One Easter Sunday, air taxi pilot and aerial photographer Buddy Ferguson was re-turning to Juneau from a job in Fairbanks. He crossed the Fairweather Range, and spotted a series of snow drifts about 20 miles away, at the top of Rendu Glacier on the east arm of Glacier Bay. The sun was hitting the snow at an odd angle, projecting deep shadows and thick highlights.
"I shot a roll of film on that one," Ferguson said. "You see things like that that you know are going to work unless you mess up mechanically. You get a dozen opportunities like that a year, maybe."
Ferguson has been taking photographs from the driver's seat of his 1954 Cessna since 2000, and now has his first exhibition. "Momentum," a joint show with Marilyn Holmes' local trail photography, opened Friday, Nov. 5, and runs through the month at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council gallery, 206 North Franklin St. He has Gicleé prints of 14 photographs, most taken from 500 to 1,500 feet above ground level.
Ferguson uses a Mimaya RZ67 camera that produces a negative 412 times as wide as that of a 35-mm camera. It has a dual-handed grip, which makes it easier to control in an airplane. And it has an interchangeable film back, which allows Ferguson to easily switch in a previously loaded set of film.
"I've been flying for an awfully long time, so the flying part is very easy," he said. "Basically you're composing with the airplane. I'm shooting through an open window, so I have to maneuver the aircraft to compose the shot."
Ferguson has dabbled in photography since he was teenager, but decided to pursue it as a serious artistic hobby in the late 1990s.
"I was looking for something a little more creative to add to my lifestyle, and I thought, 'Hey, you're seeing some magnificent scenery every day, maybe you should be documenting some of this,'" Ferguson said.
He upgraded his old equipment and began practicing taking aerial pictures. In 2000, he bought a 1954 Cessna, specifically for his photography.
When he's setting up his shots, he has to take into account the amount of space in between the left strut, the fuselage, the wing and the door. It's a triangle of 5 by 5 by 7 feet.
"Within the length of the lens, if you move the camera more than half an inch, you're picking up the door pillar or the left strut," Ferguson said. "It doesn't work on bumpy days."
Ferguson spends 75 to 100 hours a year in the air looking for scenes to photograph. He sets his focus on infinity and has between five to seconds to concentrating on a photo, depending on the quality of the air and type of turn that his airplane is taking. A lot depends on light, and how quickly it changes. The angles of the clouds and sun, combined with the motion of the plane, can come into play and change a shot within seconds.
"If you get a nice day and the light's good, you just get in the airplane," Ferguson said. "I never know which direction I'm going to head. You get up in the air, you look north, you look south, and you fly where it looks best."
Ferguson loves flying above the outer coast, on the west side of Glacier Bay and up to Cordova. But those shoots can take all of a day. Some areas, such as the Juneau Icefield, are obvious treasure troves. He can get there in 15 to 20 minutes. "Teardrop on Hades," one of the pieces in the show, captures an emerald blue lake in the middle of the field. He was about 750 to 1,000 feet above the lake for the shot.
Most of his pictures are taken 500 to 1,500 feet above ground level. A notable exception is "Convergence," a shot of branches of the North Sawyer Glacier meeting in Tracy Arm. He was 5,500-6,500 feet above sea level.
"Breakup" was shot in the Chilkat Peninsula, about 15 miles due west of Juneau.
"I was heading out to the Outer Coast, headed out to Lituya Bay, and I had climbed up to altitude and was motoring along," Ferguson said. "I looked down, and there were those geometric patterns of ice, and they just jumped out. It's hard to give up altitude in my plane, because it takes so long to get up there. But it was so compelling that I descended down and spent about 10 minutes shooting photos."
Ferguson uses his own film scanner, and alters the images slightly to adjust for any color and hue loss. He doesn't crop unless part of the airplane pops up in the photo.
"These are pretty close to what is being seen in nature," Ferguson said. "I'm not adding anything. It's fun to maximize the piece of film, and basically, I try to frame the shot within the airplane. That's what makes it fun for me."