Paul Chaplo: Flyin’ High Over The Texas Plains
By Arthur H. Bleich—
Paul Chaplo, 62, is a “a photographers photographer.” His technique is flawless and his clients, mostly commercial biggies in and around Texas, not only love his work, but love working with him. He holds a Master of Fine Arts Photography degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and leaves nothing to chance, which is why his work shines in annual reports, books and other venues.
On assignment to shoot more than 100 Mercedes Benz cars on a bridge, he made sure it could hold their weight before setting up the shot. When he decided to do his latest book of aerial photographs in the wilds of the Lone Star State, he hired expert pilots, even though he’s an accomplished one himself. “Piloting an aircraft while taking pictures is worse than texting and driving, especially around cliffs,” he says with a wry grin.
AB: Let’s put the emphasis of this interview on your aerial sojourns. Why did you pick Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) in Northwest Texas as the subject of your latest photo book “Amarillo Flights?”
PC: My photography assignments require working outdoors on the Texas High Plains in all seasons. One winter night while driving eastward back to my motel in Amarillo, Texas, I saw the distant town lights twinkling on the horizon across the snow-covered plains. That was the moment I fell in love with the wide-open spaces of the Llano Estacado.
AB: Why didn’t you just document the area from the ground?
PC: After more than twenty years of living and photographing in Texas, I’ve learned to appreciate the reverence for private land ownership that dates way back to Spanish land grants to individual settlers. While that spirit is admirable, the fallout for most fine art landscape photographers is limited access to sites on private property. The beauty of aerial photography is that—like the old cowboy song—I am not fenced in. The sky is still an open range.
AB: I assume you didn’t just jump into a plane and start shooting.
PC: After consulting multiple maps, my wife, Cynthia and I first explored the area from the ground, setting out from Fort Worth on a series of trips. I welcomed her engineering project management skills as she helped me to plan, locate aircraft and pilots, and develop a schedule for photography.
AB: And then you took to the air?
PC: Yes, we took to the air. For Amarillo Flights, I used seven pilots and nine aircraft, mostly single-engine aircraft, including one helicopter. I like working from Cessna aircraft as we can cover 400-500 miles and fly 4-5 hours in one flight. Also, I like working at a wide range of altitudes— as high as 10,000 feet. The area we covered was nearly forty thousand square miles which is larger than the state of Indiana. At times, photographing the Llano Estacado from the air was pure joy, flying over ranch and farm land, watching the landscape fall away to reveal brilliant red canyons fringed by fantastic formations.
AB: And at other times?
PC: At other times, high winds, turbulence, dust, ice, near bird strikes, wildfire smoke, and aircraft problems conspired to leave me walking away when we landed, thankful to be alive. After some flights I found myself on the verge of vowing—much like sojourners who survived the skull-lined ford of the Pecos River known as Horsehead Crossing—to never return again.
AB: That sounds pretty grim. But on the upside, what do you like best about flying?
PC: In the air a photographer has the marvelous option of dramatically changing altitude from treetop to just over ten thousand feet, and photographing a subject from a mile away. Working in the vast three-dimensional studio of the sky and fully utilizing the capabilities of an aircraft requires seamless teamwork between photographer and pilot.
AB: How do you decide what to shoot? The possibilities must be limitless.
PC: When we fly into the airspace over an area of interest, the first task of my very interactive collaboration with the pilot is to accomplish photography of the main view that I pre-visualized. That is usually a view of the site that gives a sense of context. With that done, we experiment to add variations and, lastly, close-ups. If time and fuel allow, and the area is interesting, we often explore the surrounding landscape, searching for targets of opportunity.
AB: What are most dangerous aspects of aerial photography?
PC: When we are working at low altitude, besides having to be aware of obstructions and terrain so that we don’t fly into a cliff or antenna tower. But the other danger is an air stall. That happens when an airplane’s speed drops below minimum, about sixty miles per hour, causing the wings to lose lift. If that happens at low altitude, a crash will occur. The problem is compounded by maneuvers since an airplane loses speed during aggressive turns. We have to balance these factors to both get the shot and make it home safely.
AB: What equipment did you use?
PC: For aerial photography, I wear two cameras around my neck, each with a different lens, and I alternate between cameras in the air. The cameras have full-frame sensors and GPS. Most of the time, I take off with a 28mm prime lens on one camera and a non-stabilized zoom lens on the other. The focus rings are taped on infinity. My lens arsenal ranges from 12mm to 200mm, and I sometimes change lenses as we vary altitude.
AB: How about post-production?
PC: I l like to make local corrections via adjustment layers and masking techniques. My goal in all of this is to help the landscape be more “readable” to the viewer by differentiating terrain changes and visually emphasizing certain edges and forms that are already present.
AB: You’ve had several prestigious exhibits and are in the permanent collections of major museums What is your favorite paper?
PC: Red River Paper Palo Duro Smooth Rag 310 exclusively. I absolutely love its surface. It feels contemporary while echoing the look of a traditional darkroom print— all while having a coating that can handle the fine detail of my aerial landscape photographs.
AB: I suppose, then, that it also has archival qualities?
PC: Yes. For my aerial landscape photographs I need a conservation-grade paper that has a neutral white color, which is 100% cotton rag, acid-free, optical-brightener-free, and has the permanence that museums and collectors require.
AB: How do you display your prints at an exhibition?
PC: My images are framed and presented behind anti-reflective glass and, under museum lights, Smooth Rag has just the perfect t amount of luster, without being highly reflective. By the way, my exhibition and book include photographs of Palo Duro Canyon and the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, which are the namesakes for RRP brands!
AB: Your advice for aspiring photographers?
PC: First and foremost: keep making images! Don’t get caught up in spending all your time researching equipment. Use whatever camera you have, get out there and shoot! Pick a RRP paper surface that fits your aesthetic, make prints and show them to galleries. Get your work out where people can see it, even if it’s your favorite local coffee shop. During this pandemic, use online resources including social media to share and promote your work.
AB: Finally, what have you learned from your aerial adventures?
PC: When I see the landscape from the air, I see beauty even in the most severe environments. I am also continually thinking about how I would travel through the land on foot, and where I would camp or live. I agree with the Asian aesthetic that a good landscape painting is one that the audience can “live in” as a participant in the art. The motivation for my sojourns—which is impossible to express fully in words—is my soulful connection to the land.
Visit Paul’s website.
Paul’s book, Amarillo Flights is available at Amazon.
Paul’s current exhibit at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas runs through January 23, 2021
Learn more about Palo Duro Smooth Rag 310.
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