The Star Malaysia - Star2
Who would ever think to find beauty in that utilitarian structure, the airport tower?
THEY say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes, the beholder opens our eyes to beauty, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.
So it was with Carolyn Russo, a photographer and curator with the renowned Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. In stunning photographs, she captured what many of us hardly ever notice: airport towers.
Airport towers? Yes. Russo travelled to 23 countries, including Malaysia, and in breathtakingly beautiful photographs, brought out the beauty and character of 85 towers. Lofty, majestic, stylish, commanding. The images, on display at the Air and Space Museum until November and collated into a book, Art Of The Airport Tower, have drawn wide acclaim and media coverage.
To Russo, airport towers are “magnificent creatures keeping humans safe”.
“They’re these unsung heroes of the airport. I wanted to draw attention to them,” she explains in a recent telephone interview from the United States.
She tried to evoke “what made that tower unique” in her images.
She deftly describes the character of many towers. There is the “Swiss cheese” tower ( La Guardia airport, New York), “The Swan” ( John F. Kennedy airport, New York) and the “Beak of the Bird” ( Alliance airport, Fort Worth, Texas). Many towers look “birdlike”, she adds.
So what image did Russo have of the control towers in Kuala Lumpur International Airport ( KLIA)?
“That tower I associate with a tree in the forest,” she says of KLIA’s west tower, which is featured in her book. That’s an observation that befits the original design concept of the airport: “Airport in the forest, forest in the airport.”
“I had my eye on that tower from the word ‘ go’,” she adds. “It is very interesting.”
But it proved a challenge to photograph, because the then newly- built tower still had construction material at its base. Plus its design was “rather minimal”. The final
photograph, Russo says, makes the tower look rather like a “lighthouse with all the windows up the side”.
As the world’s tallest control towers, the KLIA towers were an obvious draw. Usually, though, Russo’s chose towers based on aesthetics. She also included historical towers, such as the field control tower on Hawaii’s Ford Island, which survived damage from the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Sometimes, on overseas shoots, she simply photographed towers nearby. Thus she shot the tower in Malacca airport, being close to KLIA. It is also “quite unusual”.
“I loved the tower in Malacca,” she says, adding that it reminded her of “a giant mushroom with the huge round shape that sits on top of the column”. The tower is featured in her book.
Often, towers exude a spirit of the local culture, such as Abu Dhabi International Airport’s curved tower, which Russo feels looks like the traditional “flowing robe”, the kandura. She associates Heathrow Airport’s tower in London with a “gentleman’s top hat”.
In Stockholm, the top part of the Arlanda airport tower represents Hugin and Minun, Odin’s ravens in Norse mythology.
Airport towers, Russo feels, are like “non- judgemental cultural greeters” of a country. “It’s the first thing that people flying in from all over the world see,” she points out. “It’s the first thing that even the airplane sees. It’s there to welcome the airplane and direct it when it arrives.”
Russo has a deep affinity with all things aviation – she has been photographing airplanes, pilots and aviation artefacts since 1988 for the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, which is the most visited American museum, with eight million visitors a year.
Her work has been widely exhibited across the United States and in Finland and China, and also published in three books – Women And Flight: Portraits Of Contemporary Women Pilots ( Bulfinch Press, 1997), Artifacts Of Flight ( Harry N. Abrams, 2003) and In Plane View: Abstractions Of
Flight ( Powerhouse Books, 2007). Russo is also a museum specialist, acquiring art for the museum’s collection and curating exhibitions.
The airport towers idea came to her almost a decade ago when a tower – La Guardia – came into full view while she was sitting in an airplane. But she had no idea how to go about realising the idea, so she sat on it. As luck would have it, she found herself sitting next to the very person she needed at a museum function one night. Noting he had an aviation badge, she asked him who to contact for permission to photograph airport towers. He smiled and said, “That would be me.”
She had no idea she had been talking to the acting director of the US Federal Aviation Authority.
Getting permission to photograph towers overseas was not always easy. Authorities were sometimes slow or suspicious, even suspecting her of spying. Heathrow demanded an insurance certificate for US$ 20mil ( RM81.4mil).
She waited “a long time” for approval from Thai authorities to photograph the tower in Suvarnabhumi Airport ( aka Bangkok International Airport). Exasperated, she decided to write to an old penpal from her youth for help. As it happened, he worked for Thai Airways, and permission followed swiftly.
Due to time and budget constraints, Russo did not photograph towers in Japan, South America and Africa. The final tower she photographed was one of the most challenging to capture: a modern “remote” tower in Örnsköldsvik Airport, Sweden.
“Nobody [ works] in the tower. At the top of the tower is a video camera which scans the whole airport. That was strictly functional. It was not very pretty and a challenge to photograph,” she recalls.
That tower is a long way away from how aircraft were first directed – on the ground with a flag system, in which a black- and- white checkered flag signalled “go” while a red flag was a sign to stop.
In the future, the towers themselves may become obsolete when technology takes over, which makes Art Of The Airport Tower a unique chronicle of the aviation architecture of our time.
The Art Of The Airport Tower book ( ISBN 978- 1588345080) is available from Smithsonian Books ( tinyurl. com/ hbhpbf3) and major online bookstores. The Art Of The Airport
Tower exhibition is on at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC, until November.