Photo Books

New Book and Exhibition Explore the Art of Air Traffic Control Towers

October 27, 2015

By Dzana Tsomondo

Carolyn Russo has worked with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum since she graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 1988. In her current job as a photographer and museum specialist, she acquires new art for the museum and curates exhibits. The unique position has also given her a platform for publishing and exhibiting her own work, while the demands of her job mean that her personal projects take years to realize. Russo wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think my projects need that time. It’s kind of like cooking, where something needs to simmer to absorb all the flavors,” she muses.

Russo’s newest project is Art of the Airport Tower, a 176-page hardcover monograph being published by Smithsonian Books this month. The book coincides with an exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum that runs from November 2015 to November 2016.

The project was born in a moment aboard a 2006 flight into New York City, when Russo noticed something for the first time. “I was coming through LaGuardia and when the airport tower came into view, I thought, ‘Holy crap, that tower looks like Swiss cheese,’” Russo recalls. “At that time I was seeing and photographing aircraft as abstractions, so it was a natural transition into the airport tower project.” Another inspiration, Russo says, was a Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit of blurry and ethereal photographs of skyscrapers she saw at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Russo put the idea on the back burner as she finished up other projects, until a serendipitous encounter at a Smithsonian function set the project in motion. She was seated next to someone who had “FAA” written on his nametag. “I asked him if he knew who I could speak with for permission to photograph towers and he said with a smile, ‘Aaaahhh, that would be me,’” she remembers. “It turned out I was talking to the Acting Administrator at the FAA.”

Through the FAA, Russo gained access to all of the commercial towers in the United States. She started locally, photographing towers on the eastern seaboard that she could easily reach from her home in Washington D.C. When traveling for personal vacations or professional speaking engagements, Russo would plan ahead and find a way to shoot some towers. She also traveled to 23 countries and, by her own estimate, photographed at least 100 air traffic control towers for the project. Each country had its own permissions process, some more byzantine than others. Dubai, for instance, would not consider any permission requests until she actually arrived in the country. Certain airports required a life insurance certificate worth $20 million for her to shoot on the tarmac. In one nation, Russo was required to show all her images to wary local authorities before leaving the airport. But even that encounter ended with the kind of jovial camaraderie that, in her experience, is typical of flight culture.

Logistics were just one part of the puzzle; financing the project was its own winding odyssey. She received some funds from the Smithsonian raised from her department’s book royalties, honorariums, and a traveling exhibition of a previous body of work. (Federal tax dollars were not used to fund the project, she notes.)

Russo’s search for her subjects was exhaustive; she spent countless hours researching prospective towers online and in the Smithsonian library. She attended Air Traffic Control Association conferences, and followed up on any leads that came her way. She soon settled on two different criteria: For the contemporary towers Russo focused on esthetics and architecture, but with the older towers, like the Ford Island Control Tower at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, she looked for historical significance.

Russo approached photographing the towers the same way she might approach a series of portraits, trying to highlight the building’s individual traits and capture its physical presence. “I was interested in their beauty and tried to capture their power. I saw them as the choreographer/conductor for the dance of the aircraft at the airport. Of course I was focusing on the architecture, but I wanted more than that out of them,” she says.

When shooting the contemporary towers, she pushed towards abstraction, isolating and decontextualizing design elements. Thus the LaGuardia tower is transfigured into an alien craft, and she rendered the facility at Stockholm Arlanda as twinned cylinders, without beginning or end. But with the historical towers, Russo wanted to present them in a more straightforward, documentary style, as “eyewitnesses to history,” as she puts it.

Initially, Russo worked with a variety of cameras: An analogue Hasselblad, a digital Hasselblad and a DSLR. She found the back-and-forth inefficient and decided to stick with her digital cameras. “Sometimes you had 15 minutes [to shoot], sometimes you had an hour, and I didn’t want to spend that time juggling cameras instead of focusing on the tower,” she explains. She shot most of the project with a Nikon D3 and Nikon D4, often using her smartphone’s camera to “sketch things out” before she started.

In addition to the book, “Art of the Airport Tower” will also open as a traveling Smithsonian exhibit in November 2015. The exhibit consists of 50 images, selected from the 100 that make up the book. Russo curated it with a focus on the contemporary towers, grouping the historical towers together, as she does in the book.

The last towers Russo shot were part of the world’s first remotely operated air-traffic control system in Sweden. The unmanned tower located at Örnsköldsvik Airport is linked to the LFV Remote Tower Centre 76 miles away in Sundsvall, where human controllers are able to monitor all traffic on a 360-degree LCD screen. Part of Russo’s motivation in shooting historical towers was to call for their preservation, so there is a certain symmetry to this glimpse of the future of air traffic control.

Related: Toni Greaves’ New Book Follows the Life of a Young Nun

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