The world is reeling from the sudden and unexpected loss this weekend, of one of our greatest aerial landscape photographers in a tragic crash in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. The details are still uncertain, but we know that he died doing what he loved and at the peak of his career, a hero to the many who knew him and admire his remarkably impressive body of work.
When people say Paul van Schalkwyk’s landscape photography is out of this world there are some very good reasons for that. It’s because more often than not, his shutter clicked when he was hanging out of an open aeroplane doorway with nothing between him and the world’s wildest and oldest desert landscapes but his Hasselblad and Nikon and the open sky.
Yes, van Schalkwyk listed his planes amongst his photographic equipment. The other reason of course, is the fact that his images are outstanding and will live on to tell the story of the ever-changing grandeur of the Namibian wilds. It is an important story, and one that will be shared with global leaders in the field of Environment and Development this year, at the UN conference in Sydney, Australia and with millions of people worldwide.
These graphic aerial photographs of Namibian wilderness landscapes are making waves, some of Paul van Schalkwyk’s fine art aerial photographs have been shortlisted in the prestigious Sony World Photography Competition 2014. Just days before his accident we asked him how he felt about this achievement and he said “From what I understand there were almost 70,000 entries from 166 countries, so of course I am very happy to think that my images have been noticed amongst such stiff competition. I am amazed almost on a daily basis by the creativity and quality of photographers around the globe and it gives me great satisfaction to be counted amongst the best.” You can see the cream of international contemporary photography exhibited at Somerset House in London this year from May 1st to the 18th.
When asked what equipment he favours to produce his art, Paul said “I am not a brand freak. I love cameras and lenses because of what they can do for me. I find that I tend to favor certain brands / models because they suit my style and process better than others might. Over the years I have invested hugely in Nikon lenses and cameras, Zeiss and Hasselblad. My current favorite is the Phase One with an IQ180 digital back. It creates magic that often surpasses my best expectations. Of course an essential part of my equipment has wings. I fly different types of ‘tail draggers’ as these airplanes enable me to land in rugged areas where other planes won’t make it. My current favorite is an Aircom, which was developed specifically for aerial photography by Phil Lockwood for National Geographic. Flying it has opened up a whole new dimension to my photography, which I am very excited about.”
Despite the obvious peril of stationing himself at the open door of his Maule M5 airplane trying to make photographic sense of the spectacular landscape below, Paul said, “I am not attempting to become the man who fell out of the sky, I am just doing what I feel compelled to do. That is to capture the spectacular beauty of the desert landscape in the arid parts of Namibia. It’s desolate, out of this world (it could as well be the surface of Mars), pristine and, from my lofty perch, abstract. Sometimes very abstract.”
About thirty years in the advertising world has developed Paul’s heightened sense and appreciation for graphic design. He told us “It gives me intense satisfaction to compose abstract and artistic pictures from the world below. My subject is the oldest desert in the world, where the age lines of our planet are often revealed below the shifting desert sands of the Namib.”
Paul says “The machine resting on the sand under the clear Namibian night sky is not a moon machine or a UFO. It is just my little aeroplane (Maule M5) which enables me to get a God’s eye view of unknown dramas unfolding in the desert.”
“As a photographer my favorite places are really anywhere in the desert. Life in the desert is so unique and different to other habitats around the world. In Namibia the desert extends to Etosha National Park, where wildlife images have such a different quality than for instance, the stereotypes of African game on the plains of East Africa.”
Paul’s path in photography started early, he says “I took my first photographs in 1962 on a Kodak Instamatic camera and since that day I have been trying without fail to become a good photographer. I hope I reach this goal before I lay my head down. It has become an all-consuming passion with complete satisfaction and utter disappointment intertwined.”
Paul explains how his passion and ability developed, “As a student I was lucky enough to find work in the film industry in order to pay for my studies. This allowed me to rub shoulders with the best and most talented cinematographers and photographers, as well as other creative talents of the time. In the process I learned more about photography than I realized.”
Then Paul Van Schalkwyk’s photography, quite literally took off! “About ten years ago I had the opportunity to combine my love for flying with my love for photography. I admired, and was influenced by, the great landscape photographers Ansel Adams et al, but swiftly my focus on aerial photography exposed me to the work of Yann Arthus -Bertrand, George Steinmetz and Michael Politzia. There aren’t that many aerial photographers around, and I consider my work to be in a special niche, calling it Fine Art Aerial Photography, if there is such a thing!”
We think there is now, and Paul Van Schalkwyk’s work has birthed the genre! We asked whether he had any favourite images? He said he had, but “the exciting thing about life as a photographer is that you grow to love certain images and just when you think it is going to be a life long relationship, an even more attractive image seduces you.”
“My intention isn’t to document landscapes from the air. I enjoy those landscapes that allow me to interpret structures and textures because I am constantly looking for unique and abstract compositions that would puzzle the viewer, but also please the eye. As a result I am probably drawn to arid landscapes more than any other.”
“There are two things I best like about my work as a photographer.” Paul said, “First, my particular style forces me to go out and brave the elements and seek out places where few have trodden before. The second part is the satisfaction of sharing the visual pleasure that I find with people who would never be so fortunate, or share the same privileges that I have, to get to the far off and desolate places.”
Paul often flew with his son, also a pilot, and his best friend who would do the flying while he focused purely on the photography. Paul told us “A major focus of my aerial photography is associated with climate change and weather phenomena in the desert. Because weather is unpredictable, I find more often than not that I am on my own and have to do the flying myself. It means I have to jump from being a creative photographer who wants to get the shot at all costs, to the discipline of a pilot, which is challenging and when done successfully, the rewards are even richer!”
Wildopeneye asked Paul how his work reflects his conservation interests and he answered “By sharing the beauty and magic of unspoilt places with people from around the globe I hope to develop and strengthen an understanding for the importance of preserving the last pristine landscapes that have been left untouched by so called development and human activity.”
One of Paul’s most unforgettable experiences was making a documentary film about a coalition of male lions in the Etosha National Park in Namibia. He followed them over a distance of 12,000 km for over two years. “In the process I became a human member of the coalition and it offered me a unique insight not only into lion life, but also the dynamics and rhythm of the natural world around us.”
“Climate change is a worldwide buzzword,” Paul says, “If and how it would ultimately affect the Namib desert is, as yet unknown. I have been documenting the dramatic metamorphoses of rain in the desert for almost a decade now. I have become a rain chaser. I watch the satellite pictures in the rainy season. When it looks as if rain clouds are building in the desert I get ready to fly off.
“When other pilots decide to stay that is when I dare to fly. I sleep under the wing where the darkness catches me. The Namib is a living desert. I share the wing space with adders, scorpions, spiders, lizards, mice and sometimes even desert lions.” At this point he laughs and denies being related to Chuck Norris.
Such expeditions must require considerable preparation, we ask him about this. He said, “It goes without saying that any serious photographer would look after his / her equipment and make sure that it is in good order and well protected. Personally I experience that research and good planning almost always culminate in a very satisfactory shoot. I also try and visualize and imagine the images I want to capture. Sometimes I even see them in my dreams before I get to photograph them. I learned this from a well-known painter friend and it seems to work very well.”
“I have built a unique body of work, of spectacular drama and magic which normally, the eye would never behold. Flying allows me to be there and to capture what would normally be the ‘unobservable’.”
“The desert is in constant motion. I am not only witnessing climate change, but also the slow march of the wandering dunes. They can move only a few centimeters or a few meters in a year. They also leave tracks. Often they appear like ghosts on the surface of the desolate gavel planes of the Skeleton Coast. It becomes an addiction; I am able to enter and traverse a spectacular world where I witness geological time. I can do this without leaving a mark that will spoil the untouched landscape – I am flying. My intrusions are limited to the the vibrations of my single engined plane – no damage done.”
“Often I do this for a few days at a time. There is a certain exhilaration and excitement in the thought that I am marooned in the desert. Following the unpredictable path of the unfolding weather prevents me from filing a flight plan. If something did happen to me, people would not know where to begin looking for me. There is unique comfort in the thought that there are still places on the planet where you can get lost. I hope that my photographs will make a strong case for Homo sapiens to preserve such places.
We think they do, Paul, God rest you.
All images featured above are copyright Paul van Schalkwyk Photography.