The Making of Flight Study

In this post I’m going to discuss the making of and the ideas behind my project Flight Study. The aim of the project was to explore my personal fascination with aviation and the act of flying. Beyond this, I wanted to explore the social history and subcultures that have arisen from aviation. There are two prominent and long-standing aviation hobbies in Dublin, with plane spotting taking place on the Old Airport Road and model flying in the Phoenix Park. Through photographing these hobbies I saw the human obsession with flight. I believe that the act of flying is a kind of performance that intrigues and captivates an audience.

The project started with a portrait of my dad holding a model plane he built when he was younger. I enjoyed the simplicity of the photograph. There is a deadpan manner to the pose, framing and facial expression that serves to highlight the relationship between the subject and their hobby. August Sander’s photographic practice was a reference point for my portraits. Sander photographed German society and the portraits clearly depict what job the person held. I wanted to achieve this with my project but instead of German society, I would show the subcultures of aviation in Ireland. I am aware of the similarities between my portrait and a portrait of Alec Soth’s in his project Sleeping By The Mississippi. This worried me at first but I came to realise it shouldn't be an issue. Our projects have different subject matter and intentions. I would also implement this photographic style across a number of portraits of people holding their model planes whereas his photograph is a single portrait in a body of work.

My dad told me there is an official area to fly the planes near the papal cross in the Phoenix park. The Leinster Model Flying Club has been flying here since 1972 but model flying in the Phoenix park goes way back to 1920. Here’s a video of it in 1939.

My approach to these shoots was to go out on Sunday mornings when they were most likely to be there and ask if I could take their portraits. There were three people there on the first day I went but several more trips to the park did not produce any photographs due to the bad weather. Two more shoots proved to be successful.

The history of aviation in Ireland was a key historical reference point. As an island on the edge of Europe, Ireland’s geography lends itself to many firsts in aviation including the first west to east transatlantic flight in 1919 and the first east to west transatlantic flight in 1928. Mythology was also a cultural reference point during the start of my project. Flight comes up in Irish mythology a number of times such as the story of Buile Shuibhne . There are also more popular myths from around the world such as Icarus. I did not know if I would visually tie mythology into the project but it provided me with an understanding of how far back the fascination with flight goes back in Ireland and around the world. In the end I did not visually incorporate mythology but I weaved the story of Icarus between the photographs in the book which gave it an overarching pace.

I looked at my own relationship to flight. One of the earliest memories I have of it is making paper planes and watching them fly across the room so I began to experiment with photographs of paper planes. This would come to form a conceptual strand to the project. I found paper planes the best way to represent my fascination with flight and that of others too. They are elegant and intriguing when photographed in mid air. They display how flight can be a performance and emphasize the ‘study’ in ‘Flight Study’ as they show how different design types create a different lift and move through the air. There is a traditional style of paper plane that I believe everyone knows how to make. This is where I started. From here I learned how to build different styles of paper planes to capture in the photographs.

I approached the plane spotter photographs in a similar way to the model plane photographs. Plane spotting takes place every day at a place called ‘the Mound’ on the Old Airport road but the best day for me to go was on Sundays when most people went. When I started the project it was difficult for me to ask strangers for portraits but I grew used to it. I had to accept that not everybody would say yes and that’s alright because there would always be somebody else to take a portrait of. There were times I had so many rejections I would walk away with one photograph after spending hours there. Not everybody said no and the majority of those who said yes were very enthusiastic about my project. They opened up to me about why they love coming to watch the planes. For some, they found enjoyment in recording aircraft details, for others it was a chance to meet with friends. I came across several trainee pilots who were fascinated with flight their whole lives, now living their dream of becoming a pilot.

I knew the project wouldn’t be complete without photographing an actual plane. I was lucky to be given access to the hangers in Weston Airport. I photographed here on two shoots. I found myself photographing details of aircraft and the hanger rather than simply showing the aircraft. There were repairs going on and I also photographed the details of this. These details link back to the paper airplane to form a theme of construction. The viewer is reminded that flight has only been achieved through centuries of experimentation.

There is a lot more I could write here but I’m not trying to get into the nitty-gritty bits. I just wanted to share more that couldn’t fit into a short project description. Maybe another time I’ll write in more detail about how I research ideas for projects, the editing process or even making photobooks. I think it’s important to share the work that goes into making photography projects because it’s so much more than just pressing a button.