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Castles in the air

Specialist photographer Carolyn Russo captures the beauty of air-traffic control towers around the world

  • Castles in the air
  • Castles in the air
  • Castles in the air

Text by Mandi Keighran Photos/Carolyn Russo

These days, a trip to the airport is less of an experience of discovery, and more of a routine necessity needed to get from A to B. Not so for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s photographer, Carolyn Russo, who has made it her life’s work to transform the mundane aspects of air travel into works of art. Most recently, she turned her lens on air-traffic control towers, of 76 airports, creating a series of images that are collected in a newly released book, Art of the Airport Tower.

Russo first became interested in air-traffic control towers in 2006, on a flight into New York. “I was working on a different project, photographing airplanes as abstractions, and as I was landing in New York, the view of the now-defunct LaGuardia tower came into view through my window,” she says. “It didn’t look like a tower, but more like Swiss cheese, with its creamy concrete texture and big circular windows. I instantly knew I wanted to do a project photographing airport towers.”

The first airport control tower was built in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1930, followed by the construction of towers across the world. Today, air-traffic controllers safely guide more than 100,000 flights every day. In her book, Russo charts the evolution of these towers over the years – with a section devoted to contemporary towers, as well as one on historical towers. As the photographs show, not only has the functionality evolved – from a basic cab structure to a control room designed around the needs of the air-traffic controllers – but so too has the architectural style. From the early Art Deco-style towers of the 1930s to the innovative architecture of the Middle East, airport towers reflect the time and place in which they are created.

“I saw the contemporary towers as abstractions,” she says. “With the older towers, though, I had a completely different shooting style – I wanted to shoot them as relics rather than morphing them into something else. I felt I needed to include them in this body of work to tell the full story, but the style of both the photography and architecture was so different. So, I put them in their own section of the book.”
Initially, the project focused on towers within the United States. However, Russo soon had a wish list of towers across the world – including the UAE, Europe and Thailand – so decided to expand her scope. With limited funding, she had to be creative when it came to getting to the more far-flung locations. To get access to the Edinburgh tower that features on the book’s cover (and over), for example, she submitted a paper to a conference with the express intention of going to shoot the tower.

In many cases, getting to the airport was only half the challenge. Access to the restricted airside areas was often tricky – obtained through requests to airport authorities, air-traffic control agencies, and civil aviation authorities. “Sometimes permission came within a few days, sometimes months later,” she says. In certain cases, like at London’s Heathrow, permission came only with the inclusion of an insurance certificate of upwards of US$20million (NOK164.4m), a reminder of the potential dangers of working on the runway.

“As I photographed each tower, I sought out the attributes that defined it, just as I do when making a portrait,” she says. “The Paris-Orly tower reminded me of a ‘birdie’ from a badminton game; the John F Kennedy-New York tower a swan; the back of the Oslo Airport tower resembled a human spine; and the Geneva tower reminded me of a figure from the computer game Mind Blocks. I viewed each tower as both an essential aviation artefact and a vessel with a powerful presence, watching over the vastness of the airport and sky.”
 
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