet and the lowest altitude is 500 feet. The highest is about 3,000 feet. There’s no autopilot, it doesn’t need it. You have your feet on the rudders – you can steer it with the rudders. If it’s rough, you might have to grab the stick for a few seconds to steady it. It sounds difficult, but it’s not.
The door is a clamshell type, 3 feet by 4 feet. You’ve got a wonderful window to shoot out of. It’s real cold in the winter, especially flying in the Rockies. But you’re not thinking about anything but taking the pictures and flying in the airplane. The longest you can stay up in the air is 10 hours, and that sounds like a lot of time, but in this occupation it’s not. There’s something interesting going on under your wing all the time.
Q: Is it true that you camp in your plane while on trips to remote wilderness areas?
A. I [once] lived out of the airplane three to five weeks at a time every other month. When I say camp, I literally mean it. When I couldn’t camp some place like a bush strip of farmer’s field, I’d call ahead and ask a regional airport to leave the lights on. It’s just to be with the airplane, with the equipment and have some place with a table and plan the next day’s flight. Sometimes you just sleep in the plane, sitting up.
Q: How do you decide what landscape or landmark to photograph next?
A: I go where the weather and the pictures take me. I don’t do a lot of research for trips. It’s like I wanted to shoot polar bears so we went to Hudson Bay and got some good iceberg pictures. I love the Canadian Maritimes. Lake Superior is another of my absolute favorite destinations. Alaska is just incredible – you can’t cover it; you could spend a lifetime up there. It’s so vast, it’s always changing. Even the same places look different; of course, it depends on the season.
Q: Tell us the story behind your photo of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.
A: That’s an iconic image and it’s been photographed many times. That was taken about 1992. It’s what I call a bomb-sight view, or view looking straight down. It’s taken at 2,000 feet, which is the requested minimum over Yellowstone. It’s taken with a long lens, or telephoto lens. The spring is very graphic, it makes a great image. It’s so special.
Q: Do you visit these destinations on the ground?
A: I haven’t hiked Yellowstone, but I’ve driven through it. There are landing strips in these places, not in the parks themselves, but close by. You can hike around them, but they’re not connected to any roads. They were put in by uranium exploration in the 1950s. Some are still usable. My favorite is the Dirty Devil. It’s on the Dirty Devil River, about 30 miles north of Lake Powell [on the border of Utah and Arizona]. You can only fly in there in a real small bush-type airplane. I’ll go there and camp and sleep under the stars.
Q: A lot of your work has been done in the American West. What is it about that landscape that’s appealing?
A: For one thing, it’s close. The exposed geology in southern Utah is second to none. There are features like the Canyonlands [National Park] and the Waterpocket Fold, which is part of Capitol Reef National Park. It’s an incredible piece of geology. The Monument uplift also occupies a large part of extreme southeastern Utah. It’s very colorful, like a bunch of colored Chevron Rocks, which are monumental in scale. Waterpocket Fold is harder to describe. There’s lots of rocks standing on end, but it’s very unique. I don’t know another place like it.
Q: What’s the most unusual or unexpected thing you’ve seen while up in the air?
A: I was run out of camp in Alaska by a bear and decided after about three weeks that is was time to leave Alaska anyway. I normally don’t fly over mountains at night, but I was anxious to get out of Dodge. I was between Skagway, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Canada, and there was a midnight sunset. It was a very narrow focused beam shining out of the mountain. It’s a horizontal beam of light. It’s my signature image.
In Wyoming in 1991, I had an engine failure in the clouds and the clouds went to the ground and I descended to 7,000 feet expecting to hit a mountain. I ended up breaking out of the overcast at 300 feet, perfectly aligned with a county road. A state patrolman was there looking for a downed airplane. I had phoned in a mayday. That was in the days before GPS so you didn’t know exactly where you were. It was a miracle. I don’t believe in God-given miracles, but it was like winning life’s lottery. In fact, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I broke out of the clouds.
Updated : 09-09-2011 17:25:25
Source : www.msnbc.msn.com